Excavations at the Royal London Hospital

MOLA team
21.07.2008

“The particulars… will excite the greatest disgust and indignation”*: 'Resurrection Men' in the 18th century (Excavations at the Royal London Hospital)

In the summer of 2006, the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) excavated an area within the grounds of the Royal London Hospital, recovering 170 burials and 109 coffins containing dissected body portions, along with dogs, rabbits, tortoises and even a guinea pig.

Pottery indicates that the burials date from c. 1820-1854, spanning the introduction of the Anatomy Act. Assessment of this material is demonstrating the important place of archaeology in understanding and connecting with our recent past. Here, archaeology provides information that the historic record could not.

Half the men and a quarter of the women and children interred in single graves had been dissected, whilst coffins with multiple individuals contained the remains of men, women and children, including foetuses. There are scalpel cuts, sawing, and prepared prosections (dissections for the demonstration of structure).

Wired specimens, staining and cast blood vessels (wax or other material which had been passed into the blood vessels in order to enable the shape of the vessels to be seen when the soft tissues were removed) reflect the London Hospital’s status as the foremost medical school of its day. It is also clear that the skill of the students varied considerably!

The opportunity to examine such a wealth of anatomical evidence is unique, yet the most fascinating aspect of this site is that historic plans show that the cemetery excavated by MoLAS did not officially exist. That the hospital authorities were rather coy about what went on here is not surprising when dissection of all but criminals was illegal until the 1830s. It also appears that the Hospital was not above finding bodies close to home: records from the 1820s note a request to the Board that servants and nurses should only be “opened up” with permission of a relative.

Intriguingly, in 1822, William Millard was arrested attempting to enter the hospital burial ground with the intention of “raising a body”. He was sent to Coldbath Fields prison on a dubious charge of vagrancy: he could not be arrested for stealing a body as the law does not recognise ownership of a corpse. Millard protested that his work was sanctioned by the Hospital: he had worked, if not for them, then with their agreement for the previous 12 years.

Unfortunately, Millard died of gaol fever (leaving his wife Anne to clear his name). Despite petitioning the medical profession and the House of Lords, she did not succeed. However, it seems that after nearly 200 years, archaeological evidence may finally be able to prove what Anne Millard could not.

Fieldwork and continuing analysis, leading in due course to full publication, has been generously sponsored by Skanska and the Barts and the London Trust.

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