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Memorial unveiled for infants in unmarked graves in Yorkshire

27 August 2021

ST HELEN’S, ESCRICK

The new memorial, donated by J. W. Myers Monumental Masons

The new memorial, donated by J. W. Myers Monumental Masons

A CHURCH community has erected a memorial to scores of babies and young children who have no marked grave.

The plaque at St Helen’s, Escrick, near York, records a former time when it was common practice for a child’s grave to have no headstone, or just a simple wooden cross that soon disappeared.

“Unmarked burials are not peculiar to our church,” the churchwarden, Caroline Wandless, said. “It was done everywhere back then. People didn’t have the money for a permanent memorial.” The stone was unveiled by Peggy Brown, aged 95, whose own daughter Valerie died in 1951, aged one month, and lies, unmarked, in the grounds of St Helen’s.

The idea of a memorial grew out of project launched in 2018 to refurbish the Grade II* listed St Helen’s with the aid of a £471,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The work included gathering an oral history of the community. “Peggy is one of Escrick’s oldest residents; she has lived here all her life,” Mrs Wandless said.

“When she told us her life story, she spoke of her baby who is buried in the churchyard. In that conversation, it became clear that there were a lot of babies and children that had been buried there, but there was no marked grave for any of them.

“A search of the registers confirmed that, in times of shocking infant mortality, especially in the 19th century, there were scores of lost infants, each one a tragedy to their families. It was not until the 1970s that it became normal to have a headstone. There were formal funerals and burials back then, but we have no record of exactly where.”

Mrs Brown was able to recall two or three children who were stillborn, or died in infancy, and the researchers discovered a boy killed in a road accident in the 1950s. “We even had a Facebook message from a man in Australia, who believes his great-uncle and -aunt, who died as young children, are buried there,” Mrs Wandless said. “But most of the parents are dead, and there is no family left in the village. There was a groundswell of: ‘It’s so sad, we need to do something.’

“J. W. Myers, our local monumental masons, were keen to help out, and donated the stone; so it fell into place very quickly. It really tugged on the heart-strings.”

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