Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

The Chester-le-Street Deanery Murder

At the Heritage Group Meeting held on Wednesday 23rd January, 2008, a letter was read out by Thelma Walton, the Group’s Secretary, which had been received from Judith L. King of Burnopfield, asking if we could store and preserve a human skull, together with a collection of bones, which included the lower mandible of a large animal.
Apparently back in 1965, building excavations were being carried out under the then Grammar School Hall (now Park View School) which was in the area of the old Deanery. The Deanery house was located behind the Parish Church, but outside the boundary of the church cemetery.

So as this appeared not to be a consecrated burial site, the Police were called in to investigate. The remains which had been uncovered were sent to the Home Office Northern Forensic Science Laboratory, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Photo: The remains of the skull.

Photocopy of the Home office Forensic Report.

The following details were taken from the Forensic report:

The remains consisted of two human individuals along with the end of a rather large animal long bone and the right mandible of a horse. All the remains appeared to have been located together at a depth of about 6 to 8 feet below the school floor. This depth of soil was all quite black and formed a pattern, which one would expect to find in the “Fens”, rather than in County Durham. This area must therefore at sometime have been frequently flooded by the adjacent River Wear.
Examination of the bones indicated that they were substantially more than 500 years old and probably not older than 1000 years.
This information was then passed to the investigating Detective Constable, suggesting that something like 800 years, about 1100 to 1200 AD would be about right.

Photo: Side view of skull showing areas of bone erosion.

At this point the Detective Constable took up the investigation with the aid of old maps, local historians and the like which provided the following information:

The location of these bones would have been close by or underneath the Deanery which was built in 1286 AD Since it is unlikely that any Dean would permit a burial under or immediately beside his front-door step one can assume that the burial was significantly earlier. The church which is close by is, even so, too far away for us to accept this grave as being part of the official church-yard burial area and it is unlikely that the monks would have knowingly used a disused grave yard as a site for their new Deanery.
The monks having fled from Holy Island had established themselves in this location in 883 under Bishop Eardulph who built a church on the site of the present church as a shrine for St. Cuthbert's body..' In 995 AD Bishop Aldune and the Community fearing Danish invasion, left Chester-le-Street with St, Cuthbert's remains and established themselves at Durham. The church was then left in the charge of one monk. In 1045 Bishop Elgeric of Durham ordered the building of a stone church.

Photo: The lower right Mandible of a horse.

Photo: Showing impact area to rear of skull.

In conclusion:

One noticeable omission from the Forensic Report and the Police investigation, was any comment as to the actual cause of death, which seems a little strange as there is clearly an impact and abrasion area to the rear of the skull, which must be suspected as being the location of the fatal blow.

It would seem that following the discovery of the burial remains and the subsequent Police and Forensic investigation, no-one apparently wished to take responsibility for the cardboard box that retained the human skull and the other box with the collection of various bones. Therefore Mrs. King’s father Tom Dunn, who was a teacher at the Grammar School took it upon himself to store the remains for some 30 years until his death in 1997. Mrs. King has then been the custodian for the last 10 years and now feels that it is time that these bones should be stored in a suitable home – and not in her house!

The Heritage Group has since verified that the remains have been formally registered with the County Archaeology Department and they are now retained in a suitable storage facility at Beamish Museum.

Photo: The box of bones showing hip joints, ribs and sections of backbone etc..

Click on image to enlarge