Tracing ‘pauper apprentices’ in North Yorkshire

154 skeletons representing people of all ages were recovered from the 19th-century cemetery in Fewston

Recent analysis of a number of children’s skeletons from a 19th-century cemetery in Fewston, North Yorkshire, has provided the first physical evidence of the hard, and ultimately short, lives of ‘pauper apprentices’ – impoverished children indentured to work in mills.

The children had been laid to rest in a parish churchyard, which was excavated by John Buglass Archaeological Services between 2009 and 2010. In total, 154 skeletons representing people of all ages were recovered, and these have since been analysed by a team led by researchers from Durham University, in collaboration with the University of York and volunteer researchers at Washburn Heritage Centre.

IMAGE: Durham University

Some 22 people had been interred with coffin plates and/or grave monuments that provided their name and date – but it was during examination of the many more unnamed individuals that a particularly poignant insight came to light. It was quickly apparent that the cemetery population included an unusually large number of children and young people aged 8-21. As this age range matched the indentured contract of mill workers, and as a mill is known to have been located near to the cemetery, it seemed possible that the team was looking at a population of pauper apprentices. To test this, they carried out an in-depth examination, focusing on isotope evidence (chemical signatures preserved within bones and teeth) and any signs of ill health and injuries.

Strontium isotope analysis showed that, in contrast to the 22 named individuals, the majority of the children were not local to the area. Moreover, nitrogen and carbon isotopic analysis confirmed that the two groups had very different diets; in the five years prior to their deaths, the young individuals had consumed very limited animal proteins.

A more immediate sign of the non-local children’s lower social status, though, was the impact on their skeletons, which displayed many signs of delayed growth and pathological lesions. At least 50% had evidence of rickets, 38% displayed signs of scurvy, and they also had dental enamel defects suggestive of malnutrition, as well as high rates of maxillary sinusitis and rib lesions, both indicative of respiratory illness and infection. In contrast, only 9.5% of the named locals had evidence of a vitamin D deficiency, and while many had enamel hypoplasia, it was not to the degree seen amongst the non-local children.

Taken together, all these traces paint a convincing picture that the non-local children were indeed pauper apprentices, taken from workhouses in cities such as London, away from their families, and brought to Fewston to work gruelling hours under harsh conditions – conditions that may have ultimately cost them their lives. The skeletons have now been reburied (PICTURED ABOVE) and the full results were recently published in PLOS One (