Cunninghame Combination Poorhouse was built between 1857 and 1858, to the north west of the coastal town of Irvine. The significance of the title ‘Combination” was that it took in admissions from ten north Ayrshire parishes and was funded by them. Later, another nine parishes were added, and other parishes, including Arran’s Kilmory and Kilbride, paid to send their paupers there. It was initially designed to accommodate 250 inmates, including ten men and ten women categorised as ‘pauper imbeciles and idiots’. A separate asylum building was later erected adjoining the poorhouse.
Burial practices in the institution were the subject of official censure from the late 19th century. In 1892, the General Superintendent of Poorhouses reported that “paupers dying in this House, whose bodies are not claimed by friends, are buried in an enclosed part of the garden. I am surprised no complaint has arisen with regard to this practice and I am afraid that a great scandal may at any time arise. Protestants and Roman Catholics are buried indiscriminately.” The Governor responded that there had never been any complaints and that the site was walled off from the poorhouse garden.
The burial ground was however a modest 508 square yards and the report went on to state that it had been filled up (“gone over”) twice during the current Governor’s term of office. The 1897 OS map shows a demarcated area to the north of the poorhouse site which, in 1910, is marked ‘Graveyard’. By 1938, the area had expanded to the south west and doubled in size.
Renamed in 1958 as Ravenspark Hospital, the institution continued in use until its closure in 1996. In the early 2000s, the site was sold for redevelopment and the majority of the buildings demolished. During building work in 2012, construction workers unearthed the remains of several dozen people buried in the grounds of the former hospital. These were found outwith the defined boundaries of the burial ground which itself had been left undisturbed by the developers.
At the time of the discovery, a search was carried out for any records to identify the people interred on the site, but nothing was found or believed ever to have existed. Prior to Remembrance Sunday commemorations in October 2013, prayers were said and a piper played a lament as the remains were laid to rest in an adjacent cemetery. They are marked by a new headstone.
A report on the remains was drawn up by the West of Scotland Archaeology Society. It concluded that the discovery was far from the ‘mass burial’ described in the press. “The 4th edition map of 1938 indicates that by this time the graveyard had been extended to the south-west, and it is this area that was affected by development. This suggests that the burials are unlikely to date from before 1910 though they could post-date the 1930s”.
Although I have yet been unable to visit the site, Google Earth reveals that the developer has set aside a rectangular area along the north side of the housing estate. Hopefully, the paupers of Cunninghame Combination Poorhouse will now rest in peace.