The Mystery Graves of Old Swan
In the 1970s plans were underway to demolish the old St Oswald's Primary School, Old Swan (founded 1842 and re-built in 1855) and create two modern, separate school buildings at the cost of ££400,000 . These two new buildings would contain the infants and junior sections of the primary school. It is the buildings proposed in the 1970s plans that stand today, the infants school standing on St Oswald Street and the junior school standing at the junction of Montague Road and Mill Lane.
It was during the building of the new junior school that 3,561 graves were discovered. It is clear that the workmen and the council planners had little knowledge of these graves. It was only by chance that the parish priest, Father McCartney had noted 'that six or seven graves lay at the bottom of the garden'. The discovery of the graves and the subsequent attempt by the city council to minimize disruption to their schedule for building the school would lead to years of speculation and wild rumours by locals and some misguided writers. Indeed two prominent Old Swan websites cannot agree as to where the bodies were found or indeed when they were found.
Where were the graves?
As stated previously the plans were in place by 1970 to re-build the school on one site but in two buildings. Work began in 1973.
By 1974 (according to http://www.stoswaldoldswan.org.uk) the infants section of the school (on St Oswald's Street) was complete and children had moved in. This site was built on top of a group of streets and houses, the main one being Percival Street. The same website tells the finding of the graves story relating to the junior section of the school, built on the corner of Montague Road and Mill Lane, opened in 1981 after an 18 month delay.
The Ben Travers article from 1981 celebrates the opening of 'St Oswald's Primary School' – the name of the combined site but the pictures of the grave exhumations supplied in the article are clearly of the junior school site. If there was indeed an 18 month delay on the building of the junior school site then the work on that building must have been started in February 1980. Presumably it was during the 18 months previous to this that the graves were exhumed. This being said, one source says that the last body was removed to Anfield crematorium in 1975. Therefore it took another five years to build the junior school.
The two part nature of the site and the long gap between the start of the work (1973) and its completion (1981) has clearly been a cause of confusion for many people. From the photographs in Travers article it is obvious that the 1979-81 junior school site is the location in which the graves where found.
This is further proved by the maps below. In these maps I have used;
an undated OS map (reckoned to be post-1906).
a tithe map from the 1830s.
a modern GoogleEarth map from between 2000-2008
1) Travers, Ben 'The strange secret of Old Swan' in The Catholic Pictorial, 6 September 1981
2) 'St Oswald's' from http://liverpool-schools.co.uk/html/st_oswald_s.html [accessed 2009]
3) Travers, Ben 'The strange secret of Old Swan' in The Catholic Pictorial, 6 September 1981
5) 'St. Oswald, King & Martyr - over 160 years of a parish' from http://www.stoswaldoldswan.org.uk/school4.htm [accessed 2009]
6) 'St. Oswald, King & Martyr - over 160 years of a parish' from http://www.stoswaldoldswan.org.uk/graves.htm [accessed 2009]
7) Hmtmaj on http://www.yoliverpool.com/forum/showthread.php?2852-Mass-Grave-in-Old-Swan&p=167013#post167013 [accessed 2009]
Here is the modern map I have highlighted two buildings, St Oswalds Church in RED. St Oswalds Infants School in BLUE
Now with the undated OS map, post 1906 but early 20th Century
Now the 1830s tithe map. Harder to make everything line up on this one..
The Irish Potato famine, (An Drochshaol in Gaelic) happened between 1845 and 1852, thousands of poor Irish fled their country to find a new life in England and the New World. As you can see, there have been buildings on the land next to the church (around Percival Street) since the 1830s. So there is zero chance of the graves being part of a Potato Famine related incident.
Also, if the graves were located underneath Percival Street and were from a pre-1830 burial then why where they not discovered when the houses (which probably had cellars and definitely had foundations) were built in the 1830s * The only conclusion is that the graves were not on the site of the infants school.
Father Patrick James McCartney, parish priest in 1973 is said to have noticed the burials "at the bottom of the garden". We know that the church was surrounded by a graveyard (hardly going to be called a 'garden') and the area where the BLUE school is was already built on... this leads to the conclusion that the priest is talking about the garden to the presbetry or parochial house, on the rear left hand side of the church and with an extensive garden over the old "Burial Ground (dis.)".
* In fact in the 1830s tith map St Oswalds Church had not been built, (built in 1842).
The article then goes on to say "three feet beneath St Oswalds scrubland". Hardly what you would call the land where 'Percival Street' was. Scrubland is a weird phrase to use really on the post-1906 OS map there is an area of trees to the south of the church/presbetry... but would that be scrubland? And even stranger... there was no burial ground marked there...
I suspect that the reporter was getting confused between scrub and garden but still...
The final proof... for me at least is what happens when I map the new Junior School site onto the post-1906 OS map.
The school building (in blue and to the left of the church in RED) covers half of the disused burial ground as well as the 'scrub'. I imagine that as the site was cleared for building there would be little to differentiate between the old scrub and what used to be gardens.
What were the graves?
It is clear that the graves were located on a known burial ground. All that this proves is that the city planners and builders did not do their homework.
I surmise that somewhere between 1906 and 1956 (when Fr McCartney was at St Oswald's for the first time) the disused burial ground was landscaped and became the garden of the presbytery. Gradually the old burial ground was forgotten about and the land simply became a garden.
Ben Travers report in 1981 says that the parish accountant (who Travers credits with having over 25 years cemetery experience, whatever that means), said that the coffins would have to be buried before 1840 because burial registration was compulsory after that date. 9 This is clearly an erroneous assertion as death registration (not burial) was in fact compulsory from 1837. 10 Death certificates are just that – they record the death and do not mention anything about the burial.
Burial registers have always been kept by the individual churches, there is no central index of burial registers so it has never been made 'compulsory'.11 What the parish accountant was trying to say remains a puzzle, we could, being generous just put it down to sloppy journalism. It is perhaps this sole piece of sloppy journalism that has kicked off the idea that these burials were 'plague pits' - to which various dates have been ascribed from the 1600s to the 1800s. There is no evidence of plague burials and the fact that many of the bodies were stacked in coffins sixteen-high illustrates that they were probably not plague burials. Plague burials often did not have coffins and were simply 'pits' into which bodies were thrown.
To complicate the matter a fantastic tale was told by a local author in the Liverpool Star & Merseymart in 2006. This created many wrong ideas and first postulated the theory that the graves were an massacre of Irish immigrants by the British government.
This story caused a lot of angry correspondence to the newspaper, the most noteworthy being from a Mr K. A. Williams, the Environmental Officer in charge of the exhumation.
I include his letter:
I HAVE followed with great interest the recent articles in your paper with regard to the mass grave unearthed in St Oswald Street, Old Swan.
The principal officer delegated to be in charge of the entire operation was me.
When the original gravestones had been removed and the bodies re-interred the excavation continued beyond this boundary and it was at this stage other coffins were found. Some plaques on the coffin lids had dates of 1859, however this should not be considered to be a mass grave at any one time.
I do not recall seeing bullet marks in the skulls and the authorisation to cremate the bodies was implemented by the Home Office as the result of my request - that it should be done in the interest of public health. I know all this to be true - 'cause I was there!
K. A. WILLIAMS, Gateacre, Liverpool. (Former principal environmental health officer for Liverpool 1949-1989)
I also include an interview he gave to the Maghull and Aintree Star & Merseymart in 2006.12
"I held my position from 1949 to 1989 and the first thing to note is that if you wanted to build or extend on sacred ground you had to consult the Home Office, which would in turn speak to the town clerk, who would then instruct me. The reason there were hoardings was that the Home Office's principal instruction is total decorum, and in this case there were houses on Montague Road overlooking the site. One comment was that these people had been shot and the Home Office were covering it up. The order to burn the bodies came from me and me alone - there were so many that after getting permission to put more than one in a single coffin, and re-inter them in Anfield I had to request permission for cremations. There were no bullet holes in the skulls, and there were already gravestones at the site - it was a marked grave. This discovery was simply beyond the boundary of that graveyard, extending much further than was realised - thousands more bodies. Contrary to one comment in the article, there were indeed coffins containing children discovered.
There is also the obvious point that if this was the massacre of three-and-a-half-thousand people - why were they all in coffins with plaques and buried in such an ordered fashion? This was not people who had been thrown in a trench. Also, the date quoted for this 'massacre' was 1848, but some of the coffins had plaques with 1859 on them.” 13
9 Travers, Ben 'The strange secret of Old Swan' in The Catholic Pictorial, 6 September 1981
10 A2A, 'Births, marriages and deaths' at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/familyhistory/bmd/?WT.lp=fh-33501 [accessed 2009]
11 A2A, 'Research Guides' at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/RdLeaflet.asp?sLeafletID=416&j=1 [accessed 2009]
12 The Star and Merseymart is a free local newspaper that often prefixes its title with the area it is specifically for, despite the odd local story the paper is essentially the same throughout Liverpool/Merseyside.
13 'I gave order to burn bodies' from Maghull and Aintree Star & Merseymart , Mar 2 2006
It seems that a lot of the fuss about these graves came from a few major misconceptions:
1. The burial ground was unknown. -
It wasn't, it appeared on a post 1906 map.
2. The graves were unmarked. -
They weren't, they had gravestones and plaques on them.
3. The graves were 'mass' graves. -
They weren't. There were certainly a lot of coffins but they were stacked orderly with dates ranging over a number of years.
4. The graves were plague pits. -
No evidence of this, it is pure speculation. Also, why would plague burials occur right next to one of the oldest major routes to Liverpool? The road to Prescot runs right through Old Swan and would be the worst place to bury contaminated bodies as travelers could easily catch the plague from the rotting corpses.
5. The graves were part of a cover-up. –
Liverpool City Council had to comply with the Home Office rules regarding treatment of buriels. Large screen were erected to hide the gruesome sight of thousands of corpses being exumed from the residents living opposite the site. Let's face it, could you eat your dinner whilst watching a mass exhumation across the road ?
6. Why was no archeological investigation carried out ?
The graves were known about, there was no archeological mystery to solve.
I hope I have made some things clear in this article – if you have anything further to add please feel free to contact me on Fortinian (at) yahoo.com.
I would like to thank Fortinian for this fascinating and well thought out article. If anyone else wants to add an article about Old Swan and the surrounding areas, please feel free to contact me