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Body on the Bromyard Line 5 – Can you help?

  • 18th May 2024

This is the fifth and last in a series of five posts exploring the story behind the human skeleton found buried within an embankment of the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster railway line in 2021, close to Riverlands Farm in Leigh, to the west of Worcester.

Over this mini-series we explore the discovery, and what we have learnt through the archaeological excavation, scientific analyses and documentary research. Built in the 1860s, the line eventually closed in the 1960s, and by 2021 all that remained was the earthwork of the former embankment that took a narrow lane up and over the railway.  Hidden within the bank was a single human skeleton (see Blog 1: The Discovery).

Scientific analysis carried out over the last few months has revealed a surprising amount about the body in the railway embankment.  It does appear most likely that our body was that of a navvy from northeast England.  A chap of average height for the time, probably in his 30s, he had lived a physically hard life as an adult, and had also probably been subject to malnutrition and/or infection in childhood.  He finished his life working on the construction of the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster line between August 1864 and March 1866.  Dying on the line, perhaps from accident or illness exacerbated by starvation and infection, his body was dumped into the bank.  His boots, coat and any personal items were removed, and he was buried and forgotten.

We can only imagine how hard his life was, living in rough accommodation, through freezing winters, without adequate sanitation.  Working in dangerous conditions where death and injury were weekly occurrences.  Not always getting paid and perhaps struggling to get enough to eat and drink.  We might also wonder how he and his comrades were thought of by the local people of Leigh and Bransford.  The impact of up to 350 navvies on the rural parish must have been significant.  It is unlikely that they were popular, except by those who saw them as a source of income.

Photo of rural Leigh

The parishes of Leigh and Bransford are still very rural in nature

Over the next year there will be further research into local parish records along the line between Worcester and Bromyard, to see if there are any records of deaths or burials, or perhaps accounts of living alongside the navvies.  We are unlikely to find information on our individual, but will hopefully build up a better general understanding of the lives of the men who built this particular line and their impact on the local community.

This is where you might be able to help us.  Does your family originate from any of the parishes that the line traversed? These are Bransford, Leigh, Alfrick, Lulsley and Knightwick in Worcestershire, plus Linton and Bromyard in Herefordshire.  Do you have family journals, diaries, photographs or old newsletters that mention the coming of the railway to your parish and the impacts, good or bad, that this had on the community?  Would you be prepared to share these memories with us?  If so, please contact us.

We are also waiting on detailed DNA analysis.  The Crick Institute was awarded a £1.7m Wellcome Trust grant to unearth new insights into human evolution and disease.  The research is understanding how the genetics of people in Britain changed over thousands of years.  By identifying the genetic changes that took place and matching these changes against key moments in history, the study will uncover new insights into the evolution of humans and disease.  Over five years, researchers are sequencing the whole-genomes of several thousand ancient British people, using skeletal samples from the last 5,000 years.  Our navvy will now be a part of that project.  The initial results are back, confirming that his DNA has been successfully sequenced, and that he is biologically male.  Whether we will receive further insights into this person’s origins remains to be seen.

We will also start the process of securing reburial in a more fitting and respectful place.  Most of the population in Victorian Britain would have been buried in graveyards relating to their residence, or burial grounds relating to their religious orientation.  Formal burials were an expense, as they are today, and generally required either payment from relatives or the parish.  Presumably in this case, there was no one to cover the cost, or care enough to ensure this was done. Although it was legal for bodies to be buried on any land with the landowner’s permission, deaths had to be registered and it was very likely that this death was not legally registered and we will find no trace in the records.

After over 150 years dumped and forgotten in an embankment, it is time for a proper final resting place.

If you are interested in finding out more, or attending a talk on the project in July, please follow the link to The Body on the Bromyard Line project page.

Leigh Church

St Edburga’s Church in Leigh, Worcestershire

Information in this post-series is taken from:

Burton, A. 2012.  History’s most dangerous jobs: Navvies. The History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-7961-3

Coleman, T. 1963.  The railway navvies: A history of the men who made the railways.  Hutchinson Press.

Cornah, T. Vaughan, T 2022. Archaeological watching brief at River Lands Farm, Teme Lane, Leigh, Worcestershire.  Worcestershire Archaeology unpublished report.

Moore. J. Montgomery, J. 2024.  Specialist Report: Multi-isotope study of a 19th century skeleton recovered in Leigh, Worcestershire.  AIPRL Report No. 179.  Department of Archaeology, Durham University. Unpublished report.

Railway Museum 2018. Navvies – workers who built the railways

Smiles, S. 1857.  The life of George Stephenson.  2006 reprint Hesperides Press.

Smith, W. 1998 The Bromyard Branch: From Worcester to Leominster.

TNA 763/1.  Letters to the board of the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster Railway1864-1866.  Accession number 763/1 The National Archive, Kew.

Western, G. 2023. Osteological Analysis  of the Human Remains  from River Lands Farm, Leigh, Worcestershire. Ossafreelance report no.OA1125

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