The Body in the Ballast Hill

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On 3rd July 1908 a party of workmen engaged in clearing away part of the Ballast Hill at Hebburn came upon a body buried in the sand. The body was wearing clothes suggestive of an earlier age, and it appeared to have suffered a skull fracture. The discovery caused a a lot of excitement among the populace at the time, and a detailed report of the Coroner's inquest was carried in the "Jarrow Guardian" on 10th July 1908. This report gives some interesting insights into the early history of Hebburn, and is reproduced below together with some additional observations of my own.

Human Remains Dug Out of the Hill
"Murder Will Out"
Suppose Crime of Sixty Years Ago

On Friday afternoon while some workmen were engaged in removing sand from the ballast hill in connection with the proposed widening of the road continuing from James Street to the Bill Quay riverside Road, at Hebburn a gruesome discovery was made, and the particulars subsequently brought to light suggest a tragedy in or near Hebburn at some date now distant. The origin of the hill goes back probably for a century. It was erected by a deposit of ballast cargoes1 brought in schooners from the North of Scotland before steam propulsion and water ballast were dreamt of, and tho at present the hill is not a massive one, there was a period when it extended along the riverside from the east of Hebburn Quay to the east of Bill Quay2. In the establishment of the Hebburn shipyards the east end of the hill was cut away, and the west end was cleared when Messrs' Tennant's chemical factory was opened. At the west end of the remains of the hill there is now a roadway leading from the town and to a path by the riverside to Bill Quay.

The end of the ballast hill nearest this roadway, and adjacent to Messrs. Huntley's boatbuilding yard, is now being removed, as stated above, for the purpose of widening the road. The hill has been cut away about fourteen yards from the existing roadway, and at a point about eight feet from the summit of the sloping hill the workmen came across a billycock felt hat, inside of which was a human skull, fleshless but surmounted by a mass of light auburn hair which, it was found, was about six inches in length.

The discovery was scarcely made when Inspector Simpson, of the local police arrived. A hole was dug, going in for about three feet, and a thigh bone, pieces of arms, legs, and other bones were procured together with portions of clothing. The Inspector took possession of the skull, hair, part of the spinal column, a blue flannel shirt sleeve, and a piece of light tweed cloth, as well as two boot soles, and these gruesome objects he removed to the police station. The other bones were re-interred. Dr. D. W. Inglis and Dr. Walker, who examined the skull and other bones, came to the conclusion that they may have been interred for at least fifty years. The skull was evidently that of a big-built man for the jawbone was a massive one, and it was also noted that the teeth were in good condition. In the medical opinion the age of the man when he met his death would be between 25 and 30 years.

The bones and pieces of clothing recovered were in a wonderful state of preservation. So far as it is known there are no records of missing men in the recent history of Hebburn, and, therefore, considering also the place where the bones were found, the accepted opinion was that the bones point to a crime committed many years ago. That foul play was used was concluded from the presence of the right side of the skull of a fracture.

For the last sixty years no gravel has been added to the hill which, forty years ago, was covered with a rich growth of shrubs and herbs of almost every description and which even today is topped by a strong growth of grass. The piece of flannel shirt and of tweed cloth - probably a portion of the trousers worn by the man - suggests that he was a seafarer. Possibly he was the victim of a crime committed on the river, and the body would be brought ashore under cover of the night for burial in the hill, which would suggest a safe way of disposing of it. At this time it is pretty certain that the story of the death and burial of the man will not be told; probably those associated with the crime are all now among the dead, but nevertheless Inspector Simpson put himself into communication with the Coroner with the result shown in the report of the inquest given below.

The discovery created a good deal of interest in the town, and some hundreds of men, women and children visited the hill during the weekend and discussed the possibilities as to how the box and its contents came to be interred there.

Old inhabitants found the hill mystery to be quite "a treasure" for the purpose of weekend gossip, and imagination had free scope in relation to the "find." Inspector Simpson, who acting upon instruction from the Chief Constable of the County, investigated the matter, and went back as far as possible into the history of the town, succeeded in procuring an amount of most interesting stories which prove that at one time there were some queer goings on in the vicinity of the Ballast Hill. The mystery formed quite an engrossing subject, and the skeleton alone was quite uncanny enough to please the sensation seeker, but to these things things were added stories of adventure and of romantic as well as rowdy times. Mr. Simpson, whose instinct in unravelling mysterious affairs has been frequently tested in his long and successful police force career, was happy in tracing among "the oldest inhabitants" Mr. Wm. Huntley, of the boatbuilding yard, who has resided in Hebburn all his life3. Among the matters vouched for by Mr. Huntley were the following details:- Sixty years ago, the district also had two public houses - the Ellison Arms and the Ship Inn4 - and, apart from the stir made occasionally in conflicts between seamen and miners, the district was practically deserted. Along the road from Bill Quay to Hebburn Hall, it was a rare thing for anyone to be seen after nightfall, and the spot seemed to have been an ideal haunt for smugglers. It was a dangerous place at any time, but rendered specially so in darkness because of the adventurous spirits who carried on an illicit traffic. There may yet be traced portions of the caves of these adventurous fellows, situated within twenty yards of the spot where the gruesome find was made. In the prosecution of their task, the smugglers occasionally came into conflict with preventive officers, and on one occasion an officer was almost kicked to death in an encounter of this description. Following upon this, a permanent patrol was provided, so that the daring sons of the sea had to seek other quarters. Accounts are given also of the fights which took place between sailors and pitmen, and it is known that in these far off days at least one man was dropped over the quay into the river, and was never heard of again. He was a sailor and the probabilities are that the friends of the assailants would be more concerned about concealing the guilty ones than would the friends of the Jack Tar in looking after their absent mate.


On Monday morning Mr. John Graham, Coroner, held an enquiry into the affair.

An old man named Robert Gaudie, a labourer, residing in Aln Street, Hebburn, described the finding of the remains in the ballast hill on Friday afternoon. He said that he was digging at the side of the ballast hill when he brought out several pieces of wood. He also got out the felt hat produced, inside of which was a skull. Some young people got hold of the hat and the skull rolled out of it. The Police Inspector then came upon the scene and other bones were found.

Inspector Simpson said that on the 3rd inst. he was in the vicinity of the ballast hill when he saw some children running towards the hill where some men were sifting sand. When the skull and the hat had been got out of the hill, he examined them and found that there was a hole in the skull. He caused the hill to be dug into for a distance of four feet and had removed from the hill several bones and pieces of cloth, as well as the soles of a pair of boots, the leather being French calf. He took possession of such bones as the Coroner might require, and the others he buried on the spot. He had made enquiries, and could find no evidence of anyone having been missed from the district. He had not been able to discover any crime or any incident with which the bones could be associated. There was no doubt the bones had been interred in the hill for at least sixty years.

In answer to Mr Graham witness said the wonderful state of preservation in which he found the bones was probably due to the amount of chalk in the sand.

Wm. Huntley, 106 Cuthbert Street, Hebburn, a boat builder, said he knew the ballast hill for sixty years. He believed it would be 80 years since the deposit of gravel at the hill ceased.

The Coroner suggested that witness should speak only of what he actually knew, whereupon Mr. Huntley said he knew the hill for sixty years, and there had been no ballast tipped there during that time.

In answer to the coroner, witness said the ballast was brought in sailing ships. There was nothing in the way of freight to bring to the Tyne then, and ships came to the river under ballast.

Mr. Graham remarked upon wooden ships being the only ones at that time and Mr. Huntley, laughingly, said "Yes, there was plenty for everybody then."

Witness went on to say that the ballast consisted of gravel, chalk and clay.

Describing the district sixty years ago, Mr. Huntley said there were only 28 families in Hebburn, and the largest part of the district was at the Quay, where there were 12 families. It was a very lonely place then, and it was quite possible for crimes to have been committed, and not to have been discovered. There were only preventive officers then, not proper policemen.

The Coroner: They were only watchmen; old men who wore tall hats and knee breeches and they went into their watch boxes when the weather was bad. They were the source of much entertainment to young men of the time, who delighted to turn the watch boxes upside down. The first policemen also wore tall hats.

Mr. Huntley: The shipwrights used to work in tall hats.

In closing his evidence, Mr. Huntley said the nearest churchyard to Hebburn at the time was the churchyard at Jarrow, which was a long way off.

Dr. Walker said he examined the remains and clothing. The bones, he aid, were those of a male person, of 25 or 30 years of age. The bones were in good preservation. There was a hole in the soft felt hat over the area of the fracture. The depression in the skull might have been due to the weight of the gravel on a decomposed part. In his opinion the remains had been interred for fifty or sixty years. The hair was rather long for a male, but it was the custom years ago to wear the hair longer than at the present time.

The Coroner: Is it not well understood now that hair will grow after death?

Dr. Walker: Slightly.

The Coroner said there would be no advantage in adjourning the enquiry. The remains would be taken care of. It might be possible, when the facts were published thruout the length and breadth of the land that some old person might remember something of a man who was missing. That was, in fact, the principal object of the enquiry, so as to place on record the facts which would form a sort of foundation for any further enquiry afterwards. If it had been a murder, probably the murderer had gone long since, but still they could not pass over the finding of these remains. It was not as tho their had only been a solitary bone found. They had got sufficient evidence to show that a person had probably been put out of the way by foul play, and hidden away secretly5. What had been ascertained might be the means of bringing more light about the body.

The jury found that on 3rd of July the remains of a man, name unknown, were found in the ballast hill buried ten feet from the surface, having evidently been contained in a box. The cause of death was supposed to be fracture of the right side of the skull from violence, but there was no evidence to show how the violence was caused.


1. As indicated in the report, when wooden sailing ships were the only means of transporting goods by sea they were obliged to carry sand or gravel as ballast when travelling without a cargo, otherwise they would ride too high in the water. Ships arriving in the Tyne to pick up cargoes of coal would dump their ballast on a "ballast shore" at the side of the river and would pay port dues based upon the weight of ballast discharged. There is a record of Benjamin Ellison petitioning in 1653 for permission to open a ballast shore at Jarrow. Over the years a number of these ballast shores grew into sizeable hills.
Note: The early pit heaps were also called Ballast Hills.
2. This may have been a bit of poetic licence; the 1862 O.S. map shows no evidence of the ballast deposits having extended this far.
3. A slight exaggeration - he was born in Penshaw in 1842 and did not move to Hebburn until after 1851.
4. Neither of these pubs appear on the 1862 O.S., however it does show a public house named the Hebburn Hall approximately ¼ mile upstream from the foot of present-day Prince Consort Road. The 1851 census lists two innkeepers living at Hebburn Quay, but does not give the names of the inns.
5. The Coroner concluded that the evidence suggested foul play, but he overlooked one possibility - that the burial was an unofficial, but innocent interment of someone who had met with an accidental death. Two pieces of evidence suggest this; firstly, there appears to have been a tradition of burials in or near to ballast bills. Long before the establishment of Burial boards and Public Cemeteries, Newcastle had a cemetery at the confluence of the Ouseburn and the Tyne, on the site of an old ballast hill, and it is still referred to as the Ballast Hill Cemetery. Furthermore, when the Wallsend Pit exploded in 1821, killing 52 miners, it is recorded that some of the victims were buried in the nearby ballast hills. Secondly, the fact that the body appears to have been enclosed in a makeshift coffin makes it less likely that foul play was involved. The victim may simply have been an unfortunate seaman, possibly foreign, who met with a fatal accident and was given the best burial his mates were able to manage.

Patrick Brennan
Rowlands Gill 2006

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