Skeletons in Heather Robinson's garden
Skeletons in Heather Robinson's garden
How a Macabre Mystery was Solved
Fourteen skeletons were eventually unearthed in the grounds of Heather’s house in Castle Road during the landscaping of her garden in 1985.
The unmarked grave was discovered in April of that year after a gardener struck a human skull with his pick.
His spooky find did not entirely surprise Heather and her late husband Derek, as the remains of five skeletons had already been exposed by workman when they were building the couple’s home in 1969.
The pair had alerted the police and a sample of the bones were examined at the force forensic laboratory in Bristol. As they were dated at more than 100 years old the police said the skeletons were of no interest to them and returned the bones to the Robinsons, who put them back into the ground – now covered by Heather’s sitting room.
When the new bone collection was brought to light sixteen years later Heather decided it was time to try and uncover the story of why these unknown bodies had been buried in sloping ground 50ft above the River Dart.
Heather said: ‘In the intervening years after building the house, we used it as a holiday house. In the 1980s we moved here permanently and my husband set about designing the garden.
‘He knew there was a possibility we might dig up more bones and as soon as the gardener told me he had hit a skull I decided we had to stop the terrace work and try and find out more about them.’
Heather spoke to Dartmouth historian Ray Freeman about the finds while attending her local history class and Mrs Freeman contacted John Allen, the former curator of the Exeter-based Royal Albert Museum.
While the museum’s archaeology department was interested in the find, it was unable to spare the staff, time and money to carry out an expert dig of the site.
Undeterred, Mrs Freeman formed a band of local volunteers to carry out an archaeological excavation.
Heather, a former nurse, also took part in the dig and the group was sworn to secrecy while they carried out their archaeological investigation in a bid to deter macabre onlookers and black-magic followers.
Mr Allen, gave the army of diggers his expert advice on how to carry out the excavation and also promised to spend a day at the site.
The burial ground consisted of a patch of rectangular ground measuring some 25ft x 11ft which had been covered by two cold frames in the Victorian era.
By the end of the first day of carefully scraping away the soil at the site, the amateur archaeologists had exhumed the partial skeleton of what they believed was a 6ft tall man. There was no trace of a coffin, but the team did find several rusty iron nails which indicated there had been one.
The team named the skeleton Christopher after one of the policemen who had visited the site.
Heather said: ‘We gave every one of the skeletons names - one is named after me - because it gave a human side to it somehow and it was a bit of light-heartedness.’
The team also found two buttons made of animal bone plus fragments of small clay pipes and a tiny fragment of wood, which Mr Allen identified as pine.
From these finds, Mr Allen concluded the burials were post 1500 as this was when pine began to be imported.
The digging continued until the team had unearthed the remains of ten bodies. Clearly the site was a burial ground.
At this stage Mrs Freeman had four theories as to whose remains had been discovered – plague victims brought in by ships, Spanish Catholics who had been based at Dartmouth Castle in the 1600s, Huguenots from a community who lived in the area from 1685 to 1744 or Civil War soldiers.
But none of these theories were watertight as the site was a difficult landing place for ships and none of the remains showed any signs of war injury such as musket shot or sword slashes. Also, if the graves did belong to Spanish Catholics why weren’t there more of them, and if they were the final resting place of Huguenots why didn’t the site contain the remains of any women or children?
On day four the amateur archaeologists found ‘Daphne’ – the first and only complete skeleton and the first and only female remains. Retired orthopaedic surgeon, Freddy Durbin, who was part of the dig, thought Daphne was a female aged between 16 to 20 years old as her leg bones had not finished growing.
Mrs Freeman deduced Daphne and Christopher had been buried together as their coffins must have been touching. She also determined their graves had cut across at right angles through the lower legs of another skeleton, ‘Shirley,’ which suggested the grave digger did not know of the existence of other burials.
Mrs Freeman’s exhaustive search for answers took her to the diocesan records office in Exeter where she studied acres of microfiche film in her hunt for documented burial grounds. But the search proved fruitless.
A breakthrough came when she revisited the records office, when she discovered two vital clues to the unmarked graves. The first was a covenant dated 1600 between landowner George Southcote and the feoffees of the nearby St Petrox Church that land to the west and north side of the church should be enjoyed by “all the inhabitants of the parish of St Petrox and their family, friends, servants and all others whatsoever.”
Mrs Freeman then discovered another St Petrox register, dated 1652-92, which was so dog-eared it had not been copied onto microfiche. The ragged page of scribbles contained two entries which provided the final clue to the mystery.
The tattered note written by a 17th Century registry clerk revealed a Frenchman from a Banker ship had been buried at One Gunne (the name of the point on which Heather’s house stands) on December 7th 1676.
Another Frenchman, from another ship from the “West Endis” had also been buried at One Gunne five days later.
Heather said: ‘These chance scribbles indicated that One Gunne Point was the customary place to bury foreigners who died on ships coming into the port but who did not wish to be buried at sea, and others who had no connection with the parish.
‘Foreigner in those days would have applied equally to those who came from other parts of Britain such as Royalist soldiers during the Civil War, some of whom would have died from disease.’
Once all of the skeletons had been retrieved and the mystery solved, the Robinsons decided to give them a Christian burial in their garden.
Heather said: ‘My husband had a plaque made and the Reverend Alan Teague said some beautiful prayers. We felt we had done the right thing by them.
Interview by Ginny Ware
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart