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The one acre site was opened in 1846 as an overspill for Skipton’s Parish Church burial ground. To date, despite considerable research, no records of the site and its buildings have been discovered. In early 2014, a Heritage Lottery grant enabled the Friends to carry out an archaeological investigation on two buildings which had been part of the Ground. All that was known was a chapel was erected at the time the ground was laid out, the Mortuary appears later - being constructed between 1854 and 1857. There is nothing to be seen of the chapel above ground, but Ann Wilkinson, one of the Friends and herself an archaeologist, had already undertaken a geo-physical survey showing a two-cell structure.
It was with this limited information that the Friends invited archaeologist Janis Heward and her team to undertake excavation work on the mortuary on 4th and 5th August, 2014. The weather was fortunately very good, with the rain only arriving during back-filling on the second day.
The team opened Test Trench 1 across the northern end of the mound (the furthest from the road); which proved the most interesting of the four trenches opened. A brick-lined rectangular flue was identified, at least 2m deep showing no signs of burning. The flue was possibly for ventilation and removal of odour; especially if the mortuary was used for post mortems. The mortuary was probaly built underground to ensure bodies were kept cool. At some stage – the flue was bricked up. Only the bricks on the east side were surfaced with mortar (or similar). An additional feature was noted adjoining the flue but limited time precluded further investigation. Resources were focussed on finding the outer corners of the Mortuary roof which were uncovered in Trenches 3 and 4.
Pre-excavation strimming revealed two rows of stones on top of the mound suggesting the west and east elevations and thus extent of the structure. It became clear the roof of the mortuary is missing - the brick wall at the northern end of Test Trench 1 would not have been above the roofline. From limited excavation south of the flue, it appears the building has been rubble infilled. These were important answers to the Friends’ original questions.
Test Trench 2, where we were hopeful of revealing the mythical “archway” revealed nothing; the mounded area may be abutments for roof. Small pieces of decorated glass were discovered in Test Trench 3, but whether these are indicative of a roof light is unknown. This find, together with the majority of artefacts, were found in Context 101 directly under the turf.
Neglect has been the sites saving, although there are missing and damaged gravestones, the Ground is now the only burial site in Skipton still in its original state. Other sites, like many Victorian cemeteries up and down the country, have been cleared of their monuments, often with little or no recording and the consequent loss of valuable information. This makes Raikes Road an important site for Skipton.
Following the closure of the Ground, the mortuary was used as a “hearse house” and finally, it and the chapel were demolished in 1933, both said to be in “a ruinous condition”. Nothing can be seen of the chapel but the mortuary is preserved as a mound abutting Raikes Road that is lower than the cemetery. It appeared the mound maybe part of the roof and the mortuary constructed underground. A break in the wall on the 1891 plan seems to indicate an entrance.
Shortly after the excavation concluded, the only known photograph of the entrance to the mortuary was found ( see to the right). It appears in the background to the cortege of Private Hutton in 1912. This shows the presence of a door and a fall pipe to its right.
Given the limited time available, the excavation proved extremely informative and was very professionally undertaken; howevever it raises more questions than it answers. The Friends hope to be able to raise further funding to allow Janis and her team to return to make further discoveries. The Chapel has yet to be excavated and somewhere – who knows? – that elusive archway may appear.
A copy of the interim report can be downloaded here.
Site safety and accessibility meant it was important to establish the condition of mortuary, particularly if the roof was intact and a void present. The Friends also wanted to learn how the mortuary was used. Were bodies were taken through a door at the end of the mortuary to the chapel, or via Raikes road and back in the main entrance (shown bottom right of the plan)? An old lady had mentioned that as a little girl, she had played in the Ground under an archway. Nothing else was obvious on the ground, so could this have been at the far end of the mortuary and indicate an opening?