The Shankill Death Pit

People are often unaware of the history beneath their feet. Sometimes blissfully unaware. In a city like Belfast there are streets that were first established hundreds of years ago. If you stand somewhere like Peters Hill, you can look up towards Divis and down towards the town just like people have down for hundreds of years. This was the main road in and out of Belfast and the graveyard at Shankill is believed to be at the site of the oldest church in Belfast (indeed Shankill, Sean Cill in Irish, means ‘old church’). But it wasn’t the only burying ground in this part of town.

In 1859, the Belfast Newsletter reported that human remains were found buried in Boyd Street when gas was being installed into a house there.[1] Ten years later, it was claimed that more human bones and a cannon ball had been found in Boyd Street around 1864.[2] Then, in 1871, Andrew Mairs, a grocer who lived at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill, was renovating his premises. After demolishing an old building on the site, the workmen cleared away debris and discovered “…within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies… the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards.” These were laid out by a wall that had been apparently re-used as the foundation to the old building.[3]

So, clearly, there was some sort of cemetery here at the junction of Peters Hill and Boyd Street. The widening of Millfield here and Peters Hill means that this burying ground probably lies beneath the footpath and road. But the finds of human remains don’t stop there.

In 1894, in Carrick Court, on the opposite side of Peters Hill, workmen found “…the bones of a human arm from the shoulder blade to the finger nails were found…” and apparently “…such discoveries have been frequent of late.”[4] Three years later, old foundations were being pulled up at the end of Townsend Street, further up Peters Hill but now back on the same side as Boyd Street. The workmen there also found a skull and bones.[5] Several months later, a grizzly discovery was made in the lane between Library Street and Kent Street, where two young boys found a skeleton of a child.[6] About fifty years ago, a burial was also found in Brennan’s Sheetmetalworks at the top of Kent Street.

So, what is going on?

Viewed on a map the burials lie around the junction of Millfield, Peters Hill, Carrickhill and North Street. While the child’s remains found in 1897 may be unrelated, the other references all appear to be interments of human remains spread across an area measuring 150m across (although the Townsend Street burial lay a further 200m away). None of the accounts mention any objects that could provide a clear date for the burials.

The earliest detailed survey of Belfast (1685) shows most of the area as undeveloped although North Street and parts of Peters Hill were built up.[7] Among the earliest known names and information for Peters Hill are a map from 1696 (which appears to be based on the 1685 map). It shows a rectangular enclosed area with six crosses in the middle that appears to be a cemetery off Peters Hill, apparently close to the later junction with Millfield. Immediately west of the cemetery are features labelled ‘Black Pits’ which usually means tanning pits used to make leather. Further west again is an oval feature on the map labelled ‘Death Pit’. The map labels the bottom of Peters Hill as ‘St Peters Walk’ with the name ‘Shanks Hill’ written further along then ‘Long Walk’. The Old Lodge Road is named as ‘The Rise’. Carrickhill and Millfield are shown as lanes.

1696 map showing the junction of Peters Hill, North Street, Old Lodge Road and Millfield. North is to the bottom of the map.

1900-1907 map (with names of the smaller streets added) showing the locations in which human remains were found. Exact positions are shown as black circles, the rough locations shown as white circles. North is to the top of the map.

The 1900-07 map with the 1696 map inset (in top left) although the 1900-07 map now has north towards the bottom so it is aligned the same as the 1696. Are the two sets of burials the cemetery and Death Pit shown on the 1696 map?

Neither the cemetery nor the Death Pit were remembered in later memoirs of Belfast. This area lies outside the ramparts erected around Belfast in the 1640s. John Grainger, writing about the ramparts in 1861, noted that “A portion of some of the out-works was existing until laterly on the site of Brown’s Square…”. It is clear from other maps that the town ramparts for Belfast were much further east so whatever was visible in Brown Square wasn’t the 1640s rampart. Clearly Grainger knew of some form of earthworks in Brown Square as late as the nineteenth century but these don’t appear to have been described elsewhere.[8] Brown Square and Brown Street were laid out before the 1790s but the space inside the rough area denoted by those two street and Peters Hill and Millfield was developed later. The description of burials being laid close together and apparently associated with the footings of wall at the corner of Boyd Street and Peters Hill also lies within this area.

Other maps show that the area to the south of Peters Hill wan’t developed until the late eighteenth century when the name was applied to the whole junction, with North Street known as Goose Lane. Millfield was known as Georges Lane and the Old Lodge Road was a lane up to a lodge. Carrickhill was originally called Carrickfergus Peters Hill or Carrick Peters Hill (North Queen Street was then Carrickfergus Street). The Shankill Road was the highway to Antrim and sometimes called Bowers Hill. Bower, presumably was original from bóthar in Irish meaning ‘road’ (i.e. that this was the main road out of Belfast).[9]

All of this makes the burials on either side of what is now Peters Hill a bit odd. Do the burials date to before the road or are simply laid either side of it? To date, the identified burials appear to focus on three of the four sides of the Peters Hill, Millfield, Upper Library Street, North Street crossroads. The most detailed account indicates dense burials and a building at the Boyd Street/Peters Hill corner but burials are known from elsewhere in Boyd Street and traces of a burial on the opposite side of Peters Hill and the lower (city centre) side of Upper Library Street. None of the burials produced clear evidence of date. While the burial ground appears to be in the general location of that noted in the 1696 map, the map itself is not, in itself, an accurate survey map. The presence of human remains at the opposite side of Peters Hill, which seems to be a road of significant antiquity, raises questions about the degree of association of all the burials. refers to the Shankill Road as having been known as ‘Bowers Hill’ with ‘Bower’ presumably an anglicisation of bóthar hinting at the Shankill Road as the main road out of Belfast.

A similar issue applies to the burials noted further to the west at Townsend Street. None of the intervening streets appear to have produced records of human remains being discovered. Since this superficially matches the positioning of the cemetery and Death Pit on the 1696 map, it is possible that the latter was located closer to Townsend Street and is 200m from the other burials.

The White Church (Shankill) and ‘Chapels of the Ford’ are noted in the Irish Visitation Roll in 1306. A number of churches in the vicinity of Belfast are listed in the 1604 Terrier of the Bishopric of Down and Connor, including Shankill and six altarages some of which are fairly well known (like Friars Bush, Greencastle, Ballyvaston and Tullyrusk) while two others aren’t. These are Capella De Croockmock, recorded elsewhere, variously as ‘Cranoge in the Tuogh Fall’ and ‘Cramagh’. Croockmuck and Cramagh are clearly Cromac but the actual site is less clear. The other is Capella De Killemna (named elsewhere as as Killonynna, Kilmean and Killeanan) is equally uncertain.[10] During 1690, Young reports a ‘great mortality’ in the town from Schomberg’s fever-stricken soldiers with both Shankill and the High Street graveyard crowded but does not suggest the use of any other site for burial.[11] Belfast wasn’t the scene of significant fighting in the 1640s either but it is possible that a ‘Death Pit’ was opened either then or in 1689-91. Is it possible Boyd Street, though, is one of the six altarages and medieval in date? That it was called ‘St Peters’ Walk in 1696 also hints at the former existence of a ‘St Peters’.

At least one thing is certain. There are one or more burial sites at Peters Hill.


[1] See Belfast Newsletter 8/1/1859: “Yesterday forenoon, as some workmen were employed in making the necessary preparations for introducing gas into a house in Boyd Street, they discovered the skeletion of a full-sized human being under the window, within a few feet from the house. No person in the locality can give any solution of the mystery which attaches to this discovery.

[2] See Belfast Weekly News 9/10/1869: “…It will be recollected that, about five years ago, a quantity of human remains and a cannon ball were discovered in Boyd Street, continguous to this place…

[3] See Belfast Telegraph 22/5/1871: “Mr. A. Mairs, who for some time past carried on a grocery establishment at the corner of the Peter’s Hill and Boyd Street, has had a number of labourers employed during the past week in taking down the old building that the premises may be reconstructed on an extensive scale. Yesterday morning, about eleven o’clock, some of the workmen, who were making excavations and clearing away debris, prior to putting in new foundations, made an extraordinary discovery of human remains. While they were digging in the rere of the building, the brought up a number of bones, and, on continuing their work, they found, within a distance of a few yards, and not more than a foot and a half beneath the surface, no less than nine human skulls, and as many bones as would go to make up nine human bodies. The place where the remains were discovered would lead to the belief that they must have been interred at some period subsequent to the erection of the old house, as the spot where the excavation were being made was where a doorway existed, leading from one room to another. When the old door-step was removed, the skulls were found resting against the stone work of the foundation, and the bones lay in a straight line from each skull in the manner in which bodies are interred in graveyards. This would lead to the supposition that the wall must have existed against which the bodies were laid. The news of the discovery soon spread, and in a short time thousands of people were attracted by curiosity to the place, and different opinions were formed as to when, and owing to what cause, the remains had been deposited in this place. Some persons who examined the skulls said that at least three of them were those of females. By some they were set down as being the remains of persons who fell during the rebellion of ’98. Others said the house was built upon a prison grave-yard, and that they were the remains of persons who had suffered execution… The matter was reported to the police, and on their making inquiries in the neighbourhood they found that ‘the oldest inhabitant’ remembered a doctor’s shop in existence at this corner at one time. This may account for the bones being found there. When the coroner was informed of the discovery, he ordered the remains to be buried.

[4] See Irish News 23/6/1894

[5] See Irish News 22/6/1897: “Yesterday whilst some workmen were engaged digging through old foundations in Townsend Street, they discovered a human skull and a number of human bones. The remains were collected and taken to the Brown Street Police Barrack, and the City Coroner communicated with. Mr. Finningan, however, did not consider it necessary to hold an inquest, as the remains presented the appearance of being a long time in the ground.”; Belfast Newsletter 22/6/1897: “…at the end of Townsend Street…” and that one of those digging “…, who had been pursuing his operations somewhat deeper into the soil than the others, felt his spade come into contact with a hard substance, which he believed to be a stone. Upon clearing away the earth, however, from around it he found that it was human skull. Beside it were got several human bones.

[6] Belfast Weekly News 16/10/1897: “…a couple of lads who were engaged at some pastimes in the vicinity of Carrick Hill made a very startling discovery. They came across a parcel lying in a lane between Library Street and Kent Street and at the rere of St. Stephens Street. It looked somewhat suspicious in appearance, and on opening it they found that it contained the bones of an infant whose head was separated from the trunk. The remains were wrapped up in a piece of old calico, and bore evidence of having lain there for a long time.

[7] Volume 1 of the Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast contains the early maps (up to 1840).

[8] Grainger, J. 1861 Results of Excavations in High Street, Belfast, Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

[9] The use of Bower and Bowers Hill for the Shankill is discussed in a memoir in the Belfast Telegraph in 1951(7/12/1951).

[10] Reeves, W. 1847 Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, consisting of a taxation of those dioceses, compiled in the year 1306, with notes and illustrations, p. 186. Benn, G. 1823 History of the Town of Belfast, p.252. Reeves, in his Eccelesiatsical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore, offers explanations for all six altarages but Benn associates Capella De Killemna with a different site at Suffolk.

[11] Young, R.M. 1892 The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast, 1613-1813, p.243.

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