Hull's gruesome trade in human bones – and their macabre afterlife

In an old, overgrown cemetery at the end of Sculcoates Lane rests the body of a veteran of a war long past. William Newmarch devoted 21 years of his life in defence of his country.

His headstone is decorated with a laurel wreath, rifle, bayonet and battle honours. It is a fitting memorial to a man who, when he died aged 83, would have been one of the last surviving veterans of the Napoleonic wars – the great series of conflicts that ended when British and German armies defeated France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

It seems that William was one of the lucky ones, however. For research suggests that his comrades who died on the battlefield were at risk of suffering a far more gruesome afterlife.

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According to a series of newspaper reports published in the decades following the wars, the bones of soldiers and animals killed at Waterloo, in Belgium, and in other great battles on the continent were “harvested” and shipped back to Hull. They were then ground up and used as fertiliser on the fields of Yorkshire.

A report of 1822, published in The Nautical Register and The London Observer, reads: “It is estimated that more than a million bushels of ‘human and inhuman bones’ were imported from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo etc. where the principal battles were for some 15 or 20 years before were swept alike of the bones of the hero and the horse he rode. Thus collected from every quarter they were shipped to Hull.”

Carnage: French cavalrymen charging British troops during the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Around 20,000 are believed to have died, but few remains have been found since the early 19th century.
(Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bone-grinding firms used “steam engines and powerful machinery” to reduce to bones to powder, which was then “sold to the farmers to manure their lands”, the report adds. The bones included phosphate – a valuable fertiliser at the time.

Could this really be true? The story sounds so outlandish that some historians have questioned whether it might be an “urban myth”, or even propaganda spread by Britain’s 19th century rivals. Others are convinced, however.

In 2015, the military historian Gareth Glover told The Independent: “Bone was considered a great fertiliser in the 1830s and 40s, so companies would raid former Napoleonic battlefields to collect the bodies of fallen soldiers and horses which would then be ground down and sold on to farmers.

“Dead bodies weren’t thought of in the same way back then. Unless you were very wealthy, you were thrown in a mass grave and people didn’t think much of it.”

Other 19th century reports, which can be viewed on the British Newspaper Archive, corroborate the claims. In 1890, Bell’s Weekly Messenger said “vast quantities” of bone from the battlefields of Europe were brought to Hull, with one shipment carrying the bones of “no fewer than 30,000 men”. In 1881, The Times said a vessel brought in bones from Bulgaria and among them were “portions of artillery horse gear, Oriental tobacco pipes [and] metal spoons.”

Teeth were also extracted from the dead to be made into dentures that became known as “Waterloo teeth”. The British Dental Association has several surviving sets of these false teeth in its collection.

An excellent article by Joe Turner collates many of these news reports and other evidence for the bone trade. He concludes: “The overwhelming impression from the newspaper articles and agricultural pamphlets was that [the use of human bones] it was humdrum and unremarkable.”

‘Circle of life’

Very few human skeletons have been found on the Waterloo battlefield since the years immediately following the battle, despite an estimated death toll of around 20,000. Last year, experts from the University of Glasgow suggested the bone trade was a credible explanation for why this should be.

Prof Tony Pollard, the lead author of the study, wrote: “It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize. Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.”

While stressing it is not “case closed”, Prof Pollard and his team have been carrying out field studies at Waterloo. Last year, they uncovered “incredibly rare” new human bones and were hoping to map other suspected grave sites in an effort to confirm or disprove their hypothesis.

Another member of the team, Dr Stuart Eve, told The New European: “Of course, now we wouldn’t even think about it, but back then, fertilisers were not chemical. The things we grow, we eat, and the good stuff goes into our bones. It was the circle of life.

“It was well-known in Belgium at the time that mass graves were excavated, in fact there’s a great quote where the British are called the vampires of Europe,” he added. “Theoretically for us, finding a mass grave would be interesting, but finding an empty mass grave … that would be even more so because then we have direct evidence of this stuff actually happening.”