Eastville Workhouse, BRHG research project
There is rightly scandal in the press at the 800 babies buried in unmarked graves in Galway.
But this was not a unique occurrence. Bristol Radical History Group BRHG has established that 3,300 adults, children and babies were buried in unmarked graves in an old cemetery (now a piece of open ground) behind the Eastville Workhouse on Fishponds Road in Bristol. The workhouse death records from 1855 to 1895 establish these burials took place. Some human remains were found in the 1970s when the workhouse buildings were demolished in order to build the new estate. After the development thousands of paupers’ graves were left unmarked in waste ground.
BRHG are pressing for a memorial on the site to remember these lost generations.
Our starting point for the project was the awareness, by members of BRHG, of the open ground behind the site of old workhouse. There is no sign to on the spot to mark its past use as the cemetery for the workhouse; today it is a place for dog walkers and occasional rubbish dumping. It is ironic that just across the road from the site is Greenbank Cemetery, where better off members of society are remembered.
BRHG want to understand the Victorian period where the treatment of ‘paupers’ can be compared with today, where people are forced to rely on food banks, starved by measures such as the Bedroom tax and where people are disrespected in life and in death. We wanted to look at the kind of society that our rulers seek to replicate; not from the high point of a present supposedly superior time with welfare safety nets, but from today’s perspective of a ‘war on the poor’. A key marker of disrespect is burying people in unmarked graves; in the Victorian period paupers were disrespected in life and seen as worthless once they had passed away; their death and burial not worth recording or marking. Even today in 21st century Britain there are ‘pauper graves’ with no headstone or marker of the person; some are even buried in communal graves. In Bristol in 2010/11 there were 108 ‘pauper funerals’, in 2011/12: 142, and in 2012/13: 140.
While there was a workhouse (one of the three Bristol ‘Unions’) on the spot since the 1850s, first known as Clifton Union, finally Barton Regis Union, a dedicated cemetery was not consecrated until 1855. The construction of the cemetery was doubtless influenced by the general lack of burial spaces in local churchyards which had a ‘detrimental effect’ on the local environment, with graveyards full to overflowing and human remains being strewn over the ground. The state of cemeteries was seen as one of the most pressing public health issues.
The minutes of the workhouse Guardians and original records of the three Bristol workhouses were held in St Peter’s and destroyed by second world war bombing; however the Bristol Mercury (on line) reported the weekly Guardian meetings. Additionally the Bristol Record Office holds microfiche records of deaths in the Eastville workhouse, along with the admissions and “creeds” of those who entered. We examined all the microfiche records for the forty years the cemetery was in use recording all the names, ages at death and parishes of origin of those buried there. Not all the dead in the grounds of the workhouse, some were ‘taken away by friends’, buried privately in a proper dignified way or given to Medical schools. We did not record these names.
We have made a record of all those unremembered and unmarked and will be producing the entire list of 3,300 people buried on the site.
|Age At Death
(Children had a different grave numbering)
The parishes (who had to pay for the coffins) were St Phillips, St George, St James and St Paul, Clifton, Westbury on Trym, Winterbourne, Stapleton, Henbury and Stoke Gifford.
We are able to see the patterns of death: the times of year, ages, gender and are analysing atypical peaks and troughs in the data.
We want to look at the census records and the details of some actual causes of death.
We now want to reach out to people in the Eastville areas to include their memories and views on this situation.
Do they, like us, want to create a memorial to these long, unmarked dead?
Do they have ancestors without a grave stone, whom they would like to remember.
Or does this seem a grisly thing to point out?
We will be holding a public meeting at the end of July in Eastville and plan an event on the green at the end of September.
Di June 8, 2014