‘Tired beyond all telling’

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Revealing the hard, often brief, lives of pauper apprentices

The excavation of part of the churchyard of St Michael and St Lawrence in Fewston provided the rare opportunity to not only learn more about a rural post-medieval community, but also about the lives of the many children indentured to work in the nearby mills at the time.

A collaborative project has brought to light the lives of a 19th-century community living and working in Fewston, North Yorkshire. Among their number were many children who were indentured to work in the nearby mills, and whose lives may have ultimately been cut short by this labour. Kathryn Krakowka talked with Rebecca Gowland to learn more.

The often-abysmal conditions of urban workhouses in the 19th century remain alive in the public imagination thanks to the works of Charles Dickens and other social critics and reformers of the time. Many children were brought from the countryside to work in the quickly expanding manufacturing cities of Liverpool, Leeds, and London – and the environment in which they lived was often poor, cramped, and unsanitary. But while rural-to-urban migration was by far the most common direction of travel, there was also a less well-known reverse migration occurring at the same time. Pauper children, from as young as seven, were taken from urban workhouses and sent to labour in rural textile mills or farms, often located in the north of England.

While there exist many historical records documenting this phenomenon, there remains comparatively little archaeological evidence from this period, and the exact physical impact that this labour had on children is largely unknown. Recently, however, a collaborative, community-led project between the Universities of Durham and York and volunteers from the Washburn Heritage Centre in Fewston, a small village near Harrogate in North Yorkshire, was able to shed new light on these rural pauper apprentices, highlighting just now nasty, brutish, and short their lives likely were (see CA 400).

While these images were taken from cotton mills in America instead of England and almost 100 years after the majority of the Fewston pauper apprentices would have been buried, there were many similarities between the two and they give us an idea of the conditions under which Fewston pauper apprentices may have suffered. (PHOTOS: Lewis Hine)


Between 2009 and 2010, part of the churchyard of St Michael and St Lawrence in Fewston was excavated by John Buglass Archaeological Services in advance of constructing the heritage centre at the side of the church. While the graveyard was in use from the 14th century until its closure in 1896, the 300m2 section that was excavated revealed 154 graves mostly dating to the later part of its lifespan, as attested by the 19th-century dates found on some of the associated coffin plates and headstones.

This work provided the rare opportunity to learn more about a small rural area at this time, since, previously, most post-medieval cemeteries have been excavated from urban settings and predominantly from the south of the country. The discovery was particularly exciting given that the names of 22 of the individuals were known from the above-mentioned coffin plates and headstones, allowing researchers to trace the ancestry of some of the burials.

The churchyard is one of only a few rural post-medieval cemeteries to be excavated in the north of England. (PHOTO: John Buglass)

After funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund was secured by the Washburn Heritage Centre, the remains were sent to a laboratory at the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, where their analysis was led by Professor Rebecca Gowland and Dr Anwen Caffell. The team at Durham found that, of the 154 skeletons excavated, roughly a third were under 18 years of age when they died. It is true that, before the advances of modern medicine, children died at a much higher rate than they do now, but this is still an unusually high percentage compared with other contemporaneous cemeteries – and in particular, there was a disproportionately large number of children and young adults who had died between 8 and 20 years of age.

This was an intriguing discovery as it tallied with the age range that boys and girls could be indentured to work in the mills – beginning as young as seven years old, and released by the age of 21 (or at the time of marriage for girls). Significantly, during the 19th century there were five mills operating in the upper Washburn Valley, where Fewston is located, including the West House Mill, which was one of the largest in Europe. This led the researchers to wonder whether some of the children from the Fewston burials may have been pauper apprentices. Could further analysis of these remains confirm this? And if so, what could their skeletons tell us about their lives working in the mills?

There was an unusually high number of children aged between 8 and 20 years old buried in the graveyard – could these have been the remains of pauper apprentices? (PHOTO: John Buglass)


Each adult skeleton from the Fewston graveyard was assessed to establish their probable sex and age at death, but in juvenile skeletons morphological analysis cannot accurately be used to determine biological sex. Instead, the team used a new scientific technique of identifying sex-specific proteins found in tooth enamel (see CA 337) to determine the sex of 15 of the children aged between 8 and 20.

Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis was then conducted on 31 individuals, including 11 of the named adults who had been identified through the coffin plates and headstones. Most of the named adults were found to have an isotopic signature that suggested that they were local, born and raised in the Washburn Valley, and this was confirmed by census records. The majority of those aged 8 to 20 years, however, had a distinctly different make-up, with many having isotope ratios consistent with having spent the early years of their lives in London.

These results would make sense if the children were indeed pauper apprentices, since they were frequently brought to the mills from further afield. As highlighted in the Liverpool Select Vestry, distance between the child and their home was thought to be desirable as it prevented ‘the interference of idle or profligate relatives’. Historical documents indicated that children brought to Fewston were frequently recruited from workhouses in Hull, as well as from the parishes of Southwark and Lambeth in London.

One of the project leads from the Washburn Heritage Centre, Sally Robinson, working with Dr Sophie Newman in the lab, learning how to lay out a skeleton from Fewston during a workshop.

Analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios undertaken by colleagues at the University of York also revealed a potential social hierarchy amongst the burials. The unknown adults as well as the non- local children revealed a diet low in animal protein when compared to the adults of known identities, and in comparison to other published post- medieval populations. In particular, their 15N isotope values were similar to those seen at the Kilkenny workhouse in Ireland (CA 278), which was associated with victims of the Irish Famine, and where the residents were known to have consumed a restricted, primarily vegetarian diet.

All told, while these individuals were buried in the same cemetery, they seem to have lived a world apart, with the isotope analysis seemingly identifying three separate populations: the probable middle-class adults and children, who were local to the Washburn Valley and whose diet included a good proportion of animal protein; the unnamed adults, some of whom came from further away, ate a more restricted diet, and may have been from poorer backgrounds; and the non-local children, who probably had a primarily vegetarian diet.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 403. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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