The Ghosts of St George’s – The Cemetery of Forgotten Souls

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Church Lane and the Cemetery of Forgotten Souls
Church Lane and the Cemetery of Forgotten Souls

A Shocking Discovery

In the spring of 1901, some workmen digging in Church Lane, Belfast made a grim discovery. As they were digging the foundations of a new building on the location of the old Frackelton’s glass warehouse, they uncovered a large number of human bones!

Report on Human Remains, Newsletter 4th April 1901
Report on Human Remains, Newsletter 4th April 1901
Discovery of the bodies (© Bing Image Creator)
Discovery of the bodies (© Bing Image Creator)

What the workmen did not know, was that they were actually digging on the site of the old parish graveyard.

Today’s St George’s Church on High Street, is built where the previous Corporation Church and the Chapel on the Ford, once stood (see link to “From Capello de Vado to St George’s” below). The old Corporation Church faced onto Ann Street and as was traditional, was surrounded by a graveyard.

St George's Church
St George’s Church, March 2021

“The intermediate space between the rere of the houses in Forest Lane and the rere of those in Church Lane was occupied by the church-yard, studded with very ancient grave stones”

Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago, 1875

The Graveyard

Parish Church Funerals, Newsletter 8th April 1901
Parish Church Funerals, Newsletter 8th April 1901

The graveyard was square in shape and was bounded by Church Lane, Ann Street, Forest Lane (now Victoria Street) and High Street. It covered quite a large area and was an important burying place for the town at one time.

The Old Church and Graveyard Boundary at St George's
The Boundary of the Corporation Church and Graveyard

“It was the principal burying place for the oldest families in Belfast, and many monuments were built along the inside of the boundary walls”

Mary Lowry, The Story of Belfast, 1913

The Pottinger’s (see Pottinger’s Entry link below) and the Colliers were among the notable families laid to rest in this graveyard.

Burials at Night

Curiously, in the 18th century, funerals often took place at night.

“This recalls the fact that it was frequently the custom in Belfast at that period, in the case of the death of an important personage, to hold the funeral at night. In 1717 it is written in the burial register of the First Presbyterian Congregation that a Mr Gamble was buried at night. It is said the practice extended into the nineteenth century”

D J Owen, History of Belfast, 1921
Funeral at night (© Bing Image Creator)
Funeral at night (© Bing Image Creator)

We know that the Rev Samuel Halliday was buried here after dark on Wednesday 7th March 1739. Rev Halliday was a minister of the First Presbyterian Congregation in Rosemary Street.

The Widow Dobbs was interred that night also.

The eminent school-master and educationalist, David Manson (see link below to David Manson – Belfast’s Enlightened Schoolmaster), was buried in the same manner. His funeral cortege made its way through town to the graveyard with a candle-lit procession.

Henry Joy McCracken

However, the most famous burial to take place in St George’s churchyard was that of United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. After his execution outside the Market House at Cornmarket on 17th July 1798, Henry was interred in this nearby cemetery. (See link below to Belfast’s Market House, the Town Hall and the 1798 Rebellion)

Henry Joy McCracken (Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Joy McCracken (Wikimedia Commons)

It was at the urging of the Rev Bristow and in recognition of his family’s high-standing in the town, that his body was saved from mutilation and allowed to be buried.

“Of the insurgents executed in Belfast Henry Joy McCracken was the best known and the most regretted”

George Benn A History of the Town of Belfast 1877
Belfast Corporation Church (replaced by St George's), Belfast Telegraph 25th April 1923
Belfast Corporation Church (replaced by St George’s Church), Belfast Telegraph 25th April 1923

Closure of the Corporation Church Graveyard

Although the old Corporation Church fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1774, the graveyard continued in use for at least another quarter of a century.

The situation of the cemetery in the damp spit of land between the River Farset and the River Lagan was sometimes flooded at high tide. Prior to 1710 the eastern boundary wall had been washed by the waters at the spring tide.

A clause was introduced by Sir Edward May in the 1800 Act, that further interments in the old cemetery were legally forbidden. This was one of the last Acts passed by the Irish Parliament before the Union.

“Whereas the old church-yard or burying place in the said town of Belfast, is situated nearly in the centre of said town, and by means of the encrease of the population therein, the same has become insufficient for the purposes intended; and whereas the water from the sea occasionally over-flows the said yard, and the burying of bodies therein by the reason and means aforesaid, is become a public nuisance….”

1800 Act of Parliament

Anyone who endeavoured to have a body buried in the old churchyard faced a fine of £20 and anyone employed to dig here would be fined £5. Interments were now to take place in the New Burying Ground (see Clifton Street Cemetery post).

The opening of St Anne’s and St George’s

In 1776 the new parish church of St Anne’s was opened on Donegall Street. It was paid for by Lord Donegall and named after his wife.

A Chapel of Ease, the current St George’s Church, was constructed on the site of the Corporation Church. Work commenced in 1811 and the church opened in 1816.

We can see both St Georges and the later St Anne’s Cathedral today – but what happened to the old graveyard?

To uncover the fate of the old burying ground we have to make further mention of the May family.

The Disreputable Edward May

(James) Edward May was born in 1751 in Waterford. His father James was 1st baronet, knight of the shire and a M P. His mother was Anne Moore. Although not completing his degree at Trinity College Dublin, Edward continued his legal studies and was called to the English Bar on 23rd January 1789.

On 1st September 1773 Edward May married Elizabeth Bragg from Middlesex, England. After Elizabeth’s death, he wed Elizabeth Lumley from Passage in County Waterford. With his second wife Edward had two sons Stephen and Edward and two daughters Anna and Elizabeth. However, all the children were born before Edward and Elizabeth were officially married (this was to prove troublesome in later life).

Edward had a reputation as a gambler and a ‘shady character’ only caring for money and his own self interests.

In 1795 he secured the release of George Augustus Chichester from debtor’s prison. This young man, the Lord Belfast, was the heir to the Marquis of Donegall. George Augustus was well-known for his reckless spendthrift ways (see link to The Story of Ormeau Park).

Anna, Wife of Second Marquess of Donegall (Evening Telegraph 9th January 1912)
Anna, Wife of Second Marquess of Donegall (Evening Telegraph 9th January 1912)

In return some sort of deal was made whereby George Augustus wed Edward’s 17-year-old daughter Anna. A secret marriage took place at Marylebone Parish Church in London on 8th August 1795. George Augustus and his new bride and all the May family returned to Belfast.

“The Mays seem to have made sure that ‘young Belfast’ (George Augustus) had no time for second thoughts, and no chance of healing the breach with his father, who would certainly have opposed the match and would have done his best to stop it”

W A Maguire, Living Like a Lord, 2002

The 1st Marquis Donegal, Arthur Chichester, was furious on hearing of the union. For May it was a huge coup to be the ‘in-laws’ of the most prestigious family in Belfast and the largest landowners in the north of Ireland.

Edward even attempted to have George Augustus sign over his inheritance to the May family, but this was reversed by the courts. However, he did establish himself as the manager of the Donegall estates.

Edward May continued his self-serving ways as a MP in the English Parliament (1801-1814) and as Sovereign of Belfast (1803-1810).

“There is no doubt that the Mays did well indeed out of their relationship with Donegall; the investment made in 1795 in getting him released from prison brought ample dividends not only in cash but also in power and social prestige”

W A Maguire, Living Like a Lord, 2002

May Street, May’s Market, May’s Docks, Edward Street and Great Edward Street were all named after this unscrupulous social-climber. Even the English government realised he was untrustworthy.

“By 1812 the government had lost all faith in his loyalty and rightly believed that he only cared about his own advancement”

Patrick M Geoghegan, Dictionary of Irish Biography

The Loss of the Church Graveyard

Edward May had his second son, Edward Sylvester May, appointed as Vicar of Belfast in 1809 after the death of the Rev Bristow. Edward May [(Junior) was only ordained the week before he was inducted into this prestigious and influential position.

In May 1813 notices appeared in the local newspaper advertising the sale of the old graveyard’s lands. The remains of the deceased interred there were to be exhumed and reburied in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street on the outskirts of the town.

“Old Churchyard to be Sold by Public Auction

On the Premises, at two o’clock in the Afternoon

On Friday the 7th May Next…..”

Public Outrage

This blatant abuse of power by the Rev May caused outrage among the citizens of Belfast, especially those who had family members long buried in the old graveyard. His actions may have been necessitated by the need to raise funds for the new Chapel of Ease, but many saw it as a means to ‘line the pockets’ of the May family.

In writing to her brother Dr William Drennan in 1803, Mrs Martha McTier had described the young May as a “smart black-guard

“This churchyard, where the departed friends of the principal inhabitants of the town were interred, this reverend gentleman took it into his head to convert to other purposes against their wishes. Their graves were levelled, the ashes of the dead were scandalously disturbed, and tombstones torn up. The sacrilege, however, excited such painful and indignant feelings that the shameful proceedings were stopped…”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

An Unsatisfactory Outcome

To appease public opinion, the Rev May issued a plan to level the ground already disturbed and plant it with a lawn and trees.

However, ‘behind the scenes’ the bargaining for the old church yard continued.

The Forgotten Graveyard (© Bing Image Creator)
The Forgotten Graveyard (© Bing Image Creator)

Hence the previously sanctified land of the cemetery was sold off to the highest bidder. Property-owners in Church Lane and the surrounding streets eagerly purchased land to increase their holdings in this central and lucrative area of the town.

The wishes of the families of the deceased were ignored in favour of financial gain. (Unscrupulous property developers are nothing new).

“Several years after my brother’s internment a daring outrage was committed on the feelings of the inhabitants by the Rev Edward May, brother-in-law of Lord Donegall. the burying-ground of my family, where my poor brother Harry’s remains lie thus disposed of, is now built over”.

Mary Ann McCracken Narratives
Mary Ann McCracken
Mary Ann McCracken

Discovery of Lost Remains

However, over a 100 years later, when building work was taking place in Church Lane, the coffin of Henry Joy McCracken was discovered. Local antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger (see F J Bigger, His Life and Times) took care of the bones and had them reinterred in the New Burying Ground. Thus, Mary Ann McCracken and Harry were re-united at last.

Clifton Street Cemetery Entrance
Clifton Street Cemetery Entrance

Whatever promises were made in the 19th century for the reburying of the deceased in the New Burying Ground, the evidence from 1901 shows that this was not fully carried out.

Certainly, it would have been a difficult and complicated project to ensure all remains were exhumed intact and reinterred under the correct name. However, it seems by the large number of coffins and bones subsequently discovered, no attempt was made to fully recover all the dead buried in the old graveyard. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this.

To ‘add insult to injury’ it would seem that the human remains found in Church Lane were removed for burial to the Union Workhouse Cemetery, that is to pauper’s graves. (Sadly, the remains transferred to the Workhouse Cemetery were subsequently moved again when this site was cleared, and were re-interred in other places, including Friar’s Bush).

“The writer, much to his surprise, was informed by a policeman in Church Lane on Friday that the remains were conveyed in a hearse that morning to the Union Workhouse Cemetery. One would have expected that the Borough Cemetery would have been a more suitable place for what may possibly be the bones of some eminent early inhabitants of the town, who scarcely dreamt, when alive, that their remains would be transferred to a pauper’s grave some one or two hundred years hence”.

Belfastiensis Belfast Newsletter 8th April 1901

Another reader of the newspaper, A Affleck, was similarly shocked by the fate of the human remains. He writes that in 1857 a similar discovery was made during alterations to the Lindsay warehouse on Victoria Street. At that time the builder had a box made to contain the bones and with the permission of the then vicar of St George’s, Rev Dr MacIlwaine, “the rude coffin was reinterred in the ground surrounding the church” (Belfast Newsletter 10th April 1901)

St George's Ancient Wall, Belfast Newsletter 31st December 1942
St George’s Ancient Wall, Belfast Newsletter 31st December 1942

In 1942 further discoveries were made in the vicinity of St George’s Church. An old stone brickwork wall was excavated. This was believed to be the boundary wall of the graveyard. It was estimated as having been constructed in the early 13th century. More human remains were also uncovered.

“Parts of the skeletons found were discovered in the ‘sleech’, or natural mud, commonly found in building in the low-lying central area of the city, beneath the crust of brickbats, cinders, debris and other material forming the surface”

Belfast Newsletter 31st December 1942

(Interestingly, when we posted our earlier history of Ann Street, we were contacted by a reader, whose family owned premises on that street. The family’s children were not allowed into the cellar and were not told why. The reason? There was an old headstone in the cellar. The cellar was locked to prevent access. It is likely that this headstone was linked to the old graveyard)

The Dead beneath our feet (© Bing Image Creator- edited)
The Dead beneath our feet (© Bing Image Creator- edited)

Remembering the Forgotten Graveyard

This area of Belfast around St George’s including Ann Street and Victoria Street is full of the history of our town – history that we will probably never fully recover or appreciate.

This busy commercial sector, filled daily with shoppers and workers holds so many secrets. It is highly likely that the remains of other fellow citizens still lie beneath our feet.

Francis Joseph Bigger Article, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1928
Francis Joseph Bigger Article, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1923

“There is however, one above all others around which such memories linger, and that is the site of St George’s in High Street. Here, more than anywhere else, the shades and shadows of a long historic past still linger and are made visible now and again as the centuries pass along”

Francis Joseph Bigger, Belfast Telegraph, 20th April 1923
Ghosts of St George's, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1923
Ghosts of St George’s, Belfast Telegraph 20th April 1923


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