The Grave Register of St Mary’s Church, Hunslet

By Isobel Ryan, volunteer

Whilst researching the answer to an enquiry about St Mary’s Church in Hunslet, archive staff were pleased to find a grave register, in a bundle of papers relating to a road widening scheme in 1914.  The intended road was likely to disturb the burial ground and so the grave register was key to understand the impact of the proposals.   Here, guest blogger, Isobel Ryan, writes about transcribing the grave register and some of the family stories it tells.

When asked by Archaeological Services to look into records relating to the site of St Mary’s Church, a grave register complied in 1914 was discovered in a bundle of documents linked to a road widening near the church at that time. This register, with 267 entries from 1789 to 1864, lists the occupants of each plot in the church’s graveyard, unlike burial registers which normally list individuals in chronological order. In addition to this, the register also includes family groups, relations, and links, as well as sometimes mentioning the individual’s occupation. The register has now been transcribed so that the information within it can be better understood, catalogued, and studied.

Sketch of Hunslet St Mary (RDP44/77)

The site of St Mary’s in Hunslet has been occupied since 1636, taking multiple forms. The first being a chapel, which was added to and extended in 1744. In the 1830’s, a tower was built onto the existing structure. However, a much larger church was built in 1836, which stood until 1977, when parts were replaced with a more modern building. All that remains in 2020 is the tower and spire from around the 1860’s.

A section of the grave register for Hunslet St Mary (RDP44/124)

Transcribing the grave register is a fantastic yet sombre opportunity to understand the reality of life and death in the ate eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One particularly striking feature was the number of children who had died. George and Sarah Pratt, who lived in Kirkstall, buried six of their children in one plot between 1807 and 1835. Charles, who died aged five months old in 1822, was their child that died at the youngest age. However, the last child in the plot was George, who died aged 27 in February 1835, just three months before their father George Pratt died in May 1835 at the age of 54. He was buried in the same plot with his children. Some families lost many children close together, most likely due to disease and poor conditions, whilst others were listed in the grave register as ‘four children who died in their infancy’. This highlights the young ages at which children were dying but also the numbers families lost. Another interesting factor was the prominence of certain names in the parish. The Varley family, for example, occupied nine separate plots across the period the register covers. The number of individuals with this name in the register totals nineteen, although several woman’s maiden names were also Varley. A more positive factor discovered was the range of ages of death. In 1841, the life expectancy of a male was 40.2 and female life expectancy was 42.2. Whilst this was affected by many factors including infant mortality rate, the number of women dying in childbirth, wealth and occupation, it was pleasantly surprising to see many adults living in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. A good example of this is Margaret Thompson. She is listed as dying aged 90 years in 1817, being buried with her son-in-law John Beckett, a former supervisor of excise at Leeds and Hunslet, as well as her grandson John Beckett and Granddaughter-inlaw Mary.

A family whose story seemed particularly interesting was that of the Graham Family based in Carr Lane, Rothwell (plot number 119). Thomas Graham died on April 19th, 1797 when he was fifty-four years old. However, four of his sons and his nephew also died on the same day. John died aged thirty-two, William died aged fifteen, Asher was twelve years old and Longbottom was only eight. Thomas’s nephew George Land was thirteen years old at the time of his death. Other sources show that the cause of these deaths in a single family at the same time was the result of a serious colliery disaster which killed thirteen people at Rothwell Haigh. The disaster was reportedly caused by an explosion of fire damp. This refers primarily to methane gas which is present in coal seams and is often released during the coal mining process. When these gasses make up more than around five to ten percent of the air concentration in the small areas in which these men worked, an explosion of the kind that killed so many of the Graham family become likely. Newspapers report that 8 pounds, 5s and 7d was collected by Hunslet Chapel to be given to the widows and children of those who had lost their lives in the tragedy.

Participating in this project of transcribing this grave register has been a fantastic experience and this is a fascinating document that should definitely be studied further.

If you would like to find out more please contact the Leeds team at leeds@wyjs.org.uk and ask about the parish records of St Mary’s Hunslet (reference RDP44).

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