Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Legend of Long Bill Jenkins - William Daniel Jenkins (1767-1798), Nunhead Cemetery

William Jenkins' burial in the bank as recorded in the burial register of St Mary Lothbury.

On the 24th inst. died, at Edinburgh, in the 31st year of his age, Mr. William Jenkins, one of the Tellers in the Bank. His corpse measured seven feet three inches.
Staffordshire Advertiser - Saturday 07 April 1798

Mr. Jenkins the Bank Clerk, remarkable for his height, died last week of a decline, the age of 31.  He was buried very early on Sunday morning, by permission of the Governors of the Bank, in the ground inside of that Building, which formerly was the burial-ground of St. Christopher's church. The outer coffin measured more than 8 feet length. Upwards of 200 guineas had been offered for his corpse by the surgeons.
Hereford Journal - Wednesday 11 April 1798

William Daniel Jenkins is a legend at the Bank of England. We know very little of his life except that he was tall, worked at the bank, apparently died in Edinburgh and was frightened enough of falling into the hands of the anatomists after his death to ask for special permission to be buried in the Garden Court (formerly the churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks) at the bank, where he thought his corpse would rest in relative safety.  Although he was tall for an era when the average male was about 5 foot six, William was no giant. Newspaper stories of him being 7 foot 3 and his coffin being 8 feet long are typical press hyperbole; his true height was probably about 6 foot 7. Comparisons were inevitably made between William and that other elevated individual who was so terrified of falling into the hands of the surgeons that he asked to be buried at sea, Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant. William could never have lit his pipe at the street lamps on the North Bridge in Edinburgh without even standing on tiptoe, as the Irish Giant did, but he must have spent his life equally inconvenienced by low doors and ceilings, small chairs and short beds.  Their difference in stature can be gauged from the price offered for their skeletons by the surgeons, a mere 200 guineas for the bank teller in 1798 whilst John Hunter has paid a £500 bribe to secure the corpse of the Irish Giant in 1783. William’s corpse rested in its lead coffin in Garden Court until the 1930’s when he was unearthed during building works.

William Jenkin's coffin in situ, uncovered during building works at the bank
A GIANT'S COFFIN. It Is suggested by a correspondent of "The Times" that the remarkably large lead coffin found 40 feet below the surface during the recent rebuilding of the Bank of England may that of the giant William Jenkins, who recorded have been 7ft. 6in.in height. He was clerk in the Bank of England. It was the era when surgeons paid high prices for stolen corpses and the relatives, fearing the attentions the body-snatchers, obtained the directors' permission to bury Jenkins In the disused churchyard of St. Christopher-le-Stock, which then served as the Garden Court of the Bank.
Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 10 August 1933


A 1923 Act of Parliament provided that any human remains removed from the former churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stocks should be reburied at Nunhead Cemetery.  The initial plan was to place the outsize lead coffin in the vaults but when it proved to be too large it was removed to the eastern catacombs. The fate that William tried so hard to avoid finally came to pass in the 1970’s when thieves stole the coffin from the abandoned cemetery for its scrap value, and scattered his remains on the floor of the catacombs from where they were presumably cleared up and disposed of, quite where no one knows. Before his removal from Garden Court William’s ghost was said to haunt the Bank of England where he would startle the armed guards at night by rattling their rifles.  Rumour has it that his ghost has also been seen at Nunhead fleeing from the catacombs in the form of a tall (of course) man dressed in black carrying an open ledger; no less a luminary than the chair of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, Ron Woollacott,  tentatively identified the ghost as being that of William Jenkins.