With ‘All Hallows Eve’ rapidly approaching, Liz McIvor our Curator of Social History & Technology was inspired to write a suitably themed post, looking at folk traditions and superstitions relating to the ‘undead’.
Going through boxes of paper ephemera in storage recently and finding a press cutting from the Bradford Daily Telegraph (later to become part of the Telegraph and Argus), I encountered a snippet on the ‘burial at stake’ of a body at the ‘Bradford Crossroads’. The story written in the 1920’s was a piece of reminiscence journalism about ‘days gone by’ and referred to a contemporary account of a person having been interred in such a manner in the city centre in the early 1800’s.
By 1823 an act of parliament had been passed to ban the practice of ‘crossroad’ burial in Britain. This involved pinning a body upright in a deep hole with a wooden stake, and according to folk magic belief, this would prevent a distressed and unbalanced earth-bound spirit from becoming reanimated and roaming around the world of the living. The stakes in question are not the small hand-held ones seen in current films and tv shows, but more like large fence posts!
Should staking the body not stop the spirit ‘walking, then locating the burial at a Cross roads were thought to be a confusing so that a spirit would not know which way to take to return home.
Those who had taken their own lives were not buried according to Christian ritual and could not be interred in churchyards because suicide was held to be unlawful and was termed ‘self murder’. Due to the fact that many citizens could be devout Christians and at the same time have a strong sense of belief in the supernatural, there are similar tales from all over the country and a widespread everyday use of charms and spells again evil spirits and malevolent forces.
Traditionally, scaffolds and gibbets had been placed at a crossroads to indicate to strangers that the law held sway and discourage criminal behaviour but also to ‘cast out’ those who had acted contrary to their community.
By the later 1700’s rapid growth and movement of population due to the Industrial revolution meant that rural communities and practices for those who were ‘outside the law’ continued to operate in what were becoming busy, crowded places.
Bradford’s population alone grew by 100,000 in just fifty years, turning it from a small semi rural market town into an overcrowded bustling city full of new factories, roads and houses. Practices like crossroad burial were no longer local affairs and even George III complained about such macabre events along the roadside making the country look uncivilized and holding up traffic.
The individuals buried in this way are usually lost to history as their names do not usually appear in church registers. Occasionally they remain as a ‘folk memory’. In his 1886 history of Keighley, John Clough reflected on a Steeton crossroads burial of a ‘Nanny’ as being an old story from where the name Nanny Hill or Nan Hill came. ‘Goldsmith’s Grave’ in Halifax stems from a similar story of the burial of a suicide who died in the 16th century.
A number of records mention such burials back to the Norman Conquest and they occur up and down the country, although many sites are now built over and remain heavily populated. The Bradford site was never investigated but the journalist made comment that nothing ‘untoward had been knowingly discovered during the digging of the tramlines by the corporation’ and ventured a guess that such remains might ‘be there yet’.