Where the bodies are buried



Oxford is known internationally – not only for its colleges, but also as the headquarters of the fictional character, Inspector Morse. As such, it is seen by many as a place where dead bodies will crop up at just about any time, and in unexpected places.

Rewley House in central Oxford is no exception. In fact, we can spin you a tale of fully twenty bodies discovered here one sunny summer day, twenty-three years ago.

On 30 June 1994, contractors were working behind Rewley House to make a flight of steps from the Acland Room into the garden behind the building. This small rectangle of land had been acquired only recently from the property at 40 St Giles, to the east of Rewley House.

The work to build the stairs required an L-shaped area of earth to be excavated – an area measuring some two and a half meters.

Workmen had only just started to dig when they began to uncover bones. They suspended work, and Continuing Education archaeologists Gary Lock and Trevor Rowley were informed.

Janet Hufton, who has worked in the finance office of the Department since the late 1980s, remembers the day.

Janet said, ‘Archaeologist Sheila Raven and I walked out onto the roof of the Rewley House dining room and peered over the wall down into the hole the workmen had dug. There were several skulls visible. Sheila climbed down there on a ladder to investigate.’

The workmen’s machinery had exposed seven skulls and an assortment of bones, which were discovered stacked against the wall of Rewley House, about 1.8 metres below the present level of the garden. A tentative probe produced three more skulls, and work was suspended.

On 5 July an official excavation was begun by Department archaeology staff members Sheila Raven and Melanie Steiner, Archaeology Diploma students Emma Hodgetts, and Oxford Archaeology Unit’s Angela Boyle. The work was directed by Gary Lock and Trevor Rowley. Local historian Kate Tiller researched the history of the land.

The history prior to Wellington Square

What we now know as our lovely Acland Garden had once been part of a cemetery used by Oxford’s Workhouse. The workhouse stood where Wellington Square is today, and its cemetery was located in the south-east corner of the site (shaded in pink on the attached map).

It is known that the eleven central parishes of Oxford were united for poor law purposes under a Board of Guardians in 1771. The workhouse was constructed in 1772, on a five-acre area then-called “Rats and Mice Hill”. In the 17th century a Civil War defence, built 1642-46, ran across this area.

The workhouse was designed by John Gwynn (who was also the architect of Magdalene Bridge) and constructed at a cost of £4,030. It was built to house 200, but later was extended.

In the 1860s, a new workhouse was built in east Oxford. The old workhouse site became Wellington Square  – constructed between 1869 and 1876 as a speculative development of mixed domestic housing. A portion of the cemetery remained untouched and unused. Over time, with no headstones to mark the graves, the land’s original purpose faded from memory into obscurity – until 1994.

The excavation and reinterment

The excavation found traces of reused medieval dressed stone in the wall of the old cemetery; however, it was assumed that the wall itself dated from when this piece of land began being used as a burial ground, in workhouse days. Prior to the arrival of the workhouse, most of the land in this part of Oxford was ornamental strip gardens attached to the houses on St Giles, to the east.

Interestingly, the wall running east-west at the south side of the Acland Garden is of some considerable age, being part of the old North Gate Boundary Hundred wall. (‘Hundreds’ as administrative units date back to the Anglo-Saxon era and were still in use in the 19th century, for example, to define Poor Law Workhouse areas.)

The excavations revealed evidence of some twenty bodies, a few of which remained articulated. The skeletons were the remains of men, women and several babies. They had evidently been buried in coffins in some seven layers, and laid to rest over a period of time. The soil was full of nails from wooden coffins which had rotted away, the collapse of which had caused the skeletons to be stacked up and somewhat compressed atop each other. Also found on site were shroud pins, clay pipe remains and pottery.

The excavation was completed on 14 July, after seven days of work. The bones were then washed, documented and boxed.

Commenting on this episode in the Department's history, former Department Director Geoffrey Thomas said: 'After the initial shock of the discovery, we were determined that the poor souls who were resting here should be treated with respect and given a proper burial.'

So it was that several weeks later, Department staff gathered in the churchyard of nearby St Giles Church, where a new grave had been dug. The (re)burial service was presided over by Canon Vincent Strudwick, Director of Theology and Religion Programmes, and the bones were laid to rest once again.

A wake was held at Rewley House that evening (we feel Inspector Morse would have approved of this) to honour the dead, and to reflect on our relatively short tenure in this historical place. 

 

Published 13 April 2017