8th October 2019

The Cat and The Coffin:

excavations at St George's Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol

St. George’s Brandon Hill has put a massive, and controversial, extension on the west side of the church. Avon Archaeology undertook excavations in the old graveyard area disturbed by the construction work and uncovered over 400 burials. The excavations took four months and afterwards documentary searches were carried out.

The remains of a cat were found lying on top of one of the lead coffins, hence the name of this talk. Inside the coffin were a 17 year old individual and an infant.

The old graveyard was in an area that was revetted into three terraces. It was originally planned to act as an overflow for St. Augustine the Less, but later it was decided to have a Chapel of Ease that would become St. George’s Church. The presence of several popular dissenting churches nearby appears to have motivated this decision.

Robert Smirke was the architect of the church, which was built c. 1820-21. It was a so-called ‘Commissioners' Church’, funded by the government as part of a programme to ensure the presence of the Church of England in the expanding towns and cities of Britain.

Smirke noted that there had been a quarry on the site previously (no trace of which was found in the excavations) and recorded the costs of the project in detail, which has proved to be a valuable source of information.

In 1832, St. George’s was provided with its own parish, but the boundary between St. Augustine’s and the new St. George’s parish, was drawn right down the eastern side of the church, so that all of the excavated burials were in fact not in St. George’s parish, but in St. Augustine’s.

When they were buried all of the hundreds of individuals would have had some form of identification on their coffins, mainly metal name plates, but Avon could only identify about 66 of them because all the other name plates had disintegrated.

The excavations began in the middle terrace where ledger slabs, thought to be merely symbolic, tuned out to be covering burial vaults built of brick. Some of the vaults had coffins inside; there was a painted coffin and one covered in leather and studs. These were the resting places of the wealthy and the graveyard overall was found to be rigidly socially stratified.

On the lowest terrace the excavations were problematic. This was the area where the poor were buried and the coffins were stacked one on top of the other, in one grave eleven deep.

The upper terrace appears to have been where the middle classes were laid to rest and had only one or two people buried in each grave. Copper alloy plaques were found on top of some of the coffins here. Some crumbled upon excavation, but others survived and it was possible to identify individuals. For example, Anne Vaughan died on 31 May 1885, aged 77. Her coffin plate had a shield on it.

In 1863 or 1864 St. George’s graveyard was closed by law, but families with vaults were allowed to add bodies after this time. One lead coffin of May Stewart had skin preserved inside. This caused a Health & Safety issue for the excavators, but was later found to be safe.

To record the large quantity of features uncovered during the excavations, rectified photography was used through a planning frame, which was much quicker than drawing by hand.

Small finds included copper alloy buttons, a bone comb, dentures of gold teeth, human teeth known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, bone buttons, and a brass ring. This was one of only two rings found in all the excavations. As might be expected, many coffin handles were also unearthed.

There was found to have been medical or other interventions on some of the skeletons, for example the tops of some skulls had been sawn off. Sometimes this had been neatly done, but others not so. Was this to find the cause of death or to be used in teaching? Examples were found from all the terraces. There also were broken and healed bones and several amputations which had been survived. One skeleton was found with the remains of his prosthetic leg.

One of the burials was of George Cumberland, who was an artist of the Bristol School. He died aged 96 and is the person who drew the first detailed plan of Worlebury hill fort in 1805. His partner Elizabeth died aged 85 and they were buried together outside a vault.

St. George’s Brandon Hill was one of the largest groups of burials of this type to be excavated under fully controlled archaeological conditions. A bone specialist is currently undertaking work on the skeletons and the post-excavation work will no doubt keep archaeologists busy for some time to come.