ID COR2_012 / Pat Kirby

TitleThe unsolved mystery of Mersea's skeletons

Until recently, there was a display of human bones in Mersea Museum. These are now in temporary storage while other exhibits are being prepared. A new display of these bones may well be included in the future, together with this account written by Leslie Haines, one of the origi l trustees of the Museum.

"In May 1979, Brian Kennell and Graham Lovegrove were digging a trench for the foundation of a kitchen extension behind No. 1 Coast Road in West Mersea. These houses were built in the early 19th century as houses for worker at the 'big house' - called 'Orleans' - which stood nearby, on the rise facing the sea. The churchyard wall here takes a turn, probably made to accommodate the new houses.

Two feet below the surface, the trench diggers came across bones, which were put in a bucket. Soon a skull was broken by a spade, and in the damp earth it broke into several pieces. Before long the pile of bones filled the bucket, and several more skulls were found. Wondering whether these bones were human and whether their finding should be reported, Mr. Kennel took the bucket to the Museum where they were identified as being human, and probably 200 years old at least.

When the local police heard of their age they took no further interest.

Mr L.B. Haines of the Mersea Museum, a biologist who had specialised in human physiology and anatomy, visited the site and found bones still being uncovered, with the skeletons lying in various directions, contrary to the usual burial position, when the feet point to the east. This is an old custom which relates to all the dead rising from the grave and facing the east at the resurrection."

In 1665 the Great Plague came to England when half of the population of London died. Many of the people fled from the City, and many came to Essex. The big towns put up barriers with armed men to keep out the fugitives who might be carrying the disease with them.

The first suggestion was that this pit of skeletons was a 'Plague Pit', many of which are found outside towns where the fugitives lived and died. But a visit from an archaeological skeleton expert from Cambridge University dated the bones as being from 200 to 400 years old, not all of the same age. This elimi ted the Plague Pit idea.

In all 14 skulls were taken from the trench, with many other relevant bones; but only 3 stayed solid, the others, on examination, being those of young people below the age of 20 . (A Biological note; - A child's skull has separate bones which grow together, becoming solidly joined about the age of 20.)

Who were these people?

The suggestion has been made that this pit could have been a pit for those who were denied burial in consecrated ground. These would include suicides, those executed for murder, theft of anything valued over 5 shillings, girls dying at the birth of an illegitimate child, or corpses washed up on the beach not wearing a sign of Christianity (ring or necklace).
It is not likely to have been a pit for bones removed from old graves, as they were found as whole skeletons.
A mysterious fact is that no items of clothing were found, no metal buckles, no bone buttons, no rings or jewellery. Other clothing would have rotted away as the soil was very damp.

Why did they die?

One of the skulls, of a man aged about 40, was badly affected by scurvy. This disease is caused by the absence of vitamin C in the diet, and used to be found in seamen who were often at sea for many months without the chance of eating fresh vegetables and fruit. Captain Cook (1780) made his crews suck lime fruit on his long journeys, to give them vitamin C. The Yankees mocked the British navy, hence their nick_name of 'Limeys' for the British.

Scurvey causes the gums and finger tips to become inflamed and to swell. The teeth and _nails loosen and fall out. This poor man's jaw bones have been eaten away so badly that even his teeth sockets have been eaten away.

A young girl's jaw bone has been badly eaten away with an abscess, suggesting that she might have died of blood poisoning or even killed herself with the pain, for there were no dentists as we know them today.

The teeth on the other two skulls on show are in perfect condition, for they never had sweets nor ice-cream nor sticky cakes to eat. (Sugar only came to the poor people in Britain about 1700.)

The backbones of a small child show that he suffered badly from osteo-arthritis, for the bones of the spine have bad growths on them which must have made him a cripple, and every movement agony.

We know that most of the bodies were adolescents for their arm and leg bones had not finished growing.

The mystery remains unsolved.

Published in Museum Piece in Mersea Courier 1 April 2011

AuthorPat Kirby
Published1 April 2011
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Some of the bones dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near the church.  COR2_012_001
ImageID:   COR2_012_001
Title: Some of the bones dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near the church.
Date:3 July 2007
Source:Mersea Museum / Pat Kirby
 Some of the bones dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near West Mersea church.  COR2_012_003
ImageID:   COR2_012_003
Title: Some of the bones dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near West Mersea church.
Date:3 July 2007
Source:Mersea Museum / Pat Kirby
 Skull dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near West Mersea church.  COR2_012_004
ImageID:   COR2_012_004
Title: Skull dug up in 1979 behind the Coast Road cottages near West Mersea church.
Source:Mersea Museum / Pat Kirby