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Scientists at Durham University unearth forgotten children of the past


Scientists have unearthed a harrowing story of forgotten children of the past, providing the first direct evidence of the lives of early nineteenth century ‘pauper apprentices’.

Research led by Durham University, UK, in collaboration with the University of York and volunteer researchers at Washburn Heritage Centre, near Harrogate, examined human remains from a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire, UK.

Their analysis discovered the skeletal remains of over 150 individuals, including an unusually large proportion of children aged between eight and 20 years.

Early analysis immediately identified the children as being distinctive from the locals, showing signs of stunted growth and malnutrition, as well as evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labour.

The team of scientists, working together with local historians, have been able to piece together the story of these forgotten children, transported from workhouses in London and indentured to work long hours in the mills of the North of England. They were used as an expendable and cheap source of labour.

Lead author Rebecca Gowland, a professor in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, said: “This is the first bioarchaeological evidence for pauper apprentices in the past and it unequivocally highlights the toll placed on their developing bodies. To see direct evidence, written in the bones, of the hardships these children had faced was very moving. It was important to the scientists and the local community that these findings could provide a testimony of their short lives."

The scientific analysis combined many different approaches. Scientists at Durham University undertook chemical analysis of the teeth, to establish which children were not local to the area and where they might be from. Many apprentices had values consistent with London, aligning with the historical records for the nearby Mill.

New innovative peptide analysis of teeth helped identify the sex of the children. Examination of the bones and teeth also highlighted the large numbers of pathologies, including tuberculosis and respiratory disease associated with millwork, diseases of deprivation, such as rickets, and the delayed growth of the children.

Professor Michelle Alexander, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who was a senior author of the study, said: “We undertook chemical analysis of the bones to study diet and found that the apprentices had a lack of animal protein in the diet compared to the locals, more on a level with the victims of the Great Irish Famine.”

The remains have now been reburied in a moving ceremony that involved contributions from the local community, volunteer researchers, scientists and descendants of those excavated.

Artwork inspired by the analysis and an exhibition are on now on permanent display at the Washburn Heritage Centre.

Sally Robinson from the Washburn Heritage Centre, Yorkshire, who led the team of local volunteers said: “It's easy to forget that the Washburn valley had an industrial past given the beauty of the reservoirs that visitors see today. It was important to us to find out about the children who worked in the mills. They were overlooked in life and treated as a commodity - but we hope we have done them some justice by telling their stories and creating a lasting commemoration.”

The study provides a direct and compelling testimony of the impact of poverty and factory labour on children’s growth, health and mortality in the past.

The excavation was funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which supports a wide range of heritage projects across the UK.

The research findings have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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