Coffin of asylum surgeon excavated at Leicester Cathedral

‘Over his lifetime, he made significant contributions to the development of modern medicine in Leicester, leaving a lasting impact on the city and beyond.’

Excavations at the eastern end of the Leicester Cathedral gardens have uncovered a lead coffin containing the remains of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson, a surgeon who served as the first medical officer of Leicester’s old County Asylum in the 19th century.

Archaeologist Amber Furmage excavates the lead coffin found last year at Leicester Cathedral. Image: ULAS

Archaeological investigations have been carried out at the site of the Old Song School, which was previously part of St Martin’s churchyard, since winter 2021 by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), ahead of the construction of a new visitor and learning centre.

The centre forms part of Leicester Cathedral Revealed, a wide-ranging restoration project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

So far, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,100 burials spanning from the medieval period (c.12th century) to the mid-19th century.

The lead coffin holding the remains of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson. The pentagon-shaped brass nameplate from the outer wooden coffin bears the inscription ‘Edward Entwistle Wilkinson. Born 17th May 1796. Died 4th July 1846.’ The shield-shaped lead nameplate fixed to the inner lead coffin shows the initials ‘E. E. W.’ and the year ‘1846’. Image: ULAS

Most of the 18th and 19th century burials occurred in wooden coffins adorned with nameplates, though many of these have now disintegrated, making identification difficult.

However, whilst excavating in a row used for burials from the late 1820s to 1856 (when the cemetery closed), the team found a lead coffin with an intact pentagon-shaped brass nameplate revealing that it held the remains of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson.

Subsequent research by ULAS archaeologist Amber Furmage found that Wilkinson was born in 1796 in Whalley, Lancashire. He worked as a House Surgeon and Apothecary at the Leicester Infirmary from 1820 to 1836, during which time he expanded the Dispensary and helped procure an ‘Infirmary Carriage for Accidents’.

The Fielding Johnson Building originally opened in 1837 as the County Asylum. Image: University of Leicester

After leaving the Infirmary he became the first resident medical officer of the then-newly opened County Asylum (now the Fielding Johnson building on the University of Leicester campus).

Following Edward’s death from typhus fever in 1846, a plaque dedicated to him and his wife was installed in the Great South Aisle of the Cathedral.

The memorial plaque for Edward and Elizabeth Wilkinson, who married just nine months before his death. Image: ULAS

Edward’s coffin is particularly lavish, consisting of a sand-cast lead lining sandwiched between two layers of wood (little of which has been preserved). The lid and sides of the lead coffin are engraved with decorative motifs, and remains of coffin furnishings – including pieces of a velvet or suede-type fabric – were recovered.

‘The discovery of a named individual is always exciting due to the amount of information we can track down about their lives, and this has been particularly true in the case of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson,’ said Amber Furmage.

‘Over his lifetime, he made significant contributions to the development of modern medicine in Leicester, leaving a lasting impact on the city and beyond.’

Iron handles surround the base of the coffin, the sides of which have buckled inward due to the weight of the overlying soil. Image: ULAS

Research has shed light on several other individuals unearthed at Leicester Cathedral. Among them is Anne Barratt (1786-1855), whose home still stands today at 17 Friars Lane. Its garden once spanned across the now world-famous car park where the remains of Richard III were uncovered in 2012.

The graveyard soil has also produced a large amount of domestic refuse, including Roman greyware and Samian ware, medieval pottery, animal bones, oyster shells, and hundreds of broken clay tobacco pipes.

All individuals will be carefully reburied once the research is completed.

Read the project’s blog to find out more: Leicester Cathedral Revealed.