An ordinary looking grave in the churchyard around St. George’s Church, Tyldesley holds an extraordinary secret. Richard Halliwell enjoyed his job, it was his passion. Perhaps we’re all guilty of taking our work home with us sometimes, and certainly those who work from home find it hard to escape it. However, how many literally take their work to the grave with them?

Mr Richard Halliwell (1790-1859)

On 14th July 1859, 69 year old Richard Halliwell died at his home on Elliott Street in Tyldesley. He had never married and had no children, so it was up to his niece to sort through his personal possessions. He must’ve been close with his family. His brother, James and sister-in-law, Jane lived on Lemon Street and then on Upper George Street, just round the corner from him. They had four daughters; Margaret, Elizabeth, Jane, and Hannah. James Halliwell was the schoolmaster, but his untimely death in 1833 reduced the family’s circumstances, and Jane and her daughters sought work in local cotton mills. It is possible that Richard took an active role in his nieces’ lives, and he may have acted as a father figure to Hannah, who was just three years old when her father passed away.

Above: The grave of Richard Halliwell in the graveyard of St. George’s Church, Tyldesley (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2022)

At the time of his death, Richard had lived in Tyldesley for many decades. He was born in nearby Atherton, the son of Roger and Margaret Halliwell. His father was a trader and farmer, and he died when Richard was 23 years old. Richard had moved to Tyldesley by the 1830s. Perhaps he shared the same sentiment as his neighbour, Dr William Manley who described Tyldesley in 1825 as a “straggling, rude village, possessing few attractions and little promise of success for a professional beginner” (you can read more about Manley here). However, Richard did embark on his professional life in Tyldesley. He was a dentist. From at least 1834 he lived on Well Street where he had a house and garden, as well a shop in which he could examine the teeth of Tyldesley’s residents. By 1838 he had moved to Elliott Street, where he continued to work as a dentist, and he made his own tools, supposedly being able to remove teeth ‘with the least possible pain’. He retired from dentistry in the mid-1840s but he continued to dabble in making machinery. He was working as a picker maker in the 1851, pickers were essential to the infrastructure of the mills in Tyldesley as they were leather attachments fitted to both sides of a weaving loom, used to drive the shuttle across.

It was probably Hannah who sorted through her uncle’s house. When Hannah discovered the contents of her uncle’s will, I wonder whether she would have been horrified or amused? For in the document, Richard Halliwell had stated what his burial arrangements were to be. He had purchased a plot in the north-east corner of the burial ground and he wanted a flat ledger stone to mark his grave. So far, entirely normal. Then he added that he wanted to be buried with all the teeth he had ever extracted over his 50 year long career. All 30,000 of them.

Above: Richard Halliwell lived on this part of Elliott Street between 1838-1859. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2022)

Victorian Toothache

In deference to Richard’s wishes, the executors of his will permitted him to be buried with the 30,000 teeth, which weighed some 64lbs (29kg or 4.5 stone). The peculiarity of his wishes caught the attention of the press and the story was reported in The Leigh Chronicle, and from there it was picked up by other regional newspapers as a short few lines of interest.

It was noted that Richard was an eccentric man, and so perhaps it did not come as a surprise to his niece that he wanted to buried with all the teeth. Surely Hannah would have seen the boxes and boxes of them in her uncle’s home over the years? Indeed Hannah probably wasn’t too perturbed by the odd burial, as her husband, William Cooke was interred in the same grave in 1878, and Hannah herself was later buried there in 1911. There is no indication on the gravestone of its unusual contents.

Above: ‘The Country Tooth Drawer’ – A satirical cartoon from the late-eighteenth century which I’m sure still resonates with many who visit the dentist today! (Source: Credit: The country tooth drawer. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Dentistry was not a regulated profession until the 1878 Dentistry Act, which introduced a voluntary register of dentists under the General Medical Council. This was not made compulsory until 1921, a whole century after Richard was practising, so it is possible that his title of ‘dentist’ was self-imposed!

It might sound crazy that he had 30,000 teeth but when we consider that he worked as a dentist for around 50 years and that the adult human has 32 teeth (of which 4 are wisdom teeth) and children have 20 baby teeth, then we can see how it all adds up. Plus, dental hygiene in the early-nineteenth century was appalling, so its likely much of the ‘dentistry’ that Richard did was to remove teeth. For those who could not afford dentist’s fees, Mrs Beeton’s advice in her heavily plagiarised tome was to take a piece of zinc and a piece of silver (a shilling would do) and ‘hold the defective tooth between them or contiguous to them; in a few minutes the pain will be gone, as if by magic…or smoke a pipe of tobacco and caraway-seeds.’

Why did Richard hoard teeth? There could be many reasons why. Perhaps it started out as a practicality. He would’ve faced a lot of cases in which he would have to take all the teeth from a patient’s mouth, most likely due to disease and damage, but there are also cases of the extremely poor selling their teeth for money. Therefore, he likely always kept some of the good teeth ‘in stock’, especially if he made dentures for his wealthier clients. Real human teeth looked more realistic and were easier to use than dentures made of ivory. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), when Richard was starting his business, teeth were harvested from the mouths of dead soldiers on the battlefields and shipped back to Britain to be made into dentures. They became known as ‘Waterloo teeth’.

Other than that, Richard may have kept the teeth because he found them interesting. An interest that soon turned into an obsession. He clearly he had developed a strong emotional attachment to them, enough to want to add it into his will, a legally binding document, that he wanted to be buried with them. He would’ve known this would have presented a moral dilemma for his executors if they refused to honour his wishes.

Above: The gravestone of Richard Halliwell, his niece Hannah Cooke (nee Halliwell) and her husband, William Cooke. The inscription reads: Sacred to the memory of Richard Halliwell of Tyldesley who died July 14th 1859 aged 69 years, Also in living memory of William Cooke of Boothstown who departed this life June 29th 1878 aged 50 years, boast not thyself of tomorrow for thou knowest not what day may bring forth, Also Hannah, wife of the above William Cooke who died December 6th 1911 aged 81 years. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2022)

What was passed off as an eccentricity at the time, we now understand that there is a difference between ‘collecting’ and ‘hoarding’, the latter is a physical symptom of a mental condition. There are various different levels of hoarding and according to the NHS hoarding can start for several reasons: as a result of mental health problems such depression, psychotic disorders, OCD, and they can also arise from the loss of a loved one, or another traumatic incident, or even having faced poverty and extreme conditions. Whilst we do not known enough about the life of Richard Halliwell to attribute one of these factors, and I do not wish to attempt to retrospectively diagnose him, the NHS does state that those most likely to hoard are those, like Richard, who live alone and are unmarried.

Whatever the reason was that Richard kept his thousands of teeth, I actually think it is rather nice that the executors of his will, his family and the vicar allowed him to be buried with them. It also means that Richard’s life is not readily forgotten either. On a rather macabre note, teeth last a remarkably long time in the ground, some last tens of thousands of years. Imagine the look on someone’s face, many centuries or millennia from now, if they ever open the grave of Richard Halliwell!

Researched and Written by Dr Thomas McGrath

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