Discovery of children’s bodies reveals an insight into city’s grim past

Dr Jane Richardson of the West Yorkshire Archalogical Service with a skull found during the dig in Leeds at the site of Victoria Gate.
Dr Jane Richardson of the West Yorkshire Archalogical Service with a skull found during the dig in Leeds at the site of Victoria Gate.

It is a fascinating look into a more grim side to Leeds’s past - all but missing entirely from the history books.

Poverty so severe that some children were barely expected to live beyond 18 months.

But now, archaeologists and scientists are helping us to uncover a side of Leeds that is very different to the cosmopolitan city we know today - and one that could even help the shape modern medicine.

Excavations at the site where the £165m Victoria Gate shopping centre is taking shape recovered at least 28 bodies, many of them children, buried in the grounds of what was the Ebenezer Chapel between 1797 and 1848.

Micro-analysis of bones and teeth have shown that nine of the 12 children had metabolic diseases, including rickets, scurvy and possibly anaemia - and some of those buried could have been taken in a cholera outbreak in the area in 1832.

Dr Jane Richardson, manager of Morley-based Archaeological Services WYAS, which spent over a year on the site, said the finds help them to paint a picture of the individuals living in 19th-century Leeds.

While they also discovered a medieval ditch that pre-dated mapping of the area, and a collection of buttons, glass and pottery, it is the bodies, particularly the children, that are “really fascinating”.

“What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us,” she said. “It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent.

“You can only imagine what these children must have gone through.”

Micro-analysis of the bones has been undertaken by York Osteoarchaeology Ltd.

Director Malin Holst said the severity and extent of the metabolic conditions highlight the effects of overcrowding, lack of sunlight, unsanitary conditions and a poor diet.

She said: “The conditions these people had to endure were particularly grim. They lived in these hovels in the backyards of back-to-back housing, and you could only get to them through tunnels - which were so small even a coffin could fit through.

“Children as young as six would’ve been working 12 hours a day in factories, it was just horrible.”

Once research is complete the remains will be re-buried.

PIG IN THE CORNER

Historical records from the time include Dr Robert Baker’s 1834 report to Leeds Board of Health, which describes the area and houses around the Ebenezer Chapel.

It said: “I have been in one of these damp cellars, without the slightest drainage, every drop of wet and every morsel of dirt and filth having to be carried up into the street; two corded frames for beds, overlaid with sacks for five persons; scarcely anything in the room else to sit on but a stool, or a few bricks; the floor in many places absolutely wet; a pig in the corner also; and in a street where filth of all kinds had accumulated for years.”