The sight of fifteen hundred skulls is not one to forget in a hurry but as the oak door of the Bonehouse swings back and the overhead light flickers into life, anxiety gives way to astonishment. *WARNING SHOWS PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN WITHIN A CRYPT*

The sight of fifteen hundred skulls is not one to forget in a hurry but as the oak door of the Bonehouse swings back and the overhead light flickers into life, anxiety gives way to astonishment.  Arching shelves on either side of the doorway stretch as high as the ceiling and hold line upon line of time-whitened skulls, their black empty sockets staring vacuously as you adjust to the scene. 

But what initially draws your attention is the 1.8m by 1.8m bank of bones that sits directly in front of you and stretches back as far as the eye can see.  Unprotected and artfully interspersed with skulls, these remains were carefully rearranged in 1908 and, whilst knowing they were once living beings, the view is not macabre.  The grouping of the bones makes it far easier to digest and the reality is compelling, fascinating even.  Who were they and why are they here? 

There have been a few theories as to who these bones belong to, for example, the unfortunate casualties of a great battle or sufferers of the Black Death.  The lack of visible wounding and proportion of women and children dismisses the first and, as historians believe victims of the plague were hastily disposed of in quicklime, that theory is also unlikely to be true.  One suggestion that seems far more probable is that they are the remains of local people disinterred during the 13th century when the Chancel was built in part of the existing graveyard.  It is also thought that the collection may have been added to as and when other graves were disturbed or local churches fell into disrepair. 

Sometimes known as the ‘crypt’, although it is not actually beneath the church, the Bonehouse, or ossuary, holds the largest and best preserved collection of bones in England and gathers worldwide interest.  An independent group of volunteer forensic scientists, the St. Leonard’s Osteological Research Group (ORG), are currently profiling the skulls and centuries of earth and dirt have carefully been removed in order to record their characteristics.  Twenty nine measurements are taken during the process and the state of the teeth and the presence of any disease, such as cribra orbitalia (a symptom of dietary deficiency which leaves delicate pin pricks within the eye socket), is noted.  A couple of partially-healed head wounds have been documented too. 

But it’s not only academic interest that these remains attract and the Bonehouse was once a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to St. Thomas á½± Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.  Its enduring reputation also resulted in it being part of the American equivalent of a ‘Grand tour’ and a photo found in a New York antiquarian book shop shows gentlemen in top hats and a lady dressed in crinolines visiting ‘ancestral skulls’ in the ossuary in 1859.   

A current concern of the St. Leonard’s Osteological Research Group is to ensure the collection’s safe keeping whilst protecting it from damp.  A lower part of the collection is becoming discoloured and it’s believed the weight of the grouping is causing the pile to shift and sag.  Expert advice is now being sought and one suggestion is to methodically, and respectfully, take the collection apart in order to install a better aeration system and, although this would be a mammoth task, it might be the only way to preserve the serenity of the collection for the centuries to come. 

Contact details:

The Bonehouse is open to visitors from 1 May to 30 September, Monday to Saturday and on Sunday afternoons from 10.30am – 12 noon and 2.30pm -4pm.  Alternatively, visits may be arranged at other times by contacting the Parish Office on 01303 262370.

Visitors are asked for a £1 donation towards the upkeep of the church. 

St. Leonard’s Church is located on Oak Walk, Hythe, Kent CT21 5DN and further details can be found at www. stleonardschurchhythekent.org

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to Brin Hughes, a Churchwarden at St. Leonards in Hythe, for sharing his time and expertise and for allowing me to display images from the church archives.