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The strange fame of Hannah Beswick

An 1850 sketch of the Natural History Museum on Peter Street
The Manchester Mummy was on display in the Natural History Museum

While Hollinwood's huge Hollywood-style sign may grab some fleeting attention, the area's first celebrity had fame that far out-lived her - for the most macabre of reasons.

Hannah Beswick lived a fairly non-descript life at Birchin Bower in late 17th and early 18th century Hollinwood, her family's wealth affording her comforts but little fame to speak of.

That changed when she died in 1758. Like many people in the mid-18th century, Hannah had a fear of being buried alive - though hers may have been well founded, as there are claims that her brother, some years before Hannah's own death, was actually revived after being thought to be dead and placed in his coffin.

Prior to her death, she spoke to her physician, Dr Charles White (who, at the time, was founding the Manchester Royal Infirmary), about her fears and asked him to keep her above ground and check her signs of life periodically after her death.

A will to survive?

Painting of Dr Charles White
Dr Charles White created the Manchester Mummy

Quite what was agreed between the pair is unknown - and no instructions were written into Hannah's will - but sure enough, when she died in February 1758, her body wasn't buried.

Instead, Dr White decided to embalm her - though this may not have been what she wished to happen.

There were rumours that Dr White, known for his keen interest in anatomy, took the opportunity to see a grey area in her wishes and embalm her in order to add her to his personal collection, which already included the skeleton of Thomas Higgins, a notorious highwayman from Knutsford.

Whatever his reason for the mummification, Dr White was under instruction from Hannah to check her body on a daily basis and while he may well have done that begin with, he soon transferred it to the case of an old grandfather clock, which he periodically opened - often simply to show visitors the mummy.

News of the eccentric story had spread through Georgian England, bringing curious guests to Dr White's house to view what had become known as the Manchester Mummy.

Mummy on the move

Visitors continued to arrive for years, so after Dr White left the body to his friend, Dr Ollier, in his will, he decided it needed a proper place to be viewed upon his own death.

Drawing of Owen's College and the Manchester Museum
The mummy came to Owen's College, where it was finally pronounced dead

Dr Ollier's will passed the body to the Manchester Natural History Society, who showed it in the entrance hall, alongside one Egyptian and one Peruvian mummy, of their museum on Peter Street in the city centre.

By the time the Society donated their collections to Owen's College (now the University of Manchester) in 1867, interest in it was finely beginning to wane and it was decided that as Hannah was undoubtedly dead, that the obligation to her last request had long been filled and that she should be buried.

The following year, with the permission of the Bishop of Manchester and an order from the Government, Hannah Beswick finally faced her fear, being buried in Harpurhey Cemetery on Wednesday 22 July 1868.

The burial brought to a close over a century of Hannah's after-life as the much-viewed 'Manchester Mummy' and ended the strange story of Hollinwood's first celebrity.

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