Great Yarmouth bodysnatchers left graveyard ‘like ploughed field’

PUBLISHED: 15:34 19 October 2011 | UPDATED: 15:52 19 October 2011

Dr Paul Davies (right) and Andrew Fakes (left) from the Great Archealogical Society who are set to reveal a blue plaque remembering the Great Yarmouth 'Bodysnatchers'; Picture: James Bass

Dr Paul Davies (right) and Andrew Fakes (left) from the Great Archealogical Society who are set to reveal a blue plaque remembering the Great Yarmouth 'Bodysnatchers'; Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

It was a time when the gruesome exploits of a band of men cast a shadow on the world of science as they stole corpses from graveyards to aid the country’s brightest minds.

And now fresh light will be shone on this dark episode in Norfolk’s history when an archaeological group reveals a special memorial plaque commemorating the Great Yarmouth bodysnatchers.

The blue plaque has been commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight a series of crimes in 19th century Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy.

The memorial will be unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.

Bodysnatchers, or resurrectionists, were hired by surgeons to steal bodies from graveyards across the country, with fresh corpses and the bodies of children fetching the highest prices.

Amongst those who employed bodysnatchers was the renowned surgeon Sir Astley Cooper, who was the son of the vicar of Great Yarmouth. His need for corpses saw him employ Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason, who rented a house on Row Six, Great Yarmouth, and stole 10 bodies from St Nicholas’ churchyard.

He maintained his criminal career by concealing the corpses in old houses on the row before packing them in crates of sawdust and sending them by wagon to London, via Norwich.

He was paid 10 to 12 guineas for each body, but was eventually arrested and jailed for six months. A later bodysnatching incident, where Thomas Vaughan stole the clothes from a corpse, saw him arrested again and transported to Australia.

The actions of Yarmouth resurrectionists were reported by The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper at the time as causing “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble a ploughed field. The plaque will be unveiled by Rev James Stewart, curate in the Parish of Great Yarmouth, at 10.30am on Monday following an introduction by Dr Paul Davies.

Andrew Fakes, president of the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society, said: “The purpose of these plaques is to increase the interest in the history of Yarmouth and make it a more distinct town.”

Meanwhile, a further two plaques remembering Great Yarmouth’s history will also be unveiled on the same day. The site of the town’s Guildhall is to be marked at 10.45am with a plaque on St Nicholas Church railings. A third plaque remembering the Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster of 1845 will be unveiled at 11.15am at The White Swan public house, North Quay.

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