The story of how 400 bodies were dug up in the centre of Sunderland – 100 of them a complete mystery

The thought of the bodies of more than 400 human beings being dug up, including 100 in a mass grave that no one knew existed, sounds like one of the more horrific episodes from a brutal war, or something that might have happened centuries ago.

Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 7:00 am

Yet it happened right here in Sunderland and not so very long ago. You may even remember it yourself. It was in April 1988.

Our story begins, as all good stories do, with the construction of a £5.3 million inner ring road.

The ring road

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This blue plaque on Low Row tells part of the story. JPI image.
This blue plaque on Low Row tells part of the story. JPI image.

In the 1980s Low Row, the road between Sunderland Minster and the Greens pub, was not pedestrianised as it is today. It was a busy main road. If you aren’t satisfied with the flow of traffic around the city centre today, then bear in mind that it is a delight compared to then.

Something had to be done and so the dual carriageway system seen today on St Michael’s way came into being. But work wasn’t quite as straightforward as anticipated.

It was known that graveyards existed beside Hind Street; a short arc of a road beside the dual carriageway. People were buried there between 1806 and 1851. However, workers from the Borough of Sunderland Engineering Department got more than they bargained for.

A budget of £60,000 had been set aside to exhume bodies that were known about. What startled those carrying out the dig was the discovery of another mass grave containing over 100 more.

How the Echo broke the gruesome news on April 27, 1988.

The 100 are unexplained; but it was NOT cholera

No one had any idea who the 100+ people were, what their cause of death had been, or why they were buried together at that spot. They were found in April 1988, by which time the exhumation had been going on for two months.

In total in excess of 400 bodies were taken from the earth, making it the biggest exhumation of human remains ever to take place in Sunderland; a record hopefully to never be broken. The mystery deepened.

In 1831 a government instruction to quarantine all ships coming from the Baltic states was ignored in Sunderland. This led to the UK’s first outbreak of cholera.

The Echo's report on the discovery from April 27, 1988.

Most of Europe was already riddled with the disease. In Britain 32,000 people died of cholera in 1831 and 1832, with 180 Wearsiders among that figure.

Twentieth century Mackems had therefore long believed that the graveyards in Hind Street contained the bones of cholera victims. This was not the case. Yet the belief persisted until work began on the ring road.

Researchers had discovered that all but one of the Sunderland folk who died during the epidemic had been buried in Hendon.

Cemeteries coordinator Brian Quinn said: “We believe they were the victims of some sort of epidemic; but they certainly didn’t die in the 1831 epidemic.

“It’s a bit of a mystery and one which we would probably find very difficult to solve.”

He added: “We were expecting a great deal fewer bodies than we found.

“This site was levelled off long before our records started, so we had no idea what we would find.”

The exhumation

Considering the work on the ring road was carried out very publicly in the town (now city) centre, the accompanying exhumations were performed with admirable levels of discretion and tact.

Temporary, but high and opaque fencing was erected around the work to deter the morbidly fascinated.

Echo reporter Heather O’Connor wrote in the April 27, 1988 edition: “Not that there is very much left of the coffins and occupants - time has taken its toll.

“Workmen from the Borough’s Engineering Department found only a few traces of wood at the site, but most of the skeletons were recognisable as human remains.

“Each skull and corresponding set of bones were placed carefully in hessian bags before being given new coffins and re-buried in the present Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.”

Placing each of the deceased into bags might not sound like the most reverential way of transporting human remains, but there was no viable alternative.

Under Home Office guidelines the work was carried out by people in masks and other protective clothing, shoes were washed down before leaving the site and lime was put over newly exposed earth to kill germs.

Heather O’Connor thought this “may all seem a little over the top”. What would she think of such precautions in 2021?

Comedy being tragedy plus time, wags of 1988 opined that the bodies were those of comedians who had died at the nearby Sunderland Empire Theatre, or had perished while waiting for the notoriously tardy Grindon bus.

Re-burial

The responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of the 400 fell to Rev Granville Gibson, Dean of Bishopwearmouth. He found himself overseeing up to 60 reburials in a single day.

He said: “We are assuming that they have all had a good Christian burial and so are just giving them a blessing before re-interring them.”

If they indeed had a “good Christian burial” then it would suggest that they had at least been disposed of with some reverence the first time, even if they were to become anonymous.

The bodies now lie about a mile away in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery and, despite advances in science since 1988, we still have no idea of how over 100 people ended up in that Sunderland mass grave.

* In 2019 the then-83 year-old Rev Granville Gibson was found guilty of sexual assault against a teenager in the 1970s and jailed for 10 months. He had also been jailed in 2016.

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