Churchyard Secrets

What are the Churchyard Secrets?

Before the Washburn Heritage Centre was built in 2009/10, it was known that the area to be excavated contained a number of sets of remains. These sets of skeletal remains and artefacts were removed from Fewston Churchyard prior to the excavation and are known as the Fewston Assemblage. The information revealed from studies of the Fewston Assemblage are referred to as our Churchyard Secrets.

What is special about the Fewston Assemblage?

Because of its size (there are 154 sets of remains), age and rural location, together with the wealth of social history available, the Fewston Assemblage has global significance for archaeologists. It is one of very few post-medieval rural assemblages, as opposed to urban findings, in the UK and therefore very significant. Because of this two grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund have allowed firstly, our original archaeologist, John Buglass, to carry out the detailed identification and recording of the remains and artefacts prior to the construction work, and also to fund York Osteoarchaeology Ltd who were commissioned to undertake an initial analysis of the Assemblage.

The second grant enabled the osteoarchaeology research to be completed by the Universities of Durham and York, and York Osteoarchaeology Ltd. It also provided funding to support a team of up to 20 volunteer researchers who have investigated both the social history of the named individuals in the Assemblage and contemporary 19th C themes such as health, farming and industry.

A Service of Commemoration was held on 15th September 2016 to mark the re-burial of the Assemblage. Reverend Graham Shield led the coffin, carried by Dr Anwen Caffell, followed by the relatives, choir, friends and general congregation. This scene is shown in one of the banner photos at the top of this page.

What has the research told us?

Fascinating information has been revealed about the diet, physical stature and health of people who lived in the Washburn Valley in the late 19th C. Sadly many of the remains belonged to young people brought from workhouses elsewhere in the country to work in the textile mills in the valley. Their remains showed signs of disease and malnourishment. Funding for the exhibition, book and film has come from Heritage Lottery Fund, the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation and the Centre’s own resources.

Where can I learn more?


•   the permanent exhibition on display in the lobby of the Washburn Heritage Centre which is accessible when the Tea Room is open.

•  the books: ‘Fewston Assemblage: Churchyard Secrets Revealed’ (£2) and ‘Life and Death in the Washburn Valley’ (£15).  Both books are available from the Centre.

•  the recording from the 2021 British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology Conference, held via Zoom. It highlights some of the key aspects of the Fewston Assemblage Project.


•  the absolutely fascinating 20 minute film which is shown in the Centre when the Tea Room is open, or here:

View Film »   


The reconstructed head and skull of George Lister