People researching their family trees often came into the Diocesan Archives expecting us to be able to identify the final resting places of their ancestors, and even maybe to find a surviving headstone full of useful information. Invariably these individuals went away sorely disappointed, and in this article, using the town of Manchester as an example, I shall explain why.
In 1854 when the government passed the Burial Act, and the Home Office ordered the closure of inner city burial grounds, the twin towns and Manchester and Salford had six Catholic graveyards, these being – Salford Cathedral, St Mary, Mulberry Street, St Chad, Cheetham Hill, St Augustine, Granby Row, St Patrick, Livesey Street, and St Wilfrid, Hulme, and Catholic inner-city dwellers up to this point would have been buried in one of these of these grounds.
Surviving Burial Records – There only exists surviving burial registers from Mulberry Street, Salford Cathedral, and Livesey Street, and none at all from Hulme, Cheetham Hill, or Granby Row. These records, although rare do provide an invaluable amount of information.
Surviving Grave Markers – Only St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill has any surviving grave stones.
Accessible Burial Grounds – All the burial grounds have been levelled and either tarmacked or built upon, with exception to St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill.
19th Century Attitudes to Death and Burial
Catholic burial and the keeping of records was not undertaken in any standardised way and it only through local newspaper reports about incidents in the burial grounds at Hulme, Salford and Granby Row we can actually start to understand what was taking place in this era.
St Wilfrid Hulme
In January 1856, the parish of St Wilfrid, Hulme found itself in the centre of a national media storm when the police began investigating into the death in August 1855 of Mr John Monaghan, of Hope Street, Chorlton on Medlock, under suspicions that he had been poisoned for a £300 life insurance policy. Monaghan had been buried in the graveyard of St Wilfrid’s and on the 24th January 1856, the City Coroner ordered his exhumation, the Manchester Courier explains what happened next:
“Canon Toole, the resident clergyman, afforded every information and assistance in his power; but on going into the chapel-yard a difficulty presented itself as the Sexton could give no information as to where Monaghan was interred…Mrs Eliza King, the daughter of the deceased… was fetched and pointed out as nearly as she could the spot… and the process of exhumation at once commenced…the first grave that was opened contained a number of coffins; but, after they had all been taken out, it was found that Monaghan was not there. Five or six other graves were opened with a like result… the men continued working vigorously until one o’clock in the morning without success…” (Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser 26/1/1856)
“… On Monday morning… Mr Sturges, contractor, of City Road, was employed to take the coffins up from such a space of ground as should settle the fact beyond doubt, as to whether the body had been removed or not. At 11 O’Clock in the forenoon five men commenced taking up the coffins in the vicinity of the place pointed out… and about 20 minutes past three, they succeeded in finding his coffin”
St Augustine’s, Granby Row
In 1854, the Rector of St Augustine’s Church began construction of a new school on a portion of the burial ground, the Town Clerk visited the site and wrote:
“The foundations are being dug for an intended school… and in doing so many graves have been emptied of their coffins, which were so carelessly thrown on the adjoining surface; and a large number of coffins, of which many have only been recently interred, have been exposed to public view” (The Manchester Guardian, 5/7/1854)
The Manchester Courier went into more gruesome detail:
“There has been a considerable amount of excitement in the streets situated at the sides and back of the grave-yard belonging to St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Chapel, in Granby-Row…On Thursday, when our informant saw it, the sight was absolutely sickening… the surface was uneven, but where it was of the greatest depth showed that a thin covering of earth, not in any place thicker than a foot, had been the only covering over the bodies interned, and that they had been packed side by side, one upon another, with the upmost economy of space, until it was impossible to push a pointed instrument into the ground without meeting and adult or infant body. At one point where the workmen had sunk the deepest, thirteen tiers of these coffins had been exposed, and there seemed to be a ‘lower deep’ still, so that probably the original grave pits were sunk to a depth approaching to twenty feet… The trenches had been filled in with the foundation walls, and the space exterior to them packed in, with soil taken out, pieces of coffin, and the bones which they had contained… The term excavation cannot properly be applied to the holes we have named; there was literally no earth to cut into… it was all coffins, some in the last stage of decay, others fresher – one in the top row was not even discoloured…A most noisome smell proceeded from the pits… most of those that were quite uncovered were so tender that they that had been broken by the spades and feet of the workmen and a black unctuous matter oozed out in abundance… here and there one more rotten than the rest had given way…None at which the workmen had arrived remained intact; and wherever the eye rested, some sickening remains of mortality met it. A number of curious men and women were eagerly peering into these receptacles for the dead… a man tore up a portion of a fragile lid, and a bleached and grinning skull rolled to and fro set in motion by the force. In a corner of the yard near to the chapel… a troop of little girls, who scrutinised with keen and searching glance every hole that they could discover and seemed half inclined to venture into the pits for a rummage…” (Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser 24/6/1854)
“The closing of the ground by the side of St John’s Roman Catholic chapel must involve a serious reduction from the revenues of that place of worship, but the place appears to have been managed in a way which does not arouse any sympathy… they had resorted to the system of common graves in its most disgusting form, and interred bodies in a huge hole, yards wide, by yards deep, into which the sacristan might pack five hundred bodies if he were so minded, and which remained open for months”
These three incidents give us a snap shot of Catholic inner-city burials in the first half of the 19th century, by 21st century standards the lack of respect shown for the dead is shocking, but it demonstrates for us why tracing and identifying the resting places of your Catholic ancestors is very unlikely.