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Image of a young child in a cotton mill factory setting

Scientists have unearthed a harrowing story of forgotten children of the past, providing the first direct evidence of the lives of early nineteenth century ‘pauper apprentices’.

Research led by Durham’s Professor Rebecca Gowland in collaboration with the University of York and volunteer researchers at Washburn Heritage Centre, near Harrogate, examined human remains from a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire, UK.

Discovering the past

Their analysis discovered the skeletal remains of over 150 individuals, including an unusually large proportion of children aged between eight and 20 years.

Early analysis immediately identified the children as being distinctive from the locals, showing signs of stunted growth and malnutrition, as well as evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labour.

The team of scientists, working together with local historians, have been able to piece together the story of these forgotten children, transported from workhouses in London and indentured to work long hours in the mills of the North of England.

Innovative analysis

The scientific analysis combined many different approaches. Scientists at Durham undertook chemical analysis of the teeth, to establish which children were not local to the area and where they might be from. Many apprentices had values consistent with London, aligning with the historical records for the nearby Mill.

New innovative peptide analysis of teeth helped identify the sex of the children. Examination of the bones and teeth also highlighted the large numbers of pathologies, including tuberculosis and respiratory disease associated with millwork, diseases of deprivation, such as rickets, and the delayed growth of the children.

The University of York undertook chemical analysis of the bones to study diet, finding that the apprentices’ diet showed a lack of meat compared with the locals and was similar to victims of the Great Irish Famine.

Remembering the forgotten

The study provides a direct and compelling testimony of the impact of poverty and factory labour on children’s growth, health and mortality in the past.

The remains have now been reburied in a moving ceremony that involved contributions from the local community, volunteer researchers, scientists and descendants of those excavated.

Artwork inspired by the analysis and an exhibition are on now on permanent display at the Washburn Heritage Centre.

The excavation was funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which supports a wide range of heritage projects across the UK.

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