Ballast, Burials and Ouseburn Body Snatchers.

Ballast Hills Cemetary News Cutting 1926 courtesy of
Ballast Hills Cemetery News Cutting 1926 courtesy of

One of the amazing things about studying something about the region you live in, is that there is a certain added resonance to each story. This is particularly true this week, as what started as research on burial procedures in c19th ended with me finding I live five minutes walk from one of the strangest remnants of burial policy in North East history and have passed through it unknowingly for years.

Looking around you brings astonishing results in research. One of the first things I did when I started my PhD was sell my car as an unnecessary expense and although it was difficult at first, being forced to walk or cycle has been a great boon. When you give yourself the time you start to notice more things around you, you realise how much you’ve missed. It is also clear, as with this week that you mentally store things that may not be useful for months. I have walked over the very site I am talking about most days for the last four years as it is en route to my favourite pubs and in the last two years, en route to my house.

So, for those with no newcastle knowledge, I am talking about Ballast Hills – don’t worry the name didn’t ring bells with me either. It is a tiny parkland to the East End of the Glasshouse bridge in the Ouseburn. If you guide yourself by pubs, then it’s just up the small hill from the Tyne Bar or across the Walker road, when you are tottering back after a beautiful pint of real ale from the magnificent Free Trade.

The Entrance to Ballast Hills.
The Entrance to Ballast Hills.
The view over the Tyne from the entrance to Ballast Hills.
The view over the Tyne from the entrance to Ballast Hills.

If you’ve ever walked through the park you will have undoubtedly noticed that there is a path of tombstones appearing through the grass and in one section a few headstones. In my days of morning work commutes this always fascinated me, but i never investigated it further. This changed when I stumbled upon Alan Morgan’s book Beyond The Grave, following another great tip off from Barry Redfern. In it he explains,

Ballast Hills was chosen as a burial ground by nonconformists…who did not want an established church funeral service. Ballast Hills also appealed to the poor of the established church, because the burial fee was only sixpence.

Alan Morgan – Beyond the Grave: Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds (Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2004).

This tiny section of wasteland was to become the final resting place for thousands of Newcastle’s dissenters and poor. For an indication of just how well used it was, I turned to the local newspapers and found the following enlightening and simultaneously horrifying article.


Sir- Several meetings of leading individuals belonging to the Dissenting Congregations of Newcastle, having been lately held, for the purpose of considering the necessity of obtaining a new burial ground, either on the west or North of Newcastle and the object having excited a great deal of inquiry as to the necessity of the measure I beg, through your paper, to lay before the public, the numbers interred at the Ballast Hill…during the last six years.  I will add the numbers interred in the church-yards of all the parishes of Newcastle in the same years.

Figures for burials at Ballast Hills 1819-1824. Taken from a letter to the Newcastle Courant, Sunday 12th March 1825 p2. Apologies for the quality, but that is how i the scan appears.
Figures for burials at Ballast Hills 1819-1824. Taken from a letter to the Newcastle Courant, Sunday 12th March 1825 p2. Apologies for the quality, but that is how i the scan appears.

These figures are astonishing. To think that in just a 5 year period over 3,600 bodies were buried in this tiny space. This massive overcrowding goes some way to explain the unedifying details in Alan Morgan’s book that people had reported swine “rooting and grubbing” among the graves. Of further interest to my own study was reports that the soil was of a “chalky, limy nature.” This is interesting as lime was believed to accelerate the decomposition of the body, a theory now questioned, but it was used commonly on the bodies of the executed after 1832 and the subsequent move to burial within the prison walls.

It should be noted that the state of Ballast Hills was by no means uncommon. As Ruth Richardson has pointed out, in her fascinating work on death,

Over the course of the eighteenth century, urban churchyards which had originally served small parishes for centuries became inadequate for their population…the general state of urban churchyards left much to be desired.

Ruth Richardson – Death, Dissection and the Destitute  (1988) p.79

(Of Newcastle) The town’s churchyards were at breaking point and at Ballast Hills the area was emphatically crowded, inconvenient for travellers and suffering from “nightly deprevations of a horrific nature”

Alan Morgan – beyond the grave p.106

What is really fascinating though is the opening of the cemetery built to replace the overcrowded Ballast Hills – Westgate Hill Cemetery. The Rev. R Pengilly was presiding over the first burial at the new cemetery and in his address to those assembled he made the intentions of the new cemetery expressly clear and in doing so, highlighted many key fears and beliefs surrounding burial in the period.

On interring the first person on the site, Mrs Elizabeth Angus, the officiating Reverend gave a speech outlining the reasons for the new burial ground.

Everyone who has paid any considerable attention to the former places of interment, whether in reference to the church yards or the burial place at the Ballast Hills, must know, that except in the very small recent enlargements, the portions of the ground so appropriated have been literally crowded with the dead…I have known what it is to witness the bones of a friend, not in the grave half so long as the period just specified, tossed up to the surface to make room for another.

Rev R.Pengilly’s address to the assembled at the first interment of Westgate Hill Cemetery – Newcastle Courant 24th October , 1829 p.2

He then continued to highlight the stated intentions behind the construction of Westgate Hill Cemetery and they are a perfect microcosm of the popular fears, both real and imagined, about burial in the period. Amongst other points are,

1. We wanted a burial place, so large and capacious that the necessity of prematurely breaking the ground and disturbing the remains of the deceased, should no longer exist.

5. We wanted a place so defended by walls or other methods of security, that it should be next to impossible for the robbers of the grave to accomplish their inhuman purposes.

Such a place my friends it is expected the ‘WESTGATE HILL GENERAL CEMETERY” will shortly be.

That security was such a high mark on the agenda of a new cemetery shows that Newcastle must have been equally prone to the work of the body snatchers.

So, next time you walk tipsily on your way back from an Ouseburn pub, take a minute to pay your respects to the dead. It’s amazing, the history that’s beneath your feet.

Dissenters headstones at Ballast Hill
Dissenters headstones at Ballast Hill
Dissenters headstones at Ballast Hill
Dissenters headstones at Ballast Hill
Headstone path at Ballast Hills park.
Headstone path at Ballast Hills park.


Distraction 1: Brideshead Revisited

I occasionally mention books that i’m reading as part of a reading group and this week it’s a repeat. I am still trying to finish Brideshead Revisited, not long to go now – keep getting distracted by other novels. I stumbled upon a fantastic quote in it that felt as accurate now as it would’ve ever been. When describing the social climbing, wannabe politician Rex, Waugh’s withering description of him feels as accurate now as it ever was.

He was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.

Distraction 2: Durham

I was lucky enough to attend the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies’ (CNCS) conference for researchers this week and it was very useful. More importantly, it was one of those magical autumn mornings where a city like Durham just seems to appear from your train window as if from a dream. Walking past idyllic autumnal river scenes and through the quaint cobbled streets made me appreciate what a gem it is on my doorstep. Just a shame there’s so many Hooray Henry’s polluting the fine air – it’s one thing reading Brideshead, but quite another to live inside it.

4 thoughts on “Ballast, Burials and Ouseburn Body Snatchers.

  1. marcus&carolyn price

    Paddy Ballast is very good and on the doorstep.I came across something of interest. Go to’ Arts and Letters’ and in essays thereis a bit on the guillotine. M Date: Fri, 17 Oct 2014 11:08:31 +0000 To:

    1. Think it’s going to make it’s way in to this weeks ‘distractions section’ of the blog so you may well get a name check – beware, the heady heights of fame!

  2. Pingback: From the Lowly Hougher to the Professional Neck Stretcher: A Short History of Hangmen in the North East. Part 1 – lastdyingwords

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