Soon-to-be published research undertaken by our archaeologists who excavated the new Elizabeth line station at Liverpool Street reveals stories of bodysnatching and religious dissenters at the New Churchyard. The burial ground, situated on the site of modern day Liverpool Street, was excavated in 2015 during construction of the Crossrail Broadgate station entrance.The full findings are due to be published in ‘The New Churchyard: from Moorfields marsh to Bethlem burial ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street’ later this year.

The New Churchyard was a municipal and non-parochial burial ground established in 1569 to relieve existing churchyards. People from all walks of life were buried there but especially those at the margins of society, including religious dissenters, the poor and countless plague victims. It is estimated that by the time it closed in 1739, 25,000 people had been laid to rest there.

Archaeological excavation and historical research have exposed fascinating new details on the story of bodysnatching in London. The research has exposed the earliest known prosecution for bodysnatching in London - which occurred almost 100 years earlier than previously thought - and excavation work has uncovered what is understood to be the earliest archaeological evidence of preventative measures taken to thwart bodysnatchers.

Before 1752 very few dead bodies could be legally obtained for medical dissection and surgeons were restricted to those of executed criminals. By the early 18th century supply could not meet demand and a lucrative and flourishing illegal trade in corpses emerged in London. MOLA’s research charts the rise of the so-called ‘Corporation of Corpse stealers’ – London’s gravediggers making a handsome profit from bodysnatching. One such character was Joseph Bowen. He was prosecuted in 1717 for stealing a body from the New Churchyard and attempting to sell it on for dissection. Bowen probably received sixpence for digging the grave, but was promised one guinea for exhuming the body and delivering it to the surgeon.

Further incidents soon followed and in a letter to the Original Weekly Journal, published on 15 February 1718, one Londoner angrily wrote:

“The sudden resurrection of the Dead in Southwark is become the general Subject of Conversation, and has render’d Death far more frightful and Terrible to some people neither common Humanity or strongest Elm, nor even the Grave are capable of Protecting the most Pious Mortal from falling into the Hands of some Galenian Butcher or other.”

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