Skip to content Accessibility statement

Scientists unearth forgotten children of the past

Posted on 17 May 2023

Scientists have unearthed a story of forgotten children of the past, providing the first direct evidence of the lives of early nineteenth-century ‘pauper apprentices’.

One of the team of scientists analysing hair under the microscope

A team from the University of York in collaboration with the Durham University and volunteer researchers at Washburn Heritage Centre, examined human remains from a rural churchyard cemetery in the village of Fewston, North Yorkshire. 


The analysis discovered the skeletal remains of over 150 individuals, including an unusually large proportion of children aged between eight and 20 years. 

Early analysis immediately identified the children as being distinctive from the locals, showing signs of stunted growth and malnutrition, as well as evidence of diseases associated with hazardous labour. 

The team of scientists, working together with local historians, have been able to piece together the story of these forgotten children, transported from workhouses in London and indentured to work long hours in the mills of the North of England. They were used as an expendable and cheap source of labour.

Impact of poverty

The scientific analysis combined many different approaches and provides a direct and compelling testimony of the impact of poverty and factory labour on children’s growth, health and mortality in the past.

Professor Michelle Alexander, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who was a senior author of the study, said: “We undertook chemical analysis of the bones to study diet and found that the apprentices had a lack of animal protein in the diet compared to the locals, more on a level with the victims of the Great Irish Famine.”

Examination of the bones and teeth also highlighted the large numbers of pathologies, including tuberculosis and respiratory disease associated with millwork, diseases of deprivation, such as rickets, and the delayed growth of the children.


Professor Rebecca Gowland, from Durham’s Department of Archaeology, said: “This is the first bioarchaeological evidence for pauper apprentices in the past and it unequivocally highlights the toll placed on their developing bodies. 

“To see direct evidence, written in the bones, of the hardships these children had faced was very moving. It was important to the scientists and the local community that these findings could provide a testimony of their short lives."

The remains have now been reburied in a ceremony that involved contributions from the local community, volunteer researchers, scientists and descendants of those excavated. 

Industrial past

Sally Robinson from the Washburn Heritage Centre, Yorkshire, who led the team of local volunteers said: “It's easy to forget that the Washburn valley had an industrial past given the beauty of the reservoirs that visitors see today. 

“It was important to us to find out about the children who worked in the mills. They were overlooked in life and treated as a commodity - but we hope we have done them some justice by telling their stories and creating a lasting commemoration.”

Artwork inspired by the analysis and an exhibition are now on permanent display at the Washburn Heritage Centre. 


Malin Holst, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: "This project was very rewarding, as we worked closely with the Fewston community and descendants of the dead from the initial excavation to the publication. 

“We researched the named individuals in depth and obtained photos, birth and death certificates, psychiatric records and personal diaries. 

“This, together with our scientific research provided an insight into the daily lives of this cemetery population - the stone masons, farmers, housewives, labourers and the pauper apprentices who worked in the mills.”

The research, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Explore more news

Media enquiries

Caitlin Hazell
Press officer (maternity cover)

Tel: +44 (0)1904 323918

About this research

Researchers examined human remains from a cemetery in North Yorkshire, with a large proportion identified as children aged between eight and 20 years, who had been transported from workhouses in London to mills in the North of England.

The research, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Explore more research

Related research themes