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Look back: Three brothers trapped beneath Little Horton church

FEBRUARY 4, 1871 was just another Saturday afternoon for the Lumb family of Little Horton. By evening, an appalling tragedy had changed their lives forever.

Mark Nicholson in the vault at All Saints Church, Little Horton

The Lumb family grave has been nestled in a corner of mighty Undercliffe Cemetery, barely visible beneath overgrowth, for more than 150 years. Like many Victorian graves in the vast cemetery, the names and ages on the inscription hint at a sad story. Now local historians Riaz Ahmed and Mark Nicholson have produced a poignant film about the family tragedy. (Link at end of article)

“The story begins in Little Horton, where Jabez Lumb and his wife Martha lived with their six children,” says Mark, who narrates the ‘Three Brothers’ film.

Jabez’s job was to look after All Saints Church and the adjoining school and make sure the buildings were kept warm in winter. In those pre-central heating days, the heat came from a furnace. It was a foggy afternoon on Saturday, February 4, 1871, Jabez was unable to heat the church because he’d been confined to his bed for two weeks with bronchitis so he sent eldest son James, 15, to do it. At about 4pm James went to the church and lit the furnace, then visited a friend on Holme Top Lane.

“At about 7pm, he hadn’t come home so Martha sent the second eldest son, Charles, 13, to check on the fire,” says Mark. “Charles took two of his younger brothers: John, eight, and Fred, five.”

Mark outside All Saints Church

The boys went to the school to check on the heating. All was fine. They then went to the church, which was heated via hot air coming up through grills in the floor. The furnaces were in the vault beneath the vestry. The brothers went into the vault and, says Mark, what happened next is a bit of a mystery. “What we do know is that the three brothers were overcome by sulphurous fumes.”

Concerned that they hadn’t returned, Martha left the house to look for her boys. She found the church door shut and went to Holme Top Lane to let James know the children were missing. James went to the vault, and as he tried to open the large heavy door there was something wedged behind it. It was, he discovered to his horror, the body of one of his brothers. One of the furnaces had gone out, producing the sulphorous fumes. In the light of the other furnace, James saw the bodies of his other two brothers. Distraught, he ran to his mother and told her he thought they’d been murdered.

The bodies were carried across the road to the workhouse, now St Luke’s Hospital. An inquest held at the nearby Red Lion pub found that the boys had died of accidental suffocation, and recommended that the door be replaced by an iron gate. The film reveals that the original door is still there.

On March 17 a concert was held in the school building for Martha, now a widow, and her remaining children.

The film moves on to Undercliffe Cemetery, where Mark and Riaz are at the Lumb family plot. Cemetery volunteers Tim Hardy and Chris Lawson helped them locate the grave.

The Lumb family grave at Undercliffe Cemetery

The inscription says ‘The above brothers lost their lives by suffocation in the heating vaults of All Saints Church, February 4 1871’ and bears the names of Charles, John and Fred, and their father, Jabez, who died 10 days after his children. Jabez had already been ill with bronchitis and, as Mark says in the film, a broken heart at the death of his young sons may have worsened his health. Also named on the grave is Martha, who died aged 57 in 1893.

The film is from Bradford Through the Lens, a YouTube channel exploring the district’s social history and heritage. It was set up by Riaz, a historian and photographer, who started filming hidden and unusual spaces and places in Bradford during the pandemic, while he walked around the city for exercise.

His films, he says, give the impression of “walking with a friend and discovering places together”. While Riaz focuses on the filming and editing, his friend Imtiaz Sabir does much of the research.

Another film they have recently released has the intriguing title Where did the Bodies of the Old Bell Chapel Go?

Historian Andrew Bolt joins Riaz in Great Horton, where the dilapidated chapel stands, with a car park where the cemetery used to be. Andrew says he has not come across any newspaper reports or other records that the site has been excavated, or the bodies moved. Around the site is a wall made from gravestones bearing inscriptions. “All these people - where are they?” says Andrew.

Gravestones at the chapel site

The chapel, built in 1806, was once a grand building. Today there are broken windows and the bell tower is no longer in place. A fenced off area nearby is used as a dumping ground for rubbish. A plaque says the building was repaired in 1873 by the Rev JC Boddington.

The old Bell Chapel in Great Horton

Andrew reveals an old drawing of the chapel, and the parsonage across the road, which is still standing. In the drawing are stocks in the old yard. “The Constable of Horton used to put ‘noted characters’ into it for drunk and disorderly conduct,” says Andrew. “The big question mark is: Is the graveyard still populated? If anyone knows anything, we’d be very interested to know.”

Riaz Ahmed and Mark Nicholson have produced a poignant film about the family tragedy

* Email Riaz at

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