Tuesday, 23 December 2014

"The Lately Discovered Depredations at Lambeth Burial Ground" - grave robbing south of the river 1794.

A shadow of its former self - Lambeth (or Paradise Row) burial ground in Lambeth High Street

“At a short distance from the church is another burying ground, belonging to the parish; it is divided into the upper, middle, and lower grounds. It is very much crowded, and the tomb-stones are deeply sunk in the earth; the state of the ground has rendered it necessary to discontinue the practice of interment. Bones are scattered about, and a part of the ground has been raised. The neighbourhood is thickly populated; the soil is very moist, and water flows in at the depth of four feet.”
Gatherings from Graveyards, George Alfred Walker (1839)

The Lambeth burial ground, sometimes known as Paradise Row burial ground stands on Lambeth High Street a quarter of a mile away from St Mary’s church. The ground was opened in 1705 as an overspill graveyard, enlarged in 1814 and closed in 1853. It is now a public park with gravestones lined up against the boundary walls. Much of Lambeth was a poor area with a high mortality rate and frequent interments. This made the burial ground a target for resurrection men who supplied the anatomists of Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals with their raw material. On the night of 18 February 1794 several grave robbers were disturbed in their work in the burial ground. They escaped but next morning, according to newspaper reports, “great numbers of the parishioners repaired to the ground, and having learnt that such thefts had often been practised, were so alarmed at the apprehension of their deceased relatives having suffered such a fate that they were determined to dig up their graves, and try whether they were there or not.”       

The Parish Officers did their best to dissuade the crowd from reopening en masse the graves of their relatives but people were determined to discover the truth. Pickaxes, spades and shovels were produced and more than a hundred coffins were summarily exhumed and examined. Only a fraction of the coffins contained corpses – around 10 or 12 according to the newspapers, who added “the whole neighbourhood, during the day, was one scene of anxiety, grief and lamentation.”  The incident was considered so shocking that a few months later a general meeting was held by the representatives of the London Parishes in the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand to consider the “lately discovered Depredations in Lambeth Burial Ground.” The minutebook of St Thomas’ parish in Bermondsey gives a full and detailed account of the meeting:   

" . . . It appeared, that the robberies of the said Burial Grounds, were discovered by three men being disturbed as they were conveying from thence five human bodies in three sacks, in the night of the 18th of February last.

That in consequence of such discovery, people of all descriptions, whose relations had been interred in that Ground, resorted thereto, and demanded to dig for them; which being refused they in great numbers forced their way in, and in spight of every effort the Parish Officers could use, began like mad people to tear up the ground; at the same time, charging the Officers and every one that offered them any opposition, with being privy to the robberies, and in general terms threatening them: thus circumstanced, the Parish Officers finding nothing but down-right force, (and that of more strength than the civil power) could prevent the populace, and fearing to bring on a riot (which in its effects might produce the most serious consequences) after having used every effort, short of force, were necessitated to give way, and let the people go on in their searches; by which a great number of empty coffins were discovered, the corpses having been stolen from them; great distress and agitation of mind was manifest in every one, and some, in a kind of phrensy, ran away with the coffins of their deceased relations; and the generality of the populace were so ripe for mischief, that they attacked a house with stones and brick-bats, upon the bare suspicion that the occupier had been concerned in, or privy to the robbery of the ground, and it was with difficulty they were prevented from demolishing it.

Resurrection men at work - by Phiz

To restore order, and discover the offenders if possible, a large reward was offered, and the committee aforesaid appointed; by whose enquiries, it was found that the Grave Digger, and three other persons were the robbers, and that the bodies had been conveyed away in a coach to different people for various purposes, as was made appear to them by informations upon oath; the material parts of one of which informations being now read, showed, that within the knowledge of the informant, eight surgeons of public repute, and a man who calls himself an Articulator (and by hand-bills openly avows the trade, exclusive of others of less note) are in the constant habit of buying stolen dead bodies, during the winter half year; in whose service the following fifteen persons are generally employed, namely, Samuel Arnot, alias Harding; John Gilmore, Thomas Gilmore, Thomas Pain, Peter McIntire, alias Mc Intosh, James Profit, Jeremiah Keese, Moris Hogarty, White, a man called Long John the Coachman, John Butler, John Howison, Samuel Hatton, John Parker; and Henry Wheeler, whose depredations have extended to thirty Burial Grounds that the informant knows of; and that grave diggers, and those intrusted with the care of Burial Grounds, are frequently accessory to the robberies, and receive five shillings per Corpse for every one, that with their privily is carried off, by which means many hundreds are taken from their grave annually.

That with the Surgeons and with the men above alluded to, there is a set price for dead bodies, Viz. for an Adult, two guineas and a Crown, and for every one under age, six shillings for the first foot, and nine per inch for all it measures more in length; that the bodies thus procured are used here in various ways, and the flesh by some burnt, by others buried, and by others the informant did not know how it was disposed of; that some bodies are prepared and made into Skeletons, and sent to America, and the West Indies; and many with the flesh on, or made into Skeletons, are sent into different parts of the Kingdom.

By another informant upon oath, the whole of which was also now read, it appeared that the aforesaid Articulator, makes the most wanton use of some that fall into his hands, substituting human skulls for nail boxes, and having the Skeleton of a Child, instead of a doll, for his own child to play with.

The Chairman 'also acquainted the meeting, that from other evidence (which though not yet upon Oath yet such as may be relied on) information is given that experiments have been tried and perfected, whereby human flesh has been converted into a substance like Spermaceti, and candles made of it, and that Soap has also been made of the same material."


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

No rest for the wicked; Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) original interment Westminster Abbey, head now buried Sidney Sussex College Chapel, location of body unknown

Cromwell's coffin plate up for grabs at Sothebys.
Oliver Cromwell’s gilt copper coffin plate was sold yesterday at Sotheby’s in London for £74,000. The plate had originally been placed inside the inner lead coffin in which Cromwell was buried, the Order Book of the Privy Council for September 1658 details the arrangement, “his Highness Corps being embalmed, with all due rites appertayneing thereunto, and being wrapped in Lead, There ought to be an Inscripcion in a plate of Gold to be fixed upon his Brest before he be putt into the Coffin. That the Coffin be filled with odours, and spices within, and Covered without with purple Velvett, and handles, Nayles, and all other Iron Worke about it, be richly hatched with Gold."  The plate was removed by James Norfolk, Serjeant of the House of Commons when he supervised the disinterment of Cromwell’s corpse in 1661 for his public ‘posthumous execution’. Norfolk handed over the corpse but kept the coffin plate as a souvenir.

The Protector died on 3 September 1658:

….. about four of the clock in the afternoon.  I am not able to speak or write; this stroke is so sore, so unexpected, the providence of God in it so stupendous, considering the person that is fallen … I can do nothing but put my mouth in the dust, and say, It is the Lord; and though his ways be not always known, yet they are always righteous, and we must submit to his will.
John Thurloe to Henry Cromwell on the death of his father

Cromwell’s death may have come as a shock to those closest to him but they should not have been surprised.  He had been ailing for some time, suffering from tertian ague (probably some form of malaria) and the grief of losing his favourite daughter to cancer on 6 August. On August 17 he was seen out riding by the Quaker George Fox who later commented “I saw and felt a waft of death go forth against him.” By September 3 he was dead. The Lord Protector had refused the crown when it had been offered to him but in death he was treated like Royalty. The Venetian envoy reported that “at Whitehall they are now preparing for the funeral of the late Protector, which will take place with extraordinary pomp and magnificence…”

Cromwell lying in state at Somerset House
The funeral arrangements were, ironically, modelled on those of James 1. The body was embalmed and then taken to lie in state in Somerset House where thousands of silent, solemn citizens filed past the elaborate catafalque. The funeral procession took place on 23 November, a wooden effigy standing in for Cromwell who, despite the embalming, had started to decompose and been buried in Westminster Abbey 13 days before in a private ceremony.  The cortege was headed by a carriage adorned with plumes and escutcheons and drawn by six horses draped in black velvet. Soldiers dressed in new red coats with black buttons lined the route and only ticket holders were allowed anywhere near the procession which took seven hours to travel little more than a mile. Anyone who was anyone in the protectorate followed the hearse, down to the Protectors household servants. After a ceremony in the Abbey the catafalque and effigy stood on public view for many weeks.

The ostentation of the funeral provoked mixed reactions. John Evelyn reported that it was “it was the joyfullest funeral that ever I saw, for there was none that Cried, but dogs, which the soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking & taking tobacco in the streets as they went”. Cromwell was succeeded as Protector by his son Richard but the regime lasted less than a year and by 1660 the English had invited Charles II to become their king. One of the first royal acts was to order the trial of 12 surviving regicides who were convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered as traitors. Newly Royalist Parliament also ordered the posthumous execution of three deceased regicides Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton. Cromwell’s remains were removed from the middle wall of the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey and taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn, where he was joined by Ireton and Bradshaw. On the morning of January 30 1661, the anniversary of the execution of Charles the First, the three corpses, in open coffins, were taken to Tyburn where they were hung in public view until the late afternoon. As the light began to fade the bodies were taken down and beheaded – it took eight blows to separate Cromwell’s head from his body. The bodies were thrown into a pit at Tyburn and the heads impaled on spikes on twenty foot poles and raised above Westminster Hall. There the heads remained until the late 1680’s.

The 'Wilkinson' head photographed in the late Fifties

Cromwell’s head went missing in around 1688 when a storm snapped the pole on which it was impaled and the head fell into the grounds of Westminster Hall. A sentry found it and hid it in the chimney of his house, ignoring the considerable reward that was offered for its return. No one knows what happened to the head after this until it reappeared in 1710 in the Cabinet of Curiosities owned by Claudius Du Puy who put it on public display. Du Puy boasted to a German visitor that he could get 60 guineas for the head if he wished to sell it. On Du Puy’s death in 1738 the head passed through various hands; a failed comic actor named Samuel Russell used to produce the head and pass it around at drunken revels, the clumsy hands of the carousers causing “irreparable erosion of its features”. The Hughes Brothers put it on public display in Bond Street and charged two shillings and sixpence to see it but the venture was a failure as many potential customers simply did not believe that it was the head of Cromwell.     

One of the ferocious head hunters
of Sidney Sussex College
In 1815 one of the Hughes’ descendants sold the head to Josiah Henry Wilkinson who astonished the novelist Maria Edgeworth by producing it one morning at breakfast “not his picture—not his bust—nothing of stone or marble or plaster of Paris, but his real head”. On the other hand Thomas Carlyle point blank refused to see it or to believe that the head could be Cromwell’s “it has hair, flesh and beard, a written history bearing that it was procured for £100 (I think of bad debt) about 50 years ago...the whole affair appears to be fraudulent moonshine, an element not pleasant even to glance into, especially in a case like Oliver's.” There were other candidates to be the authentic head of Cromwell – a skull in the Ashmolean museum in particular made strong claims to the one and only genuine article. The distinguished physician George Rolleston examined both heads and thought that the Ashmolean skull was a fake, a verdict concurred with by later investigators who pointed out that it had been pierced from the top, not the bottom, and that there were no vestiges of skin, flash or hair as would be expected from an embalmed head. In 1960 a descendent of Wilkinson’s presented the head to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge where Cromwell had been a student. On March 25 1960 the head was finally reburied in the college chapel inside an airtight container with just a few witnesses. The burial was only made public in October 1962 and a plaque now marks the approximate spot, the exact location remaining a closely guarded secret.