With special thanks to Glen Perkins, Nick Southall, Rhiannon Davies and Richard Stanton. This eight-part article will be published each day this week. Read part one here. Some may find the content distressing.
Glen Perkins, father of four-and-a-half month old Olivia, was not the only person questioning what was happening at Emstrey Crematorium in Shrewsbury; BBC Radio Shropshire journalist Nick Southall had also begun investigating the matter. He tells me, “It is a story close to my heart. My sister – Marianne – was stillborn in the late 1970s and my parents were never offered a funeral. She was simply taken away. They eventually found she had been buried in an unmarked grave [in the West Midlands]. We always knew it shouldn’t have happened and I realised we couldn’t have been the only family affected by this.” Two years ago, Southall was told about the case of a two-month-old baby whose parents did not receive ashes after the cremation. It prompted him to dig a little deeper.
Southall submitted a Freedom of Information request to Shropshire Council, who owns Emstrey Crematorium. “They confirmed there were other cases… in all there were up to 30 cases over a ten-year period where ashes hadn’t been recovered and returned to parents – that was from [weeks during] the gestation [period] up to one year olds,” explains Southall. “Knowing there was at least a ten-year period where no ashes were returned to parents, I now had to find out if this was normal. I found out it wasn’t, but Shrewsbury wasn’t an isolated case.”
Indeed, in 2012 it was first reported that the council-run Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh had been telling grieving parents for 45 years that there would be no remaining ashes when a baby was cremated. A 2014 report into the tragic scandal found that the crematorium managers had thought giving the parents the ashes would be “too distressing” for them, so staff had instead been burying the baby ashes in secret.
It was to leave the families of more than 250 deceased babies facing a “lifetime of uncertainty.” The 600-page report found that crematorium staff had asked for a baby cremator to be installed, although had been told by the council that it was not financially viable. The inquiry also uncovered that the baby ashes were cremated in the evening at a time when the incinerators were cooler, and then any ash left in the morning was “mixed in with the first adult cremation in the morning.” Finally, it was found that there had been inaccurate record-keeping, meaning no one knew for sure which babies were in the unmarked “garden of remembrance” at the crematorium.
For Southall, this report was to serve as a key foundation for his research into the missing ashes at Emstrey Crematorium in Shropshire. “I had to build up a case to work out why and how this happened. To do this I spent time at South West Middlesex crematorium. They guarantee the return of infant remains. The care and attention that the staff shows there was pleasing to see. They couldn't understand why Shrewsbury wasn't producing any ashes.”
“It was a pretty harrowing experience watching cremations – but it gave me a useful insight into what can and can’t be achieved. Industry experts backed up what I was told by staff in Middlesex. I then managed to locate a former worker from Emstrey crematorium, called Ken West. He operated the machinery there in the 1960s. He said they always guaranteed the recovery of ashes. So at some point this practice changed.”
Southall’s concerns relating to infant cremations at Emstrey became a news bulletin on BBC Radio Shropshire that would be heard in 2014 by Perkins, confirming his worst fears. As he tells me, “We heard about this scandal and thought – goodness me, this is so real. That which we had been believing was starting to become a real-life horror story. We’d had our suspicions until that point.” Perkins phoned Southall to speak about his experience, and the two men would then spend the next 12 months researching, investigating and building a thorough case that would be enough to get the case looked into officially. As Perkins says, “I just wanted to find out what and why.”
To read the full report, click here.
Read part three 'Keeping Hold Of Kate' -->
Words: Grace Carter