Fewston’s beauty hides harrowing past
Last updated Jun 9, 2023
The reburial ceremony at Fewston

With its picturesque setting alongside Fewston reservoir, and famously good cakes, Washburn Heritage Centre is a popular place to visit.

But the centre’s tranquil location belies a harrowing and less well known past that local volunteers have helped to piece together over the last decade.

In 2009 and 2010, before the centre was built alongside St Michael and St Lawrence Church, volunteers worked alongside academics and archaeologist John Buglass to investigate human remains buried in the graveyard.

Child workers were transported from London to the Washburn Valley to work on mills in Blubberhouses in Victorian times. The bodies of many lay unmarked alongside Fewston.

Washburn Heritage Centre

Sally Robinson (left) and fellow volunteer Sarah Stead outside the heritage centre.

Sally Robinson, chair of the management committee at the centre, who led the team of volunteers, said:

“We knew there were remains, but we didn’t know how many.”

The remains of 154 individuals and artefacts were discovered and now form what has become known as the Fewston assemblage.

The assemblage has assumed international significance for archeologists because of the social history it reveals.

Washburn Fewston reburial 2016

Scientists and community volunteers analysing the skeletal remains from Fewston

An academic paper published last month detailed how the investigation led by Durham University pieced together the story of forgotten ‘pauper apprentices’ from Washburn Valley. Many were aged between eight and 20 years when they died.

Analysis showed the children were distinctive from locals because of their stunted growth and malnutrition, as well as evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labour.

Examination of the bones and teeth highlighted many had died from tuberculosis and respiratory disease associated with millwork, or from diseases of deprivation, such as rickets.

Lead author Rebecca Gowland, a professor in the department of archaeology at 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.”

From the excavation site in Fewston where the remains were discovered. Pic: John Buglass Archaeology

The remains were reburied in a ceremony in 2016. Artwork inspired by the analysis and an exhibition are on now on permanent display at Washburn Heritage Centre.

Ms Robinson 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.”

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