Body Snatchers in London’s New Churchyard: New Discoveries from Crossrail Project

The Crossrail project, one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken in the UK, has given us a unique insight into some of London’s most significant sites. Excavations during the construction of the new Elizabeth line station have revealed rare evidence into the fears of Londoners in the 18th Century, which will soon be published in ‘The New Churchyard: From Moorfields Marsh to Bethlem Burial Ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street’.

Ambrose Bierce once described a bodysnatcher as “one who supplies the young physicians with that which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a demand for cadavers which far outstripped supply, and as such, grave robbing and bodysnatching became a problem which left people in fear of what might happen to their bodies once they’d been respectably buried. The New Churchyard, the site of which was excavated by MOLA archaeologists during the Crossrail project, certainly suffered from this problem. In 1717, Joseph Bowen was prosecuted for stealing a body from the churchyard, and attempting to sell it on for dissection.

But while documentary evidence for this practice is fairly plentiful, archaeological evidence is fairly rare. While excavating at the New Churchyard site, archaeologists uncovered a sand-filled coffin topped with heavy stones – preventative measures taken to thwart bodysnatchers and to try and ensure that the deceased, once buried, remained buried.

Sand and stone covered burial. © Crossrail

Robert Hartle, MOLA archaeologist, said: “We realised immediately this burial was something highly unusual. Archaeological evidence associated with bodysnatching is extremely rare. Our subsequent historical research has exposed a truly fascinating and illicit side to this burial ground.”

This burial, which dating evidence suggests occured between 1720 and 1739, is unusual evidence of the ways in which Londoners managed their fear of bodysnatching. Since they couldn’t necessarily depend on the deterrent of the law – interfering with a corpse was a misdemeanour rather than a felony, and so the punishment was a fine and imprisonment rather than death or transportation – it seems that people came up with their own ways of defending against the intrusion. Later, in the 1800s, the ‘mortsafe’ was invented – a cage of iron bars which prevented digging into the graves. It seems that earlier, it was hoped that the heavy weight of sand and stones might provide enough of a challenge to discourage body snatchers.

Interestingly, the associated crime of grave robbing – removing personal items or valuable that had been buried with an individual – was a felony, and so carried a much higher penalty than removing the body itself.

At the New Churchyard, the Clitherow family were keepers of the burial ground from 1639-1740. Although there is no clear evidence that they were complicit in the practice of bodysnatching, they did run various moneymaking schemes. They overcharged for burial, they allowed locals to dry cloth in the burial ground, and they disturbed burials for the construction of their own house and outbuilding.

Examples of worked bone discovered at Crossrail site © Crossrail

Archaeologists also discovered evidence of over 4,000 pieces of bone-turning waste, presumably from the family’s second vocation as turners, working bone and ivory to create various small household items like needle cases, parts for small novelty telescopes and fittings for furniture. The Clitherows may have been fly-tipping in the burial ground, or perhaps even providing a waste disposal service for the neighbourhood.

These important discoveries, along with further finds which highlight the histories of religious and political dissenters buried in the New Churchyard, including Lodowicke Muggleton, a self-proclaimed prophet and founder of ‘Muggletonianism, as well as Levellers and Quakers, will be published in the upcoming book ‘The New Churchyard: From Moorfields Marsh to Bethlem Burial Ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street’ later this year. The book will be available from Oxbow Books.

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