Leicester Cathedral dig finds coffin of asylum surgeon

Image: ULAS

Excavations by University of Leicester archaeologists for the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project have uncovered a coffin containing the remains of the surgeon who served as the first medical officer of Leicester’s old County Asylum – the building for which would become the first of the University of Leicester’s campus upon its founding. 

Archaeologists and other experts from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) are leading excavations on the site of the Old Song School, at the eastern end of Leicester Cathedral, which could reveal aspects of Leicester life from the past 1,000 years.

The area within the Cathedral Gardens, previously part of St Martins’ churchyard, is being transformed into a new visitor and learning centre as part of the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, enabled by a £4.5 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Among more than a thousand burials so far revealed by the archaeologists is a lead coffin, recently found in the middle of the excavation area. Excavated by archaeologist Amber Furmage, the coffin was interred in one of the final burial rows in this part of the churchyard; rows which were in use from the late 1820s through to the closure of the cemetery in 1856.

The nameplate reveals that the coffin contain the remains of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson (1796-1846). Amber’s research uncovered that he was a House Surgeon and Apothacary at the Leicester Infirmary and the first resident medical officer of the-then newly opened County Asylum – the building that would one day become the first of the University of Leicester’s campus, today known as the Fielding Johnson Building.


Image: ULAS

Image: ULAS

Highly respected for his ‘diligent and able service’, during his 17 years at the Leicester Infirmary Edward Entwistle Wilkinson expanded the Dispensary, improved the medicinal planting in the hospital’s garden and helped procure an ‘Infirmary Carriage for Accidents’. At the Asylum, his peers praised his talents and conduct and ‘his ability and tenderness in the treatment of patients’. 

Today, the University of Leicester graduates almost 300 doctors every year, with many going on to work at hospitals in the region.

Edward died from typhus fever in July 1846 at only 50 years old. Following his death, a plaque in the Great South Aisle of the Cathedral (then St. Martin’s parish church) was dedicated to Edward Entwistle Wilkinson and his wife, a practice reserved for those who had made a significant impact upon the community. His gravestone also survives, re-erected in Saffron Hill cemetery following a mass clearance of the gravestones from the Cathedral Gardens in the 1980s.

Amber Furmage from University of Leicester Archaeological Services said: “The discovery of a named individual is always exciting due to the amount of information we can track down about their lives, and this has been particularly true in the case of Edward Entwistle Wilkinson. Over his lifetime, he made significant contributions to the development of modern medicine in Leicester, leaving a lasting impact on the city and beyond."

Mathew Morris is a Project Officer at ULAS and leads the excavations. He was also part of the team which unearthed the remains of Richard III in 2012, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral site. He said: “The Leicester Cathedral Revealed project is a unique opportunity to tell the story of Leicester Cathedral, and through it stories about the people of Leicester. Linking one of these people with the early history of the University of Leicester’s campus shows how interconnected our city’s history is. As we continue our research, I’m sure we will have many more fantastic tales to tell and it’s going to be a real pleasure sharing them with everyone.”

In advance of construction of a new visitor and learning centre in the Cathedral Gardens, ULAS experts and colleagues from the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History hope to examine a cross section of the City’s history and learn more about the early foundation of the Cathedral – formerly a Parish Church – on the site.

These archaeological excavations, over three metres below ground level, will allow experts to track the history of this part of Leicester from the Victorian period through Medieval, Saxon, Roman and perhaps even to early Iron Age settlement.

Once the project is completed, the remains will be reinterred with care and sensitivity by Leicester Cathedral.

Image: ULAS