A mass grave of Victorian workhouse paupers has been discovered in Eastville. Who were they and what did they endure? By Di Parkin. Illustrated by Chris Neal.
Bristol Radical History group (BRHG) is making progress on the project to record and respect the paupers buried in unmarked ground behind the old Eastville workhouse, originally at 100 Fishponds Road, now called Rosemary Green.
It appears that upwards of 3,500 paupers from the workhouse were buried in unmarked graves on the site between 1855 and 1895. It is a sign of deep disrespect that these people were seen as so worthless that their death and burial was not worth marking.
Despite the fact that Victorian Britain and its Empire was the ‘workshop of the world’ generating unprecedented wealth for the few, at its base was widespread poverty. The decision was made to institute the workhouse system in order to deal with the large numbers of impoverished families produced by the unregulated Victorian economy. Effectively, for the poor, this was forced labour in order to gain food and a roof over their heads.
BRHG members examined old maps from the early 20th century which marked “Cemetery disused” behind the workhouse. They then visited the site where there is no sign or marker of its past use as a burial ground; today it is a place for dog walkers, kids playing football and occasional rubbish dumping.
From the end of 2012 to June 2014 BRHG toiled away at the Bristol Record Office reading the microfiche records (small data photo slides) of the deaths in the workhouse. The records gave the age of the person who died and place of burial. From 1855 to 1895 this was, except for those whose families took them away for private burial, the cemetery behind the workhouse.
This land is religiously sacred, but un-baptised babies who died in the workhouse were not considered to have souls. As such, 450 babies are referred to in burial records as being buried ‘under the wall’ on the site, in non consecrated ground.
We have produced spreadsheets which give the names of all those buried and analysed the patterns of death, showing the peaks and troughs through the years. We have also researched the lives and deaths of these people, in order to produce a pamphlet including accounts of life in the workhouse and individual stories, such as the foundlings abandoned at the workhouse and many other sad deaths.
For example, twins William and John Jones, both died on the same day on 2nd May 1870 and were buried in the same grave. On September 9th 1880 Sophie Ellen Burgess, aged 17 days old, was buried in the same grave with her mother Ellen aged 26. There are sad cases of multiple deaths in the same family. In 1855, Charles McCormack died on the 10th April aged four, his brother Alfred died the following day aged one, with Walter, aged five, dying on 3rd May.
The workhouse regime was punitive and harsh. Frightening the working classes into struggling to survive rather than demanding welfare reforms. In December 1877, Mary Ann Roger was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment for stealing a piece of meat from the workhouse and James Bright served one month in prison for absconding with a suit of workhouse clothes.
James Bright was charged with wilfully damaging a lilac tree, property of the Eastville Board of Guardians in the cemetery (the burial ground); for this he received 14 days hard labour. John Trump was charged with stealing iron from the pauper’s burial ground. He was committed to prison for one month.
Testimony to the harsh nature of workhouses, some chose prison instead. A woman before the courts in 1882 said that she preferred gaol (jail) to Eastville workhouse as “in the latter she was three quarter starved and worked to death”. It is no surprise that testimonies given by residents of Eastville in the 20th Century demonstrate the fear of the workhouse was ever present and lived on beyond the Victorian era.
Bristol Radical History Group wants to see those who lived and died in the Eastville Workhouse recognised and remembered. We are holding events to build support for a memorial to the paupers who remain in Rosemary Green. In addition to a pamphlet and ongoing research many events are to follow.
by Di Parkin, member of the BRHG
For more information see www.brh.org.uk