Families seek answers over decades-long lost baby burial sites

Merseyside families who had to wait decades to find where their lost babies are buried are hoping to finally get answers about what happened to them.

Before the 1980s, it was common practice that when a woman had a miscarriage or a stillborn child, hospital staff would quickly take the baby away. It was believed at the time that if the mother did not see the baby, she would forget about it.

In Wirral, stillborn babies were taken to cemeteries such as Landican or Frankby and buried in graves containing up to 60 or more children or at the foot of someone being buried that day.

Many of the families were never told where their baby was buried, though some fathers were asked to collect their child in a box from the hospital and take it to the cemetery themselves.

Some families were told the baby was buried at one cemetery but it later turned out they were buried somewhere completely different.

The experience has left some people feeling angry about the way they were treated but also with questions about how the graves were managed.

Burial dates for three large graves where numerous babies were buried at Landican Cemetery show they took place over more than a year. In one of the larger graves, the first individual burial took place on 2 February 1967 but the final and 85th took place on 17 September the following year.

In another, the first burial was on 16 September 1968 and the 62nd burial took place on 12 December 1969. In another, the burial of 73 babies took place over the course of 15 months.

Carol Gell’s son Michael was born in March 1973 and lived for almost two days. She was given two options, for him to be buried in a stranger’s grave or a baby grave, choosing the latter because she found the fact he has been buried with other children “quite reassuring.”

Carol went to visit the grave not long after to find it was covered with a large piece of plywood after being shown by a worker at the cemetery. She didn’t see what was underneath.

Carol said the experience of visiting the grave was “traumatic enough by itself,” adding, “The trauma of losing a child struggling to live, the whole scenario of having a baby and then losing a baby. Even now I find it hard to say I have three children because I’ve had four.”

“The whole scenario of losing a child in those circumstances at that time compared to now is quite insensitive and quite barbaric in some ways, that you were expected to give birth to a child and then forget about it but you can’t.”

Gina Jacobs wasn’t able to find her son Robert for 53 years. Credit: Edward Barnes

The plywood seen over the grave and the number of questions left unanswered made mums like Gina Jacobs worried the graves were kept open between burials, with fears that rain and rats could have got inside.

To address these concerns, Wirral Council which took over the management of Wirral’s cemeteries when it formed in 1973, is urging families to come forward. Meetings will be held individually with worried families.

Gina said an initial discussion with the council had been productive, being told the plywood was likely there because a burial would have been happening that day and the graves were not left open due to burial laws.

However, she said the presence of the plank “will always worry me,” adding, “I definitely want answers. They haven’t been answered yet.

“I do not feel we will ever get to the bottom of it. I feel we will have to accept that because this can’t go on forever. It really can’t. We have had answers but there are still more questions.

“It’s as near to the truth as it will ever be. I will be fine with it and I am hoping we will be a lot more reassured after we have had these meetings.

“It does seem remarkable how they did it. We just want it explained how they did it. I hope they can explain how exactly it was done, how much soil was between one baby and the next? They (the graves) were 10 feet deep. These sort of questions I will give a lot of thought to before we get to the meeting.”

The grave where Gina Jacobs’ son is buried along with 62 other babies. Credit: Edward Barnes

All Gina wants now after more than 50 years looking for Robert is closure and an apology. In 2020, a cross-party group of MPs called for families to get an apology from the government.

Gina said, “I want an apology to our babies for the way they were treated and the way we were treated. Why wouldn’t they let us know? I do think there should be an apology for that.

“It is really important and I think it’s important to a lot of the other mums. I really do. I think it’s what we deserve. We are not out for blood. This isn’t for compensation by any means. We just want closure. We want someone to say it was the wrong thing to do, the wrong thing to do to those dads, those mums. It’s not like we were living in the age of the barbarians.”

Cllr Liz Grey, Chair of the Environment, Climate Emergency and Transport Committee for Wirral Council, said, “The loss of a baby is a tragedy for parents and the trauma of this is now mercifully better understood in hospitals and across other organisations involved in supporting grieving families.

“There have been significant changes nationally – in practice and law – to ensure that those who suffer this tragedy now and in future are supported in the most compassionate and respectful manner.

“We fully appreciate the need for these families to understand more about what happened to their lost babies, but with the passage of time, it can be difficult to provide answers to all the questions they might have.

“However, staff at Landican remain committed to sharing as much information they have, through the records they inherited from when the cemetery was part of the Birkenhead Corporation and from their own knowledge and experience. They really are keen to help and support as much as possible, we would continue to urge these families to talk directly to cemetery staff.”

Wirral Council is currently working on the wording for a memorial stone with the families.

Lead image: Gina Jacobs and family members of those who were unable to find their babies for years. Credit: Edward Barnes

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