Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Carry him off in a patent coffin: body snatching in the eighteenth century

Occasionally Dan turned the pages of his newspaper. Someone was advertising a new design of coffin, secure enough to keep out body snatchers. Good luck with that, he thought.

The Butcher’s Block: A Dan Foster Mystery

I recently spent an afternoon in Frenchay, near Bristol, visiting the Frenchay Unitarian Chapel. The Chapel dates from the seventeenth century and has several interesting features. These include a door said to have been specially designed to allow women wearing crinolines under their skirts to enter the building, and a weathervane which is thought to commemorate the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1759.  

Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
I’d gone in search of something more prosaic: the Body Snatchers' Stone. In the forthcoming Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, Dan is drawn into the grisly world of body snatching, which quickly leads him into a much bigger and more dangerous criminal conspiracy. Body snatching was a common crime in the eighteenth century, as the demand for human bodies for medical training increased. Teaching hospitals and private medical schools were prepared to pay for cadavers for dissection by their students, and no questions asked about where the bodies came from.

The bodies were disinterred from graveyards, especially the graves of poor people who could not afford good-quality coffins and might in addition be buried in shallow mass graves. These were often left open until they were full, making them easy for grave robbers to access. Workhouses were another source of corpses. There were even cases where body snatchers broke into houses and took a body before it had been buried. Grave-robbing gangs might have an elaborate system of spies who kept their ears open for news of a recent death, or hung around graveyards to watch funerals. They might bribe sextons and night watchmen to gain access to the graves. The corpses of poor patients who died in hospital might also end up on the dissection slab, whether or not they had willed it or their relatives consented to it.

The Graveyard, Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
Body snatching was a crime that filled most people with horror. In Bristol in 1761 a collier’s son was dissected in the Infirmary. When his father opened the coffin and discovered that his son’s head was missing he went to the surgeon’s home and threatened him until the head was restored. In Carlisle friends of a man who had been hanged and dissected shot one of the doctors involved. In Cambridge in 1830 two arrested body snatchers were attacked by a furious mob while being escorted to prison.

Those who could afford it took steps to protect their corpses. Patent coffins, such as the ones Dan reads about, were available to those who had the money. They might be lined with lead and boast a system of locks and bars designed to baffle the would-be grave robber, or have no external hinges or screws. Some were wrapped in chains or iron bands, or consisted of double or triple shells around a lead interior.

Cheaper ploys included covering the body in quick lime to hasten decay and render it unusable. Many graveyards hired night watchmen to guard the burial grounds. In The Butcher’s Block Dan sees such a watchman dozing in his sentry box at a church in Southwark.

The mort safe was a Scottish invention. It consisted of an iron cage which was placed around the freshly occupied grave and left for several weeks. By then the corpse would have decayed beyond the point at which it was useful to the surgeons, and the cage would be removed and hired out to another grave. Another popular method in Scotland was to lock corpses in stone burial vaults and bury them after some weeks had passed. Elsewhere, cruder methods included placing mantraps in graveyards. One man even put a mine in his daughter’s grave.

Is this the Body Snatchers' Stone?
 Another deterrent was a body snatcher’s stone, a great stone slab which was winched into place on top of a fresh grave and left for several weeks. The Body Snatchers' Stone in Frenchay is such a device. I had read a description of it: a pennant stone slab with no markings, so I went to see if could find it. I did find a stone slab marked only with lines that did not look as if they had ever been lettering. Is this the Body Snatchers’ Stone? If not, where is it? If anyone can tell me, I’d love to hear from you! 

Close up of the stone
Incidentally, the title of this piece is taken from Southey’s poem The Surgeon’s Warning. A surgeon who has dissected many stolen cadavers begs his friends to make sure that when he is buried, grave robbers cannot steal his corpse for the same treatment. He directs that he is to be interred in a patent coffin lined with lead and soldered shut, and he leaves money to pay for night watchmen who will be paid an extra reward if they shoot a “resurrection man”, as grave robbers were known. Read the poem to find out if his elaborate precautions save him from the poetic justice he so richly deserves!

The next Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, will be published in June (paperback and ebook).

And look out for the Dan Foster ebook novella, The Fatal Coin, which will be published in May. 

Source: British Library Free Images on Flickr

Friday, April 28, 2017

Silver Sound 28 April 2017: Books, Books and More Books

“I do believe that something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” 
J K Rowling

Today’s show was inspired by World Book Night which was on 23 April 2017. World Book Night is a national celebration of reading and books. Books are given out throughout the UK with a focus on reaching those who don’t regularly read.

Our guests were Helen Hart, Publishing Director of Silverwood Books in Bristol which offers assisted publishing services for self published authors who wish to publish to a professional standard. Helen has also recently set up the SBooks imprint, which commissions short fiction from authors.

Also in the studio was Vicky Hough of the Reader Engagement Team, Bristol Libraries. Vicky told us about all the amazing things Bristol Libraries are doing to help people to get the most out of reading. These include a Harry Potter night, and the Summer Reading Challenge for children, who are encouraged to read and review six books over the holiday.

18th Century Reading Technology - a Reading Chair
A recent initiative is the shared reading projects run by the charitable social enterprise The Reader, which aims to bring groups of people together for weekly reading groups. Groups will be set up in libraries across Bristol, particularly Southmead, Filwood, and St Pauls or Hillfields Libraries. Reading groups are a great way to socialise with other people – and reading is good for your mental health and well being too! Volunteers are sought to help run the groups. To find out more follow the link below.

We considered questions such as: why read? What are the benefits of reading? And with so many other forms of entertainment and information to choose from – TV, internet, radio – why choose books?

We also talked about books that had changed our lives or had a huge influence on us – Vicky mentioned Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and Helen The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters, which she is currently reading. We also made a confession about our “great unread” books – the books you’ve always been meaning to read but never have. Mine is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – no matter how many times I’ve tried I cannot get past the first few chapters. You can find out how our studio guests answered and listen to the show again at http://bcfmradio.com/silversound  

We were, as usual, joined by George Moss, who told us about a scheme he was involved in some years ago when adults went into schools to read to children. Gerard gave us one of his fiendish quizzes with a bookish theme.

Find out more:-

PS Not bookish – but I also gave information about an event coming up between 1 and 3 June 2017 – the Bristol Quilters Quilt Fest, a Textile Exhibition at Badminton School, Westbury Road, Bristol BS9 3BA. Visit www.bristolquilters.com for further information.

If you missed the show first time round, you can listen to it here (10 am to 11 am)

Silver Sound is broadcast by BCfm Radio 93.2 fm between 10 am and mid day on Thursdays and Fridays. I’ll be back on the show on 2 June 2017.   

Picture Credit: Reading Chair - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Public Domain Images

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol

Last evening I went to see Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre in Old Market, Bristol. The play, by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, was performed by Daphne Kouma, Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher. It tells the story of two women footballers who dream of playing for England. Mickey is inspired by the story of black Scottish goal keeper Carrie Boustead, and Keeley by Preston player Lily Parr (1905–1978).  

One of the play’s pivotal moments is the ban imposed on women’s football by the Football Association (FA) in 1921 – a ban which was not lifted until 1971! It also looks at how women athletes are portrayed in the media, issues around body image, what women wear, and the pressure on women to conform to imposed gender roles – such as not playing football. In addition, it references links between Scottish football and the women’s suffrage campaign. For example, though not mentioned explicitly in the play, Scotland’s first female football team was set up by suffragist Helen Graham Matthews (see link to Daily Record below).

I’m not the least bit interested in football, but I am interested in seeing traditional gender and race stereotypes challenged into the ground, and Offside certainly brought home the absurdity of the FA’s claim that football was not suitable for women’s bodies. Women’s strength is certainly an adjustable thing so far as the male is concerned: they are too delicate for football but not for skivvying and fetching and carrying. This was brought over in a scene that put me in mind of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in which she challenged the white male view of women as delicate creatures who had to be helped into carriages by pointing out that she, who worked as hard as any man, was never helped into a carriage – because she was a black woman. Women’s strength is allowed only so far as it is appropriate to their allotted roles in terms of class, race, labour and gender. Perhaps that’s why women playing football, or engaging in any sport, is such a threat: this is women being strong in and for themselves. And didn’t the cast play their parts with a strength and energy it was a delight to watch!

Football as it should be played?

The play is short – only seventy five minutes without an interval – and it certainly moves along quickly. For all that, I didn’t think it lacked emotional impact. Far from it. The characters’ fears, their will to freedom, the burdens they carry in terms of family, professional and societal needs and expectations, were powerfully portrayed.

In the end I felt the play wasn’t just about football: it was about women pursuing perfection in their chosen field regardless of the pressures and expectations that seek to hold them back. That’s how it spoke to me, anyway. I’m a writer – an activity about as far removed from the football pitch as you can get. Yet this play left me feeling renewed inspiration to continue what is often a struggle to keep writing in spite of all the pressures: you should be doing the housework; women are supposed to write either chick lit or feisty heroines; more men’s books get reviewed than women’s; if you want to write in certain genres you better pretend you’re a man (heard of J K Rowling?). All the nasty negative stuff that doesn’t want you to succeed – all the FAs under another name.

If the measure of a good play is when you leave the theatre buzzing with ideas and impressions and feelings and admiration and just sheer love of theatre, then for me Offside was a good play. I loved it.


It has been suggested that Carrie Boustead was a white player who has been mistaken for Emma Clarke (1896–?). That being so, it’s a puzzle as to why the production continues to use the name Carrie Boustead instead of Emma Clarke. Do they have evidence refuting this suggestion? If not, why not make the change? Too many women have been erased from history, and if we are to recover them then surely the first step is to get their names right.   https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/mar/28/britains-first-black-female-footballer-emma-clarke-1890s-play

For information about Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre see http://thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/offside/

See also:-

‘Offside: The shocking moment that female footballers were banned for fifty years’, The Guardian, 20 March 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/mar/20/offside-play-female-footballers-banned-fa

‘Secret history of women’s football reveals how riots during Auld Enemy clash led to Scotland banning the developing game’, Daily Record, 1 September 2013 http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/real-life/secret-history-womens-football-uncovered-2243257

Image: The British Library on Flickr