Body snatching and the Royal Hospital burial ground

29th October 2021

To mark Halloween, we’ve been investigating a murky period in the history of the Royal Hospital’s Old Burial Ground. First consecrated in 1691, over 10,00 Chelsea Pensioners, staff and families were laid to rest here before burials ceased in 1854.

Nowadays, the Old Burial Ground is a place for peaceful reflection and remembrance, but it has played a part in a darker period of London’s past.

A craze for cadavers

Resurrectionists 1847 by Hablot Knight Brown from The Chronicles of Crime.png
In the 19th century, advances in the study of anatomy led to a high demand for cadavers for teaching and dissection in medical schools. At the same time, the number of people condemned to death for their crimes decreased. The corpses of criminals that had previously provided a legal way to meet the needs of medical science were no longer sufficient. As a result, enterprising crooks turned their hand to the lucrative crime of body snatching. Punishable only by a fine and imprisonment, rather than execution or transportation, the “Resurrectionists” took to exhuming fresh graves and selling the corpses to anatomists.

The infamous Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh in 1828 raised public awareness of Resurrectionists and a group of body snatchers known as the London Burkers soon became notorious for murdering and stealing corpses to sell to anatomists in the capital’s hospitals.

After the London Burkers were tried and hanged at Newgate Prison the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed, providing a legal supply of corpses for medical education and research.

Grave robbers at the Royal Hospital

Letters between Richard Neave and John Heriot
Letters from the Royal Hospital’s archive demonstrate that the Hospital did not escape this dark period of London’s history. Correspondence from November and December 1830 between the Royal Hospital’s Secretary Richard Neave and Comptroller John Heriot, reports an attempt to steal the recently interred body of a Chelsea Pensioner from the burial ground:

On Friday night an attempt I understand was made to get at the body of one of the Pensioners which had been interred that day, but fortunately without success – a mark was left upon the wall where the body-stealers had come over and the impression of fresh footmarks was visible on the ground inside.

This was not the first time that grisly thefts from the Old Burial Ground had been reported. In 1756, records show that “several of the Dead Bodys of the Pensioners have lately been taken away out of the Burying Ground”. Despite efforts to deter grave robbers by fixing the surrounding wall, the following advertisement issued 32 years later shows that these were unsuccessful:

Whereas two DEAD BODIES have been stolen from the Burying Ground of this HOSPITAL, and for the better discovering of the offenders FIVE GUINEAS will be given by the Treasurer to any person who shall give Information of the Parties concerned in the robbery.

Cemetery Guns

Cemetery guns – also known as spring guns – became a common way to deter Resurrectionists. These weapons were triggered by stepping on a wire running across the ground but, as surgeon Bransby Blake Cooper explained, they were easily outsmarted:

If a Resurrectionist proposed to work where these instruments of danger were used, and when he was not intimate with the grave-digger or watchman, he sent women in the course of the day into the ground, generally at a time when there was a funeral, to note the position of the pegs to which the wires were to be attached. Having obtained this information, the first object of the party at night would be to feel for one of these and having found it, they carefully followed the wire, till they came up to the gun, which was then raised from the surface of the grave mound, (its usual position,) and deposited safely at its foot. I have been told that as many as seven bodies have been taken out of one grave in the course of a night, under these circumstances. The grave being filled up and restored to order, the gun was replaced precisely in the spot it had previously occupied.

Flintlock alarm gun (1800-1899), image courtesy of The Royal Armouries Museum

The Royal Hospital installed spring guns in the burial ground in 1819, but by 1839 they had become “so injured by time and weather as to be rendered unserviceable and require to be replaced by new ones”. However, Neave’s request to install new guns was denied by the Royal Hospital’s Commissioners who ‘having taken the opinion of the Solicitor of the Hospital as to the legality of using Spring Guns in the Burying Ground, directed me to desire that you will cause those now placed there to be removed therefrom, it being their Lordships intention to adopt some other mode of protecting the said ground”.

 

Royal Hospital Chelsea Newsletter

Stay up to date with what's going on at The Royal Hospital by signing up for our e‑newsletter.

News

View the archive

Stirring of the Christmas Pudding Ceremony 2021
Festive fun at the stirring of the Christmas Pudding ceremony

Chelsea Pensioners and staff gathered together in the Great Hall on the last day of November to usher in the start of Advent with the first of the Royal Hospital’s annual Christmas traditions. 

Remembrance 2021
The Chelsea Pensioners remember

After the restrictions last year, the Royal Hospital today commemorated Remembrance with a Drumhead Ceremony on figure court.

Twitter

Follow @RHChelsea