A PENNINE hillside was the backdrop for an archaeological dig which witnessed the exhumation of human remains in an attempt to solve a mystery dating back to the turbulent times of 1813.
With the warm sunshine on their backs, two archaeologists and a local historian yesterday oversaw the recovery of remains from the oldest surviving Methodist graveyard in the world, at Greetland, near Halifax.
The graveyard land has been sold to make way for housing in order to fund a new £500,000 Methodist Church and, for historian Dr John Hargreaves, it was an opportunity to learn more about the suspected burial of a local Luddite, John Hill, who was hanged outside York Castle prison in 1813.
Hill, a cotton spinner, was executed for burglary and stealing arms, one of 17 Luddites put to death at York that month, the largest number of executions for a series of related offences since the Jacobite disturbances of 1745.
At the time, Britain was at war with Napoleonic France and there was great unrest in the West Riding and beyond due to food shortages and changes in production which angered textile artisans who attacked mills and new machines.
It has been long suspected that John Hill’s body was transported to Greetland from York for a decent burial, despite documented evidence that Methodists preachers had locked the cemetery gates to prevent Luddite burials.
Only a modest stone with the initials JH marked the plot, which was thought to be the last resting place of Hill, his young widow and five-year-old son, all of whom died shortly after his execution.
Over a period of several hours, archaeologists Anna Bloxam and Chris Scurfield recovered various bones.
They had been half-expecting to find an adult male skeleton with damage to its neck bones consistent with execution.
But the reality was very different. They found the remains of an elderly man, an elderly woman and a child aged about one.
It wasn’t the ending that was expected but for Dr Hargreaves the dig and the overarching project to conserve important headstones were both worthwhile.
“We are now left with one of two conclusions. Either the Methodist authorities prevented a Luddite burial during a sensitive climate or they showed compassion and maybe Hill was allocated an unmarked grave. There are a lot of unanswered questions in history.”
Dr Hargreaves, who is general secretary of the Wesley Historical Society and a historian of Luddism, welcomed the preservation of the most important headstones in the graveyard.
“Graveyards are as valuable a source for historians as documents. If John Hill was buried here it was on terms that the grave would not be recognised.”
Other headstones at Greetland are reminders of a troubled past and record the deaths of many children.
One headstone being preserved is that of Eli Gledhill, a soldier who served under the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Gledhill lived for another 50 years after that battle, dying at 81.
Geoff Butler, project manager for the new church building, which is almost finished, said the graves and headstones had to be treated in a sensitive manner.
Permission for exhumations was granted by the Ministry of Justice and Dr Hargreaves has helped with the conserving the important heritage items.
“The church is looking towards the future but not ignoring the past because it has helped to make us what we are now.
“The selling of this land has helped us develop the church building that will maintain Methodist Christian witness in Greetland.”