The lady in the fishtail coffin: The burial ground at St John the Evangelist Blackpool.

In 2009 Blackpool Borough Council undertook to pedestrianise the area outside St John the Evangelist a  burial ground.  At the time BBC believed that the burial ground had been cleared of all human remains and burial artifacts in 1927.   However removal of the surface revealed coffins, human remains and funerary objects.  Following recommendations the council commissioned Oxford Archaeology North to undertake a watching brief of further groundwork and to excavate and record any human remainst that were exposed.  This piece is  derived from that Survey.  It led me to read the burial records of St Johns and they  not unjaw-dropping.  Average life expectancy in  early nineteenth century Blackpool was in the twenties or early thirties.  Most people did not see forty.   As late as 1884 when sanitary matters improved  life expectancy was 35.   Many infants died.  Many children and young adults died.  Bodies were washed up on the beach and buried without a name… sailors or passengers.  Sometimes there is a moving note…  William Thornber, drunken, adulterous, pugilistic, half bonkers, wholly lovable Blackpool historian and sometimes vicar writes: “My niece” next to the registration of an infant death.  Some people did live to old age… the oldest I recall was 91… but very few.

It is tempting to look back and think that these people had grim lives but throughout the nineteenth century people were living longer lives with more leisure and greater prosperity.  The arrival of the railway in Blackpool in 1846 was a stunning phenomenon…  probably nothing in our own lifetimes has so vividly separated the present from the past.    In the later part of the century the addition of sewers and piped water increased life expectancy.  It is difficult to understand Blackpool’s reputation as a health resort given that life expectancy was low.  But people did come to Blackpool for health.  Friedrich Engels urged his friend Karl Marx to come to Blackpool when Marx was ill, sadly Marx went to Margate instead.

The original Church of St John the Evangelist of 1821 (when Blackpool’s population was 749) was replaced in 1878 when the population had increased ten times.  In 1927 the eastern side of the church near Cedar Square was made an Open Space.  This meant that tombstones were removed to Layton Cemetery and human remains uncovered were reinterred at Layton Cemetery at night to prevent distress.  As far as we can tell about 70 individuals were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery… some of them known and many unknown.  Very likely many of the unknown individuals were buried together.  A monument in the Cedar Square area lists 336 individuals.  These names derive from headstones.  Since we know there are 1225 burials according to the Parish Records and Oxford Archaeology gives the number as 1800 , a small proportion of the remains in the churchyard were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  It seems that there was a good deal of jiggery and no little pokery behind the council’s claim that it believed that the site had been cleared of human remains.  It seems  unlikely that the remains of between 1255 and 1800 people were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery in the 70 coffins they prepared for the event.    In 1927 the churchyard had not been used for new burials since the opening to Layton Cemetery in 1873.  In 1954 remains from eight graves on the Church Street end of the burial ground were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  The majority of the people buried at St Johns remain where they were buried. Poor people, and most people were poor, were buried on the unfashionable North Side… where St Johns Market is now. The cells… one remains under the fish stall… of the police station must have been at the same level as the coffins in the churchyard and only yards away from the Victorian prisoners.

A feature of the examination of remains by Oxford North is the poor state of peoples’ teeth.    A skull reveals false teeth.

skull

An exposed skull revealing false teeth on a copper plate

Taking the teeth of dead soldiers and reusing them  was a ghastly but profitable industry.  People boasted of having “Waterloo Teeth.” As late as the 1860s barrels of teeth were imported from the American Civil War.

To expedite work the team preparing the site tried to avoid uncovering remains or artifacts because each time a site was uncovered work would stop until the archaeology team recorded it. Evidence of 73 graves was revealed but 53 of these were grave cuts.  That is evidence of burial digging rather than remains or coffins.  Nine coffins were uncovered and three  coffins with remains exposed.  After recording these were  left in place since they were at or below the level of work.

The artwork  “The Wave” required a 2 metre deep trench to support it and it was in this trench that the most exciting discoveries were mad.    The partial remains of seven individuals were found.  The remains of a brick vault and eight coffins and skeletons were discovered including the intriguing  haunting  intact skeleton of the Lady in the Fishtail Coffin.

 

THE COFFINS

The coffins uncovered were usually of the conventional shape, the type we are familiar with… this is called one-break.

The three exceptions were two oblong shaped coffins which may have been used for children and the enigmatic fishtail coffin.

THE FISHTAIL COFFIN

fish coffin 1

Fishtail coffins are unusual but not unknown.  The fishtail coffin contained the skeleton of a young woman aged 25-35. fish coffin 2

The coffin was elaborate… made of oak instead of the more usual elm and it was polished.  The undertaker had taken steps to brace the coffin after the body was placed in the coffin using a simple frame.  The coffin itself was unusually intact as a result of the care that went into its preparation and there were decorative features including iron plates which probably identified the person.  Unfortunately these were corroded beyond recognition.  Everything indicates that  care had been taken over the coffin and that it was more costly and intended to be seen.  Poignantly the remains of what may have been a posy of flowers was attached to the lid of the coffin.  This piece of rough fabric may have been placed by a parent or friend and it is dizzying to think of its recovery a hundred and fifty years later.  If the fabric was associated with a posy it dates the coffin to the 1860s or later when this form of funerary decoration became popular.fish coffin 3 (1)

THE SKELETON

The evidence from the skeleton gives an unsettling picture of this young woman’s life. She was aged between 25 and 35.  She had lost half her teeth and her remaining teeth were in bad condition… she suffered from periodental disease and abcesses.  Given the pain it is surprising that she did not have all her teeth removed and replaced by false teeth.  She had broken her clavicle, her shoulder-bone, and it had not healed properly so that one shoulder-bone was longer than the other.  Her fifth vertebra had sacrilised… this means that it had fused and this may have caused back-pain, discomfort and difficulty walking.  And to top it all she suffered from scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Unsuccessful treatment of scoliosis might have added to her problems.   All these conditions were apparent from the skeleton.  It may be that she had other problems.

It is tempting to conclude that this young lady’s life was hell on earth.   But we cannot know that and we do know that she was cared for, that her parents or relatives cared for her and took care over the funeral arrangements.  She was loved.  It may well be that she was mostly happy and content.

One detail which I cannot leave out.  An examination revealed matter inside the skull this was referred to an expert who concluded that it was the lady’s brain which in the special conditions had remained intact inside the skull.

WHO WAS SHE?

I am going to have a stab at naming the girl.

I have taken the arbitrary step of focusing on ladies aged 27-33 rather than the 25-35 parameters of the archaeologist.  The age is  likely to fall within those boundaries.

Since the coffin was elaborate and  expensive it is likely that the relatives would have wanted a headstone.  Most of the burials in St Johns did not have a headstone.  So if we look at the names of the people on the monument which lists the names on the headstones and correlate it with the names on the monument that will give us names of ladies who died between the ages of 27 and 33.

Here they are:

Hannah Bowker aged 28 buried 29 June 1857

Nancy Fallows aged 27 buried 27 August 1865

Ann Forshaw aged 27 buried 19 August 1849

Ann Nuttall aged 33  buried 12 May 1852

Thomasine Smith aged 32 buried 4 May 1858

Hannah Barratt aged 32 buried 23 March 1882

The use of fabric to attach a floral tribute  to the coffin lid was a funerary practice of the 1860s.  By the late 1860s fishtail coffins were less used.  The use of a polished wood coffin rather than a painted one points to a later date as the archaeology report puts it: “Well after 1825.”  The later date is unlikely because by that time Blackpool had its own newspaper and an unusual coffin might have caused comment, because fishtail coffins were becoming rarer after the 1860s but most decisively because Hannah Barratt is one of the named reburials in 1927.

It is likely that a lady whose health was as compromised as the lady in the coffin would not be married in Victorian times and that if she worked she would work at home at a career which would allow for her illness.

So if we focus on unmarried ladies buried around the 1860s and aged between 27 and 33 the name Nancy Fallows draws attention.  She  is in my  view the most likely candidate.  I would put the probability at less than 50%.

NANCY FALLOWS

If the lady in the fishtail coffin was Nancy Fallows for the sake of retrieving a story what do we know about her?

She came from Little Bolton.  In 1861 she is listed in the Census Record living with her father William and her mother Margaret.  Her father is a cotton spinner.  She is a dressmaker.  In 1871 Margaret and William still live in Little Bolton and Nancy  does not.  Her death is reported in the local newspaper published in Fleetwood where she is described as a “milliner.”

The rest is guesswork.  If she were the child of loving parents and in deteriorating health they may have hoped that Blackpool would help her recover.  We do not know where she stayed.  There is a Thomas Fallows, a boarding house keeper, at South Beach.  Could he have been part of the extended family? The fishtail coffin was an elaborate tribute to a loved daughter.   Possibly more loved because of her illness.  Her occupations, dressmaker and milliner, are jobs that could accommodate her illness.

On the other hand it might not be Nancy Fallows at all.

Something about the story haunts us.   One is an image of futility.  A sick lady dies and all the love in the world cannot save her.  Or is it an image of the triumph of love over adversity.  Her parents do all they can and their last act is to arrange an elaborate funeral.  Maybe their last act is to put a posy on the coffin.

Another aspect… like the grave scene in Hamlet… is the realization of the the strange physicality of death.   We do not normally feel like an assembly of organs and bones and other stuff..  we feel like a free mind but death reminds us that we are a collection of bits most of which we aren’t aware of and have no idea what they do… what is a spleen for?  Death reminds us that in some ways we are machines.

A body is buried in the 1860s and the coffin is reopened a hundred and fifty years later with the remains of a floral tribute attached to the lid. What does it mean, not in particular case but in all our cases.   To quote Larkin:

solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Beyond strange   is the piece of soft tissue identified as the remains of a brain found inside the skull and preserved in the special conditions.  Three pounds of substance are the most complicated known structure in the universe and  the thing that gives us consciousness.  Eighty six billion neurons enable you to read this and enabled the lady to understand the world in which she found herself…

And where is the lady now?  All the remains and funerary pieces were interred at a discrete ceremony at Layton Cemetery on 25 November 2009.    Speaking as a lukewarm atheist you have to admire the Anglican Church for coming up with a ceremony for any set of circumstances.  For those of us… I include myself… with a gothic sensibility  the  language of the report is often unintentionally and therefore more strikingly  gruesome .  When the coffins were moved in 1927 they had warped and leaked small bones into the soil below.  The contractors charged with the removals put down wood shavings… remnants of which remained to “absorb the coffin liquors.”  Phrases like “the last vestiges of seven individuals” and the “skeletal inventory ” cling in the mind.

I am massively grateful to David Law who helped me find the report.

Oxford Archaeology North have been exceptionally helpful.

The Local and Family History Service is always helpful.

And Carol Porter for helping me with reproducing images none of which I will ever understand.

The actual report is available here, thanks again David Law, I had seen it before but I was looking for it for ages until you helped me.  I welcome any comments or corrections.

 

The report is at this site.  I had to search within using Blackpool St Johns as keywords within the site.  It came up immediately.  It is an intriguing piece of work unjustly overlooked.

St. John the Evagelist Churchyeard, Church Street, Blackpool

From : Oxford Archaeological Unit unpublished report series
Publication Date: 2010
Author(s): J Griffiths

 

 

 

 

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