On June 20th the Washburn Heritage Centre held a successful launch of a major book about the internationally important Fewston Assemblage. The publication of the book marks the culmination of over a decade of archaeological, osteological and genealogical research and investigation into the Fewston Assemblage. So just what is the Fewston Assemblage and why is it so important? To answer those questions we need to go back to 2005 and discussions about sharing the heritage of the Washburn Valley and about the church needing extra facilities.
Photographs: Susan Goodall
At that time there was no kitchen or toilet on the site – in fact the church’s only facilities were some electric sockets inside and a cold water tap outside. Discussion began about how this situation might be improved and funded. As a result of four years of consultation, planning applications and a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, work began on creating the Washburn Heritage Centre.
As the Centre was to be built into the sloping churchyard, a total archaeological excavation of the footprint of the new building was undertaken. This resulted in the recovery of the remains of 154 individuals of whom 22 could be positively identified by virtue of their headstone and/or coffin plate.
The identification of named individuals in any archaeological excavation is rare but to have 22 is particularly significant and this is where the importance of the assemblage lies. There have been a number of well documented urban assemblages (e.g. Spittalfields and St Marylebone in London) but never one from a rural community. This uniqueness was further enhanced by the fact that there were not only direct living descendants within the community and very good parish records but also a contemporaneous diary kept by the son of two of the identified individuals. All of this information along with the results of the scientific analysis allowed for a detailed look at life in rural North Yorkshire in the latter part of the 19th century. This book has been produced by some of the Centre’s volunteers whose diligent research through the ‘dry dust’ of the archives has put flesh back on the bones of the lives of the earlier inhabitants of the Washburn Valley.
Just one of the fascinating stories unearthed is that of James and Elizabeth Dibb. The Dibbs were married on Christmas Day in 1843 and went on to have 11 living children – the youngest being born when she was 45 and already a grandmother. Elizabeth died in 1892 of ‘atrophy of the brain and erysipelas’ in the Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Menston and was buried back in Fewston alongside her husband. Very unusually Elizabeth had undergone a craniotomy with the whole of the top of her skull being removed. In addition all of the ribs on her left side had been cut through, both strongly suggesting a rare, early example of an autopsy having been carried out.
The book’s 160 pages include over 100 illustrations, maps and charts. Sir Paul Kennedy, a Centre member and volunteer who wrote the foreword, said:
‘…it is fascinating stuff….the remains were examined…families traced that give a glimpse of the social history of the valley…’
‘For all who know the Washburn Valley and want to learn more about its past I strongly recommend this book’
For details on how to purchase the book, please contact Jenny Wilson, our Administrator, on 01943 880794, or email firstname.lastname@example.org