Unmarked graves on Peters Hill

This is a quick revisit to a previous post on undocumented burials around Belfast. A while ago I’d looked at reports of human remains uncovered at two locations coinciding with an apparent cemetery and a ‘death pit’ marked on a 1696 map of Belfast. So technically, they aren’t undocumented, but they are forgotten and overlooked.

The Peters Hill burial ground appears to cover the area from the Boyd Street/Peters Hill corner back along Peters Hill and extending down an unknown distance towards Millfield. The locations of key streets etc are shown below including Peters Hill (which becomes the Shankill Road (beyond the right hand side of the picture), Boyd Street is shown, plus Millfield, North Street and Carrickhill. The area with recorded burials is shown as a red box.

Here’s an older map which has been updated to include names of smaller streets around Peters Hill/Boyd Street/Brown Square. The inset shows the area on the 1696 map. Brown Square (and Brown Street) carry the name of John Brown, a former sovereign of Belfast who had his house roughly between Abbey Street and Brown Square on Peters Hill. Change in the area has been constant and rapid. Brown’s house was visible as ‘old house’ in the nineteenth century. While many of the street alignments are clearly still visible, the encroachment of Peters Hill and Millfield on the block formed by those streets and Boyd Street is significant. Ironically it means, today, thousands of people unwittingly drive or walk over a burial ground daily.

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?

Just to reprise the burial evidence at Peters Hill. 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]

While there is limited information to go on here, a handful of clues suggest that the Peters Hill area merits much closer attention. The 1696 map clearly labels Peters Hill as ‘St Peters Walk’. One of revised editions of Benn’s History of Belfast notes that the name ‘St Peters Hill’ is also recorded. The same edition also notes that ‘pacings’ and ‘bull-baiting’ were held on Peters Hill. Neither the Peters Hill cemetery nor the Death Pit (marked further up Peters Hill on the 1696 map) were remembered in later memoirs of Belfast.

1696 map showing the junction of Peters Hill, North Street, Old Lodge Road and Millfield. North is to the bottom of the map. The term ‘Black Pit’ is typically used to describe a tanning pit (for curing cow hides to make leather) – an industry known from that area of North Street.

This area lies outside the ramparts erected around Belfast in 1642. Yet, Canon 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…”. But 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 1642 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. The burials and the name ‘St Peters’ hint at some type of ecclesiastical site. Despite being a medieval borough, with a castle and churches, Belfast didn’t appear to have any foundations by religious orders – that are recorded. And the main axis of the castle and churches lies along North Street, Peters Hill and the Shankill Road. Burials are also known from elsewhere along this route.

Could Belfast have forgotten a whole burial ground? You bet. Much of the early documentary history of Belfast – official corporation records going back into the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries – are lost. Ironically, for a city often accused of having too long a memory, a lot of the early history of Belfast is still largely unknown.

[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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