Crash! The church floor gave way and workmen landed on... a coffin

Alterations: Halifax Parish Church, now Halifax Minster
Alterations: Halifax Parish Church, now Halifax Minster

One of the changes involved returning the original church vestry, beneath the eastern end of the church, to its original purpose.

For many years the clergy had robed in a makeshift wooden enclosure in the chancel’s south aisle, from which they had no direct access downstairs. A new staircase was needed to link the two levels and this required considerable structural work, including the removal of a large wooden beam, which spanned the vestry under the window in question.

While taking down this beam the vestry’s flagged floor gave way and two workmen were suddenly thrown into a gaping hole. Picking themselves up they found they had fallen into a small funeral vault, landing on top of a coffin, which, in spite of the impact, remained intact.

Investigation showed that this was the burial place of an 18th-century vicar for 44 years, the Rev George Legh, who died in 1775, and his second and third wives, Frances and Elizabeth.

His will instructed that “a marble monumental inscription be fixed up in the vestry burial place or library in the Parish Church of Halifax, recording the time of my two last wives’ burial there and mine, so as the expence thereof doth not exceed one hundred pounds or thereabouts”.

His burial vault was immediately filled with earth and sealed, the deceased occupants being “left once again in quiet repose”, as the Courier put it. Legh’s monument had by then already been moved upstairs into the church, where it now adorns the north wall of the nave.

Twenty one years after the above event a plan to install an underground safe for the secure keeping of the parish registers and of valuable church plate again required work on the vestry floor.

Once again workmen were excavating when suddenly they broke through into a vault beneath in which were some coffins.

This was at some distance from the work of 1857, involving a completely different vault. It seems that nothing was disturbed and the vault was filled with earth.

This was the vault of another minister’s family. It is recorded that the Rev Edward Nelson, who died in 1791, and his wife, Sarah Tempest, were buried under the vestry also.

Nelson, after whom Nelson Street, formerly on the north side of the church, came to Halifax as curate in 1775, the year of Legh’s death. It is very likely to have been the Nelson family vault which had been accidentally disturbed.

Nearby the 1878 workmen also discovered a tombstone inscribed: “Here lieth the body of John Holdsworth, of Southowram, who was buried November 2 Anno Do 1655. And also here lieth the body of William Holdsworth his son, who was buried the - - day of May 1679.”

Beneath this the men found a stone coffin, probably medieval. It had apparently been reused as it had been designed for one corpse and it contained the remains of two bodies, perhaps those of John Holdsworth and his son William. The stone was replaced and the deceased were once again allowed to rest in peace.

It is interesting to note that an early 17th-century vicar, the Rev Robert Clay, had also been buried in the vestry, in which he had established a library for the safe keeping of the church’s remarkable collection of books.

But before that the room he created had been used as a charnel house for the storage of old bones!

David Glover