Northern Ireland

Baby found in floorboards gets headstone

Generic picture of headstone Image copyright altrendo images

It was a small bundle wrapped in a faded copy of the London Evening Standard dating back to June 1935.

In 2009, workmen tearing down the ceiling of a derelict house in Portstewart found the parcel which had been hidden more than 70 years earlier.

What they found inside shocked them. It was the skeleton of a newborn baby.

This was a secret, tucked tight beneath the floorboards, and taken by someone to the grave.

It sent detectives on a hunt across the UK to the Home Office, to other police forces and even to a famous chocolate maker, in an effort to find the truth.

Image caption The case took detectives to the chocolate firm Cadbury

'Heartstrings'

Fast forward to Sunday 13 January 2019 and David Howes was taking his dog for a walk through the Flowerfields cemetery in Portstewart.

In among the other gravestones, he spotted a simple wooden cross, surrounded by flowers and a teddy bear.

The dedication read: Unknown child, known only by God.

He remembered the case of the baby's skeleton found in the derelict house.

"It touched me," he told BBC News NI.

"I wanted to know how such a thing could happen. It got me thinking about what this poor woman suffered."

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Mr Holmes reached out on Facebook

Then he headed to Facebook and the Did you grow up in Portstewart? page.

"It tugged on my heartstrings and got me wondering if the good people of Portstewart could get a fund together for a simple headstone to replace the wooden cross," he posted.

The response astonished him.

"I was nearly prepared to pay for it myself but within five days the money - £750 - was there," he said.

In the end, there was no need to pay for a stone, as local undertaker Hugh Wade promised to provide the stone and the engraving for free.

There are plans for a simple service to remember the unknown baby and all the money raised will go to Coleraine's Angel Garden - a space for parents of stillborn children to remember them.

Carbon dating

When the remains were discovered in 2009, detectives set out to find out what had happened.

They were confident the baby had been born and hidden in the house in the 1930s - as well as the London Evening Standard dated 1935, a magazine and a Bournville chocolate wrapper were also found nearby.

The investigation sent police to the confectionery firm because the design on the wrapper provided a date window for when the baby was hidden.

Image caption The London Evening Standard is a daily newspaper and dates back to 1827

The police officer who headed the investigation was Det Insp Sean Fitzpatrick.

The baby was carried to full term, he said, but more than 70 years had passed and the truth about the baby remained a mystery.

"There are so many possibilities - the mother could have been unmarried, the baby could have been the result of an affair, perhaps it was stillborn," he said.

He added: "We approached Bournville about the wrapping, we also searched the census, we tried carbon dating, carried out DNA checks and looked for fingerprints from the paper in which the infant was wrapped."

Officers went door to door but they were unable to identify anyone.

Image copyright David Howes
Image caption A wooden cross marks the grave of the unknown baby found hidden in a derelict house

So much time had passed that those who might have remembered something were very old or had died.

Police were not able to establish an age or sex of the child, or even any indication that the death had been non-suspicious or the result of foul play.

They were unable to recover any DNA that would link the remains to any family.

The carbon dating testing of the bones gave a time span dating 1950 to 1956.

"It was left as an open case," said Det Insp Fitzpatrick. "We do not know who the child is or who he or she belongs to.

"But I remember the funeral in Flowerfields graveyard. The community came along and it was really lovely."

For Mr Howes, the sight of a small cross that tugged at his heartstrings has become something very heartening.

He was amazed at how quickly people wanted to reach out and remember the unknown baby.

For him, it's been a reminder of the kindness of strangers.

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