Royal Avenue: the far-famed valley of dry bones

Royal Avenue is another street in Belfast that most people walk along without realising that underneath their feet are human remains. So if you’re superstitious or squeamish it’s probably best not to read on. Sorry.

At the same time, you might also not have heard that the same street lies on the former town defences of Belfast and the reports of bones being found might be telling us quite a lot about the development of the city. Belfast was enclosed by a rampart and fortified gates in 1641-42. Construction of the rampart at North Street may have disturbed the burials which suggests that they are earlier in date. North Street linked the fording point of the Lagan and Farset (that gave Belfast its name) with a principal road out of Belfast and the main church site at Shankill. There are known to have been castles in Belfast from at least 1262 and a borough (i.e. a nucleated settlement) from the fourteenth century. Belfast then became the focus of attempts at establishing a more significant urban settlement from the 1570s onwards.

The street now called Royal Avenue, though, has only really existed in its current form since the 1880s. Two earlier streets, Hercules Street and John Street, were remodelled and then renamed Royal Avenue by 1882. The City Hall end of Royal Avenue had been Hercules Street which ended at North Street, with John Street running from North Street to the Donegall Street/York Street junction. The staggered crossroads formed by Hercules Street, North Street and John Street was also the site of the North Gate in Belfast’s defensive rampart, believed to have been constructed in 1641-2. Some of these are shown on the map below.

Extract from a map in Georgian Belfast, 1750-1850 showing key locations prior to the laying of Royal Avenue including the position of the ramparts and Ritchies Place.

Since the rampart (as it was known) was almost wholly removed by the end of the nineteenth century, its exact route and actual form aren’t entirely clear. The earliest detailed survey maps of Belfast – by Thomas Phillips in 1685 – appear to show a bank of earth with a wall or facing of stone on the outside. The rampart is known to have had a relatively shallow ditch on its outside as this has been found on excavations in the likes of Queen Street. With street widening and re-alignments the position of the rampart on the ground hasn’t been clearly established everywhere. Based on later mapping, John Street was outside the rampart while the North Gate lay somewhere across the junction of Hercules Street and North Street.

Following the demolition of the houses fronting onto the southern side of John Street in May 1882 (as part of the construction of Royal Avenue) workers found a human skull eighteen inches below the ground twenty yards up from North Street, in front of what is now the Cathedral Quarter offices. The early accounts note that the bones were in good condition but had clearly been there for a considerable amount of time.

That is here (if you want to know the exact spot)…

This was the ‘cut’ for the footpath on that side of Royal Avenue, a strip measuring about six feet wide and four feet deep. The human skull turned out to be from one of two burials uncovered. Within a couple of days more burials had been found beneath the new footpath at the North Street end of Royal Avenue and continuing for about twenty yards along North Street. In some cases the bones had been disturbed previously, with the skulls often move a short distance from the rest of the remains.

The burials lay within the stiff clay under the rear yards and foundations of buildings that had stood in John Street. Within two or three days at least twenty-one burials were identified. While numerous theories were advanced and the discovery attracted widespread attention from the public and antiquarians, there was no firm memory of the spot being used as a cemetery. In July 1882 the Belfast Telegraph referred to the new Royal Avenue as the ‘far-famed valley of dry bones’.

In March of 1883 construction work began on some buildings at the North Street/Royal Avenue junction. At least two further burials were found and ‘a few feet from North Street’ they uncovered what was called “…the remains of the wall of the old garrison. The wall, which is five feet thick, appears to have been skillfully constructed, and consists of outer layers of solid masonry, the centre portion being filled up with ‘puddle’ the whole forming a very strong wall.” They also noted the presence of wooden water pipes (these had been installed by Belfast Corporation in 1681). There was also what was described as ‘not less than one thousand cow horns’ which suggested there had previously been a tanyard at the site.

Despite the conjecture nothing else was uncovered at the site where clearly there had been at least twenty-three burials in an area measuring roughly twenty yards by two yards wide. Then, in February 1894, Steel and Sons, just over twenty yards up Royal Avenue, suffered a fire. Subsequent rebuilding works turned up four further skulls and other bones, tenatively identified as an adult male, an adult female and at least one child. One of the skulls evidenced a trauma (this skull was later donated to the Belfast museum by the contractors Fitzpatricks). The burials were again at a depth of three feet but the various accounts note that they were not intact burials but rather appear to be bones that had been uncovered and re-buried. There were some traces of lime (probably lime mortar) in the soils which were described as slightly damp. A fifth child skull was uncovered a day or two later. An ancient brick wall was also noted close to the burials, extending three feet into subsoil and resting directly on Belfast’s estaurine clays (known as ‘sleech’). Some coins were found in Steel & Sons during the works, dating to 1742, but not said to be directly associated with the burials.

In July of that year, electric lighting was being installed along the footpaths in Royal Avenue and further human bones were uncovered, with the location (on this occasion) noted as ‘opposite the Northern Bank’. In 1905, when work was being done at the rear of the Northern Bank premises, five human skulls were found in a wooden box – apparently some of those found in 1883 were simply re-buried on the site. An account of the 1894 discovery in The Irish News had reported that “During yesterday the remains attracted the attention of great crowds of the passers by, who seemed to enjoy the ghastly exhibition very much. The skulls will be buried today, as nothing can be gained by keeping them overground.”

On the other side of North Street in 1879, workers pulling down houses in Ritchies Place had also reportedly found a human skull buried two feet under the ground. Ritchies Place was a laneway parallel to Hercules Street (before it was remodelled as Royal Avenue). It’s location is shown on the map from Georgian Belfast above.

Map of key locations discussed in the text.

The line of the 1640s ramparts, the position of the North Gate and the main area in which human remains were found is shown on the map above (with a burial at Ritchies Place and one below the ‘John’ of John Street). Some of the burials found in Royal Avenue in 1882-3 and 1894 appear to lie within the bastion adjoining the North Gate in a deposit of stiff clay but had suffered some disturbance. The five feet thick section of wall found in 1883 may be the bastion wall itself. The description of the soils containing disturbed human remains at Steel & Sons were notably in a damper soil containing lime. This sounds like the type of soil that would be found in the ditch on the exterior of the rampart, with the lime having washed down from lime mortaring on the stone facing of the rampart or the bastion wall. Steel & Sons was at 113 Royal Avenue, the furthest to the north-east that burials are described. The location of human remains in Ritchies Place and the opposite side of Royal Avenue may be indicating that this is a more extensive burial site that spans North Street and significantly pre-dates the construction of the 1642 rampart. An archaeological excavation at Church Street, to the immediate southwest of the burials described above, did not reportedly find any human bone (see results published by Cormac McSparron and Emily Murray in 2004 Ulster Journal of Archaeology).

1696 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1). Note the incorrect alignment of Peters Hill and North Street.

There are two areas that appear to be illustrated as burial grounds as well as a ‘death pit’ shown on a map of Belfast from 1696. One burial ground and the ‘death pit’ are in Peters Hill, at the upper end of North Street (I’ve posted about these recently). I’ve included an image of the map above (from the Irish Historic Towns Atlas for Belfast) with the burial grounds shown in red. The perspective on the map is distorted as North Street and Peters Hill are not aligned but it appears to be partly based on Thomas Phillips 1685 map (see below).

1685 map of Belfast by Thomas Phillips (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

The Royal Avenue burials are clearly not the second burial ground, though, since it’s position can be calibrated from the 1696 map. That map shows the burial ground in the corner of a large enclosed space diagonally opposite the buildings to the immediate east of the North Gate, which the 1685 map shows to be much longer and narrower than depicted in 1696. These can be identified on another map in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas from 1757, where I’ve highlighted the buildings close to the North Gate in red and the distinction triangular built up area in red. Aligning the position based on features on the map, the second burial ground lies at the junction of Edward Street and Great Patrick Street (ironically there do not appear to be reports of human bone from this area). There are suggestions that an engagement was fought in an area outside the Belfast ramparts in 1644 in Bullers Field (as this space was known). It isn’t clear whether there were many fatalities or if those who were killed were buried somewhere close by but it is one possibility. It is also notable that the extramural communities around Belfast all had burial grounds other than around the Corporation church (St Georges) on High Street.

1757 map of Belfast (published with Irish Historic Towns Atlas Belfast, Vol. 1).

We can add these to a growing list of lost burial grounds in Belfast:

1. (St) Peters Hill

2. The Death Pit (possibly Townsend Street).

3. The Felon’s Plot used for burying some of those executed in Belfast (including in 1798).

4. An unestablished location close to Great Patrick Street/Edward Street (shown on 1696 map).

There are others which I’ll look at in a future post, including Thompsons Embankment an inter-tidal area used for particular burials. In the meantime, hopefully the Ulster Museum can locate the skull donated in 1894 and we’ll see where we go from there.

Thanks to John O’Keeffe for the map from Georgian Belfast.


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