Special Projects Manager.
One morning, in the winter of 1986, the body of a middle-aged man was found on the beach near Whitehaven in Cumbria.
A sad but not necessarily unique occurrence.
The tides in this part of the Irish Sea collude to bring anything that floats to this particular point, and this wasn’t the first time early morning beach combers had the grizzly experience.
In fact, a disused barn on the outskirts of the town had, for years, been used as a place to which the deceased could be taken for examination and storage.
It was known locally as the mortuary.
Here, a Post-mortem examination was carried out as best could be achieved given the condition of the body, and the cause of death confirmed as drowning.
During the examination items were retrieved from the deceased including his shoes and some Irish Currency. But nothing that could identify the man.
Despite local and national enquires, no one came forward to identify the man, and he was eventually taken to Whitehaven Cemetery for burial as ‘Unidentified Male’
Around the same time, in Dublin, two sisters were becoming concerned about their father who, although not an everyday caller, had not been in touch for a couple of weeks.
They had no luck at first in tracking him down, but then they found a copy of a local newspaper with the story of ‘Unidentified Male’ and, even though he liven in Dublin, they were convinced it was their father.
They travelled to Cumbria to meet with the Police, too late for the funeral, but they were able to see some of the items recovered from the body.
Other than the Irish Currency, the item that convinced them that this really was their father was a shoe, which had the laces tied in an unusual manner.
It was just how father had always tied his shoes, and was, they believed, the proof they wanted.
However, the deceased was now buried and would have to be exhumed if the sisters were to have any chance of identifying him.
It was considered unlikely, even when first found, that identification could be successfully completed purely on physical appearance.
But now, a week after burial, it was considered impossible.
The only option would be DNA analysis.
Although now as acceptable as fingerprinting, back in 1986 DNA was not for everyday use.
Indeed, it was not clear if it was even valid within our legal system.
In the past few years there have been a number of ‘cold cases’ solved by analysis of old DNA samples, taken at the time by police who felt there could be future hope for the technology.
The reason these samples have taken so long to be analysed, other than the expansion of testing of anyone arrested, is the clarification that DNA can be used in a court of law.
But in Whitehaven in 1986, this wasn’t a clear option, and worse, an Inquest had been completed in the name of ‘unknown male’, and to re-open an inquest requires a High Court direction.
It just wasn’t going to happen in 1986, and the sisters had to return to Dublin without their father.
On Wednesday 15th July 2020, with Cumbria weather doing what it does best, raining cats and dogs, a team from Rowland Brothers Exhumation Services, led by David Collins, gathered at the grave-side of ‘Unknown Male’ and began a quadruple exhumation.
Since ‘Unknown Male’ had been buried in a Common Grave, (Not owned by a family) other deceased without family or means to pay for a private burial plot, had subsequently been interred.
This meant we had to exhume three other deceased, including two tiny babies, before we could reach our man.
Starting at 5am on what should have been a summers morning, with our gazebo tent dripping at all four corners, we worked our way through the downpour with cemetery staff and Environmental Heathy Officers watching our progress as we carefully removed each deceased and placed them in new coffins.
When we finally reached ‘Unknown Male’, mindful of the possibility of contamination, placed him in a sealed coffin with an airtight zinc lining.
We then returned the three deceased to their previous positions and closed the grave.
The Church of England had been required to issue a Bishops Faculty to allow these exhumations, a rarity in itself, and the Diocesan Registry were most concerned that we should provide respectful coffins for their re-burial.
In fact, given the simplicity of the original ‘Pauper’ coffins, we returned all three to their resting place in coffins far superior to before.
After that, RBE brough the deceased to West Cumberland Hospital where a technician was able to extract a bone sample suitable for testing in the laboratory.
And, with our work done, and the rain still beating down, we headed back to London.
On Monday 27th July 2020 I received the following findings:
I have compared the DNA profile of the deceased male to that of Mary *****, and at each area of DNA tested there is at least one matching DNA component between these DNA profiles.
This is as I would expect to find if the deceased male was the biological father of Mary *****.
In evaluating this finding further, I have considered the following alternative propositions:
- The deceased male is the biological father of Mary *****
- Another man, unrelated to the deceased male, is the biological father of Mary *****
I have calculated that the DNA analysis results are at least 20,000 times more likely to be obtained if the first proposition is correct i.e. if the deceased male is the biological father of Mary *****.
The deceased, now confirmed as the father of Mary and her sister, was still in the mortuary at West Cumberland Hospital, but the Coroner was able to re-open the inquest, provide an Interim Death Certificate & an Out of England Certificate, and a few days later, he was taken to Dublin where a proper funeral was held near the family home that he had left nearly 34 years before.
He is now buried in a cemetery in Dublin, in a family plot near his relatives, but the grave marker no longer reads ‘Unknown Male’