Tag Archives: Museum of London

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

 Royal London Hospital 1752

The newly built London Hospital in fields outside London at Whitechapel c.1752


Readers who are within travelling distance of the Museum of London have one week left in which to visit the fascinating Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men resulting from excavations at the London Hospital in 2006. I should declare an interest since one of the joint authors of the book of the exhibition, and a major collaborator thereon is my daughter Natasha Powers.

You may wonder what this has to do with a website such as A Parcel of Ribbons, devoted principally to the history of eighteenth century Jamaica. However, when transcribing Wills with Jamaican connections I have come across several references which link to the whole issue of enlightenment science, medical training and body snatching in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

There is a great contrast during this period between an Enlightenment interest in medical research and the fears of those whose religious beliefs required that their bodies should be available intact for the Day of Judgement.

One very early reference to donating a body for medical research occurs in the Will of Robert Fotherby, who owned 90 acres in the parish of St Catherine Jamaica. Written in 1749, he requested that:

My Body I direct and order to be opened (if I die in London) by Mr Hawkins the Surgeon that now lives near Smithfield Barrs To whom for his Trouble I give and bequeath Three Guineas but if Mr Hawkins should not be alive or not in the Way at the Time of my Death to intitle himself to the above mentioned Three Guineas by performing the aforesaid Operation Then my Will is that my Body shall be opened by one of the Surgeons of Saint Bartholomews Hospital to be paid for his Trouble at the Discretion of my Executor hereinafter named but if it please God I should die in the Country then my Body to be opened by any Surgeon in the Neighbourhood where I die as my Executors shall think proper it being my earnest desire and determined Resolution that my Body should be opened before it is put into the Coffin that the Cause of my Death as much as is possible may be discovered for the Benefit of Mankind and for other Reasons therefore in case my Executor hereinafter named shall neglect or refuse to Comply with my Request and Order aforesaid she shall forfeit and pay to the Poor of the Parish where my Body shall be buried without having been first opened the Sum of One Hundred Pounds to be paid to the Church Wardens of the said Parish at the Time of my Death within one Month after my Burial but for proof of my Body having been opened before put into the Coffin the Oath of the Surgeon that performed the Operation or any Credible Witness that see the Operation performed shall be sufficient and such Oath I do direct and order to be made before some Magistrate before my Body shall be Interred and such Affidavit or Copy of such Affidavit to be delivered to the Church Warden or Church Wardens (or left at the Dwelling House of one of them) of the Parish where I shall be buried to satisfy them that they can have no Demand on my Executor on account of my Body having been buried without having been first opened according to my Directions as aforesaid

Fotherby did not die in London, but at Haselbech in Northamptonshire. From a subsequent Chancery suit it appears that an autopsy was carried out as he had requested. His wish to benefit those who came after him by anything that could be learned from ‘opening’ his body is admirable and in this he was ahead of his time.

A much later reflection on the fear engendered by the body snatchers occurs in the Will of Mary Cooke, a sister of the Jamaican composer Samuel Felstead, who died in Bethnal Green in London, in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will was written in 1829, before the changes brought about by the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, when fears of body snatchers were rife, and as a result she requested burial in an iron coffin.

You can see an example of such a coffin (some of which had triple locks !) at the exhibition, and if you cannot go, you can see it in the background to the interview with Jelena Becvalac on the exhibition webpage and on YouTube. It appears that such coffins were successful in foiling the attempts of the body snatchers, but were unpopular with those who managed the burial grounds since unlike wooden coffins they did not decay rapidly, reducing the space available for further burials.


Great Fires of London and the West India Docks

The River Thames and the new West India Docks

From Ordnance Survey First Series 1805

Jamaican sugar planters sometimes struggled to get their produce back to England. Freight rates were often high, ships sometimes in short supply and of course they could be lost at sea. Along with a developing banking industry, the eighteenth century saw the growth of insurance, and new companies sprang up that would insure a cargo against loss. If you have London ancestors you may find them in the Sun Fire Office records, which are held at the Guildhall in London, and indexed on the National Archives online.

Fire was, and is, an ever present risk and it was especially so for warehouses storing Jamaica’s main exports of sugar and rum which are both highly flammable.

I remember stories in my childhood of how the bombing of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery at Greenock in the second World War caused a fire that could be seen from many miles away. Two decades later a fire in a bonded whisky warehouse in Glasgow remains Britain’s worst peacetime fire services disaster. Wooden barrels stored on wooden racks in an old building with a high wood content burned furiously, and the vapourising alcohol caused an explosion that blew out the sides of the building and cast debris and barrels of flaming liquid onto the firefighters below. Both sugar and alcohol explode at high temperatures, scattering fiery material to start further fires.

Such was the nature of two disastrous London fires in the eighteenth century. You may remember I wrote a while ago about Captain Stephen Blanket who sailed supply ships to Jamaica and ended his life with a comfortable fortune as a merchant, living in Princes Street Rotherhithe, which ran at right angles to the river Thames. There, shortly after his death, a kettle of molten pitch, used for caulking ships and other waterproofing jobs, boiled over and caught fire. The fire spread and destroyed over 200 buildings along the river front at Rotherhithe. The buildings would almost all have been built of wood, many old and dilapidated and many containing flammable materials arriving from abroad or waiting to be despatched. Such fires could be difficult to put out and were sometimes long lasting – after the Great Fire of London in 1666 materials smouldered in cellars for many months afterwards, bursting into flame again when air reached them.

An even more disastrous fire happened at the end of the eighteenth century on the opposite side of the river at Ratcliff. In July 1794 another pitch kettle fire, at Cloves barge builder’s yard, ignited a cargo of saltpetre, an ingredient of gunpowder, in a riverside barge. This sent exploding fragments high in the air over a wide area and before it was finally put out the fire had destroyed 453 private houses, more than 20 warehouses and other large buildings and several ships on the river. The buildings destroyed included offices of the East India Company. Although largely forgotten now, it was London’s worst fire between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz.

Add these risks to the constant threat to merchants’ profits from the pilfering of their cargoes as they were unloaded on to smaller boats in the overcrowded river Thames and rowed ashore to be manually handled into storage, and you can understand the pressure for a new solution to London’s booming international trade.

The need for new docks had been mooted for some time and in the end a large number were built on both sides of the river, but the most brilliant of these were the West India Docks which utilised a bend in the river at the Isle of Dogs to create an industrialised cargo handling system on a scale that had not been seen before. Ships coming up river entered the docks from Blackwall Reach, unloaded their cargoes directly into huge brick built warehouses and then left via Limehouse Reach having loaded a new cargo. The whole site was secured by a continuous high brick wall.

This view of the proposed West India Docks and City Canal is by W. Daniell and was painted in 1802 when construction had already begun. It looks west towards the City of London. In fact the final layout of the docks was rather different, with three broad docks rather than two docks and a canal, and it was further modified later in the nineteenth century to make use of the new railway technology and steam powered cranes.

A survey sponsored by English heritage and published in 1994, when the docks had reached the end of their useful life, can be viewed on British History online and it shows the vast scale of the eventual project.

One spin-off of the West India Dock Company was the founding of the Imperial Insurance Company, ever mindful of the risk of fire.

Little now remains of this huge and wonderful feat of civil engineering and mercantile ambition – replaced by London’s Docklands offices and tower blocks, the symbol of a different age of ambition. Its history is preserved in the Docklands Museum, housed in these few remaining buildings.