THE BODY SNATCHERS OF BARKER GATE

by Joe Earp

With the development of the lace and textile trade in the 1700’s, the population of Nottingham began to increase. This industrial and population growth saw the area around St. Mary’s Church change from a semi-rural setting, – with open spaces and large houses of the gentry, – to the urban landscape we know today.

This expansion brought with it many problems, not least of which was where to bury the dead. The parish church yard rapidly began to run out of space and it was decided new burial grounds were needed. Between 1742 and 1813 three new cemeteries were created on land around Barker Gate.

Known officially as Burial Ground No. 1, – Middle Bury, – the first of these was consecrated in 1742. Burial Ground No. 2, – Top Bury, – was consecrated in 1786, and Burial Ground No. 3, – Bottom Bury, – in 1813.

Alongside the Industrial Revolution, Britain experienced advancement in the Medical Sciences. To fuel this, more Doctors were needed and new medical schools sprang up all over the country, – particularly in London and Edinburgh. However, this brought about an unusual and macabre trade, – that of ‘Body Snatching’.

Graveyards were plundered for the bodies of the recently buried, by individuals known as ‘resurrectionists’ or ‘resurrection men’. The cadavers were then sold to medical schools for the new medics to hone their anatomical and surgical skills.

By 1827, Barker Gate had become a bustling community of close-packed terrace houses, two or more chapels, three public houses, a school and a number of shops and small businesses. Events which happened in Barker Gate that year were to cause great distress to the residents of Nottingham.

In November of 1826, a man called Smith took-up lodgings on Maiden Lane, which ran alongside Middle Bury. On the 18th January the following year, Smith took a large hamper to Pickfords for delivery to an address in London. The book-keeper, Mr White, became suspicious and asked to examine the contents. Smith refused saying that he must first ask his master William Giles, who was waiting with a horse and cart at Bullivants Yard on Leenside.

Smith left the office in great haste, hotly pursued by White and one of Pickford’s porters. In the street, White was quickly joined by Alderman Barber and Constable Jeffries. The four men pursued Smith to his meeting with Giles and before either could mount the cart apprehended them. However both Smith and Giles mange to brake free, – Smith losing his jacket in the process.

The pair burst through a nearby house into an alley and were never seen again. White and his poise returned to the office and opened the suspicious hamper. Inside they found the body of an old women, Dorothy Townsend, – and a three year old boy, – the son of local women Mrs Rose.

Word quickly spread about the incident and St. Mary’s graveyards soon became full of people dig to find if their loved ones were still interred. Constables were called in and the random search ended, but not before discovering 30 bodies had been stolen.

The subsequent enquiry showed that Smith may have been the ringleader and Giles and another man, – who had both been lodging at a pub on Barker Gate, – his accomplices. Together, the three men had regularly taken packages to Derby and Loughborough for dispatch to London.

The gravedigger William Davies, – a.k.a. ‘Old Friday’ – was suspected as being an accomplice, but nothing was ever proven. However Davies narrowly escaped with his life when he was mobbed by crowds in Nottingham and Arnold. History does not record what became of Old Friday, but Mrs Townsend and Master Rose were once again laid to rest.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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