A Quaker Burial Ground in North Shields


Excavations at Coach Lane, Tyne and Wear

Jennifer Proctor, Märit Gaimster and James Young Langthorne, 2016.

PCA Monograph 20

ISBN 978-0992667276


This monograph presents the results of archaeological excavation of 244 burials and associated charnel from a burial ground in North Shields, used by the Society of Friends between 1711 and 1829. The site was located within an open public park, which fortuitously preserved the entirety of the former burial ground and apart from the removal of three skeletons in 1961, there had been little disturbance to the burials, providing a rare opportunity to examine a Quaker burial ground in its entirety.
The publication considers aspects of the layout and chronological use of the burial ground, use of coffins, coffin fittings and grave markers, treatment of the body and burial customs, demographics and health of the population. The excavated remains broadly concur with the accepted doctrine of simple burial, unadorned coffins and burial in unmarked graves. There are exceptions, however, such as the recovery of a pair of very ornate gold cufflinks from the grave of an elderly woman. Wealthy ship-owner John Walker (not a member of the Society of Friends at the time of his death) was buried in an elaborate triple-lined grave containing a lead coffin, within a timber casing, and had been interred within a brick-lined single vault.
Detailed reports on human osteology, coffin construction and fittings as well as other associated finds accompany the discussion of Quaker burial practices as revealed by these excavations. Documentary research has enabled the lives of four of the families buried at Coach Lane to be investigated in more detail. The results of this monograph should be of particular interest to students of post-medieval human osteology, Quaker and other post-medieval burial practices, as well as those interested in the history of the locality.
  1. David Heslop (Archaeologia Aeliana)

    The latest instalment in the excellent Pre-Construct Archaeology Monograph Series, No 20, deals with excavation and research at the Quaker Burial ground at Coach Lane, North Shields. The archaeology of Post-Medieval Non-conformist burial sites is a neglected area of study, and, until now, the only comparative assemblages are been from southern England. Locally, a general urban population was examined at Coronation Street, South Shields, while at the Forth Infirmary site, Newcastle, the excavation of burials of indigent hospital fatalities represent a very specialized sample. Neither of these have been, as yet, fully published. It is of great credit to all involved that the Coach Lane site has been brought to publication so speedily and comprehensively.
    The publication takes the traditional format, but the account is enlivened by the interspersion within the narrative with a series of biographies of notable family present in the burial population. These asides are both directly relevant to the central theme of the research, and intrinsically interesting to the general reader in their own right. After a wider-ranging introduction (Section 1) the excavation description in Section 2 follows the site history from its agricultural origins before, according to Maberley Phillip’s 1895 Archaeologia Aeliana account, it was purchased by the Society of Friends and used for burial from 1711 until 1829. By a fortunate accident of history, the boundaries remained intact and so the complete population was available for examination when the land came up for housing development. A total of 244 burials were recovered, not aligned east-west in the typical Christian manner, but, with an absence of ideological determinism, in a manner to most efficiently use the space available – in this case with heads to the south-west, but at the Kingston-upon-Thames Quaker burial ground, the primary burials were aligned north-south.
    Sections 3 and 4 deal with the human remains and the grave furniture. The osteological account focuses on the implications of the evidence for demographics and health, and the well-illustrated finds accounts describe the burial practices of the time and what they tells us of the Georgian attitude to death and resurrection, as understood by the adherents to the doctrines of the Quakers.
    The sample is small, but is functionally complete, and the remains were in a very good state of preservation. The report covers evidence for the health and well-being of the population, of the sex and stature of individuals and particularly on the wider-range of disease and osteological pathology that the latest scientific techniques can elucidate.
    Among the burials, the only significant deviation from the puritan doctrine of simplicity and un-adornment is in the burial of the wealthy shipping magnate, John Walker of prosperous Dockwray Square, who was expelled from the Society (“disowned”) for straying “from the path of moral rectitude”. Disowning was not uncommon; the Society of Friends burial register lists 44 individuals described as “no longer in unity”, but significantly, they were allowed burial alongside the rest of the community. The admonishments of the Society’s Elders were as polite and restrained as the rest of their demeanour, with miscreants being accused of – “growing light in conversation” “of late years getting into pride..” and being “…exhorted by Friends to a more circumspect walking..”.
    The final section is a discussion of the implications of the excavation for the history of North Shields and for our understanding of the impact of the rapid industrialisation of Tyneside on the working population. Detailed documentary research looks at links between the North Shields Quakers and other similar groups across the North-East. The Quakers were important agents in many of the significant developments of the age. We see here the links between the ship-owning Walker family and Captain James Cook and on Teesside, the Pease family were promotors of the first passenger railway, the Stockton and Darlington line and prominent Anti-Slavery campaigners.
    In summary, this is a fine piece of inter-disciplinary archaeology, made easily accessible by being written as much for the general reader as the archaeological specialist. It is a handsome volume, which is extremely well illustrated, with many of the distribution plans in colour. It will sit very happily on the bookshelf of both the local historian and Post-Medieval archaeologist.
    David Heslop

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