SCHOOLBOY Harley Morgan was keenly digging a vegetable patch in his family’s back garden when he unearthed a surprising discovery.
Right on the spot where the 11-year-old had planned to plant his apple tree, his shovel struck something hard about a foot beneath the ground.
The gravestone dating back almost 125 years was a shock to the youngster and his family — although they were relieved to confirm that it was only the stone buried there.
Harley’s mum Steph Allen said: “We had been planning a vegetable garden for ages. I’ve got an area that’s about 15ft by 8ft at the back of the garden, so I passed Harley a shovel and got him helping out turning it all over.
“He’d done the bottom bit and was working on the middle, where he wanted to plant his apple tree. He dug about a foot down and hit something.
“He came running down the garden with it. At first we were worried there might be a body there.
“Harley said: ‘What have I done? Look what I’ve found. Am I going to be in trouble?’
“We were shocked. At first I said: Come on, let’s just dig a little more. Then I thought no, I daren’t!”
The gravestone was that of Isaac Thackrah, who died aged 54 on May 17, 1898. The poem on the stone talks of a sickness wearing away Isaac’s strength, but adds: “Now I’ve gone to endless rest, where pleasures ne’er decay.”
With Harley’s family living close by St Thomas’ Church in Kilnhurst, that was perhaps the most obvious resting place for Isaac.
But research showed Isaac’s unmarked grave was actually at St Margaret’s in the neighbouring village of Swinton, a mile-and-a-half up the road.
“They got in touch to say a gravestone had been found,” said Fr Chris Barley, of St Margaret’s.
“Once I had the name, I opened the vaults to see where this person had been buried, which could have been Swinton or Kilnhurst.
“Once we knew it was Swinton, we got the ledger out and started looking through. These documents go back to 1800-and-something, and they are all in different shapes and sizes.”
David Butterfield, from funeral directors CT Butterfield’s, joined in the hunt for the exact spot where Isaac was laid to rest, using the grave plan.
Fr Barley said: “It took us a couple of hours each to find the grave. Some are empty spaces, others have no names. You have to find one that’s marked and then count across from there, along the rows.
“It can be a nightmare but it was worth doing because we were able to find the right spot.
“We came and rehallowed the ground. The graveyard is consecrated ground, and a priest would have blessed the grave at the time, but we did it again as part of a short ceremony to mark the stone being put back.
“A strange thing is that there’s no other mention of Isaac’s family name in the churchyard. You can look up some names and see lots of entries.
“It’s something I spend a lot of time doing because people want to find where their relatives are buried, and the stones wear out and off the names go.
“It’s a mystery who this person was, or how the stone came to be found at Kilnhurst, but I’m glad it’s back.
“Every grave here tells a part of the story of Swinton. It’s so many of the people who have been here and made Swinton what it is today, which is a fantastic town with lovely people.”
Ken Wyatt, a local councillor and historian, said very little was known of Isaac or how his headstone came to crop up in a back garden in 2022.
“A few details have come to light of this individual,” said Ken. “We know he lived on White Lee Road, Swinton, and we believe he was a glassblower and lived quite close to Swinton Glassworks.
“It wasn’t a family grave, it was a single burial. There has been a bit of confusion over the name, with the last letter being different in the burial register than on the stone. It ends in H on the stone but Y on the register.
“That’s how we think the gravestone might have come to be discarded or dumped. It appears, from our research, that it is the same person.
“This is also partly because of where it was found. Those houses are much newer than the time Isaac passed.
“But we’ve not been able to tie that down, about how the stone came to be in the garden. That’s the mystery.”
Once the correct plot was found at St Margaret’s, it was marked with a stick to help guide staff from council contractors Mears when they fitted the stone back in its rightful place.
“The family knew they had to do something once it was found, and wanted to make sure they did the right thing,” said Ken. “They didn’t just keep it or use it as a paving slab.
“When I was first contacted, I spoke to the housing officer, saying I had something quite unusual to let them know about. This is not a normal part of the day job.”
Mears employees Martyn Jarvis and Steve Rodgers were contacted by RMBC housing officer Nicola Jarvis to ask if they could collect the gravestone from Kilnhurst and store it.
They arranged to meet the family and collect the stone, which was then cleaned and stored while investigations were conducted to find where it belonged.
The headstone was then reinstated at the head of the previously unmarked grave, and Martyn and Steve were among those who attended a blessing ceremony last Wednesday.
Martyn said: “It was a very unusual and mysterious job... not the usual day to day work. We were happy to support getting the headstone back to its rightful place.”
Ken said: “When I spoke at the service, I was full of praise for Harley. The family were doing something good to start with by planting a vegetable patch, which is a particularly good idea as the cost of food rises.
“And then they did the right thing after finding this. I think they were just glad it was only the gravestone they found, if you know what I mean!
“It was a lovely service, with the vicar blessing the stone, just like what would have happened the first time around.”
Harley, who moves to Swinton Academy from Brookfield Juniors in September, was at the service.
Steph (31) said: “He asked what was going to happen, so I explained and said there would be quite a few important people there, and that the paper would like to take his photo and speak to him.
“He was still a bit shocked by it all but he enjoyed the day — because he was centre of attention.”
Harley said: “I was shocked when I found the gravestone, to be honest.
“It’s not something that you find in the back garden. I ran straight to mum with it over my head. It was kind of heavy. At the service, I had my photo taken.
“We’re going to have broccoli, carrots and all sorts in the veg patch. I’m going to help look after it.”
And the family’s connection with St Margaret’s Church could yet grow stronger... Steph said she now intended to have all her five children christened there.