“He was still bleeding when he was put in his coffin”. John Lees is killed, 1819.


“Briton’s strike home”








He told me he was the Battle of Waterloo, but he was never in such danger as at this meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man, but in Manchester it was downright murder”………..William Harrison, 27th September 1819, Inquest of John Lees

John Lees, born about 1797, was the son of a successful cotton master, Robert Lees, of Oldham. He started spinning for his father aged about 14, but in 1812 he suddenly enrolled into the army that was fighting Napoleon. We don’t know why, but the reasons was never good. It might have been a family problem; his father was a formidable figure; however, he fought in France and was at Waterloo, and at the age of 19 he was an “old soldier”, demobilised by the state who had no further need for him, and grudgingly accepted by his father in his former job as a cotton spinner. This was an unsentimental age about children’s work, and it is clear that John had to work. He also shared a bed with his half brother, Thomas Whittaker, and lived less than a hundred yards from his spinning machine.

On Monday 16th August, he did not appear at work until past six o’clock in the evening and his father was angry. John had been to the mass protest for the reform of Parliament at St Peter’s Field. His father was angry; the meeting, though legal, came with warnings from the authorities about the danger; he had done no work today and was clearly in no fit state to do any this evening. He send his son angrily to report to the overseer, as John held his bloodied head and injured arm. John decided to minimize his injuries to his father, who was in any case, not interested

John was to continue as normal for a few days. A few days later he was to be seen in the pub, neither drunk nor sober, but in the phrase of a friend  “ lightish”. He offered to show people the wound on his left arm. John, as normal, stuck to beer and brandy with water, he was never a big drinker and never took spirits.

It took a week before he started to refuse drinks and then he started throwing up his food. He was constantly hot; his wound was not healing and his left arm and leg were numb. His left foot went purple. By Thursday 2ndSeptember   he took to his bed and never got up again, dying in the early hours of the morning of 6th September, blind in one eye, lame, retching with a putrid wound on his left elbow and his lungs suffocated with fluid.

How had John Lees died? He was killed by the malice and incompetence of the magistrates of  Manchester, who ordered the amateur, angry and intoxicated Manchester Yeomanry cavalry to charge the 80,000 crowd  of which John was a member on Monday 16th August. He had travelled, walking stick in hand to negotiate the rough cobbles between Oldham and Manchester, and arrived just before the main speech at 1pm. He was surrounded by women and children, out for the day to support a cause they believed in. They were the weavers and factory workers of Manchester and surrounding towns whose standard of living had collapsed over the last two years and now believed that reform of political representation was part of the solution.

It was decided by the magistrates to arrest Henry Hunt, the main speaker, and that the army was needed to do this. Unfortunately for the 400 crushed and 11 killed, the first people to get the order where the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who hated the protesters and were  hated back in return. They slashed their way through the crowd with the newly sharpened swords, and John was one of their victims. At his inquest, witnesses saw him sabred by the soldiers on the arm, then beaten by the special constables   and trampled by a horse. He was one of hundreds. He  limped away back to Oldham. He expected no sympathy from his father, but his worried mother watched him decline and die.  Betty Ireland, a servant, saw the bruises and festering wounds; he was bleeding internally when he died..” he was still bleeding when they put him in his coffin”

The government inquest was a farce. The assertion that John had died from wounds received at Peterloo were not believed; it was argued that his drinking and failure to see a doctor were the real cause. As the Inquest drew to an inevitable conclusion of deliberate killing, it was discovered that the Coroner had made procedural errors; he had not viewed the body at the same time as the jurors; he had not sworn in the jury himself , as he had not bothered to turn up for the first two days. The Inquest was cancelled and no verdict was reached. As it was a “mistake”, the government forgave the coronor, but it meant that there was no justice for John Lees, or any other victim of Peterloo.


Remembering Peterloo

View of St Peter's Place, 1819

I’m writing this on the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place here in Manchester on August 16th 1819.

The events of that day took place on St Peter’s Fields, close to the present day site of the former Free Trade Hall.

Much has been written about Peterloo. It is a significant event in the history of democracy. Similar events continue to take place on the world stage. It has an international dimension.
While it’s an important chapter in Manchester’s story, it’s more than local history.

Maxine Peake recently performed the poet Shelley’s work The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the shocking events of that day. Today, on the anniversary, she will read the names of those who died. Eighteen died and as many as seven hundred were injured when the cavalry charged the crowd. They had gathered to listen to the orator Henry Hunt. Intended…

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Who shot Edward Vyse in the head? The Corn Law Riots, 1815

In 1815 the soldiers and sailors won the war against Napoleon but the government handed the victory to the landlords. They had profited from the high price of   grain during the war blockade, and so the government passed the Corn Law to forbid the import of Wheat until it reached 80 shilling a bushel. This was a de facto ban; it meant that the aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported.  It was passed by the Commons and Lords with the building surrounded by bayonets. The poor of London rioted because they knew that, having had 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier.

The rioters were politically literate and aimed for the houses of those MPs who had actively supported the Corn Law. None of them died but their property was severely damaged. Two innocent bystanders did outside the house of Frederick John Robinson MP in Old Burlington Street. From earlier evening on a Tuesday his house was surrounded by a mob of about 60 throwing .Robinson was paying the price of introducing the Corn Bill to Parliament. However, his price was less than that of nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house and was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene.

Although this was a partisan class based piece of legislation, the rule of law meant that there would be an inquest, and an attempt to find the killer. One witness at the inquest was an Edward Howe, a messenger at the Board of Trade who asked one of the mob if he feared the soldiers shooting at them-“No, they dare not fire ball” he replied. It is clear that the rioters did not think they were living in a despotic state where the military fired at civilians.  Perhaps he also though that the firing of lethal shot was not part of the traditional choreography of the urban riot.

On the second day of the inquest a Corporal   Richard Burton gave evidence about the action of the six soldiers stationed there. The officer himself stressed that he was taking the advice of the constable, the civil power, and they both agreed to fire powder only. At eight thirty, when most of the Right Honourable member’s windows had been broken and his shutters were under attack, the soldiers opened fire, bit the balls of their cartridges so they were only producing smoke, and the young “rioters” cheered.

In this case, the cheerful rioters were wrong. About 10pm Edward Vyse, aged about 18, a navy midshipman, was shot in the head by persons unknown who were defending the Robinson house. Edward had been walking past the house, not towards it, in full uniform; there was no rioting or disturbances at that time-lots of witnessed attested to this. He had been killed instantly by a single cartridge ball from a pistol. A witness saw a soldier in the parlour wearing a foraging cap, who seemed to be responsible for the death. There were two other shots.

Corporal Burton admitted that there was at least one soldier with a foraging cap in the parlour at the time of Vyse’s death. There seemed to have been a real contradiction in evidence here; a soldier had fired under duress from the mobs attack at 8.30- but Edward Vyse had been killed at ten while he was merely passing the house, not trying to enter it. He father, a respectable artisan printer appeared as a sorrowful witness, backing up this narrative of events. The jury, clearly knowledgeable about these inquests, asked the coroner to keep the soldiers separate from Burton until the inquest continued. The Coroner regretted that he had no such power to do so.

Evidence from the Butler, James Ripley, suggested it seems that the fatal shot had not come from a military weapon but from rifles belonging to the household that had been loaded with the day before. Around 9pm an unidentified soldier had borrowed the rifle from Ripley and it was this that had been discharged into the street at about 10pm at Edward Vyse.

Corporal Burton could not offer any information about which of the six privates had fired the shot, so they we questioned individually. The witness George Ulph, private in the third regiment of Guards, was issued with 21 rounds of ball which he returned the next morning. He had not even fired shot. William Graves had returned all but one of his cartridges; he still had the balls he had bitten off in his pocket at home.

 With four soldiers left, the coroner separated those who had been nearest to the shooting from those who had been further way, and those further away were interrogated. These two could account for their ammunition, had never seen the man in the foraging cap, and were dismissed. Mathews and Herbert were clearly in the frame.

It proved impossible to prove who did the shooting. The Jury’s verdict was that Vyse was unlawfully murdered by persons unknown, and that the actions of the military were unconstitutional, as they had permission neither to enter   the house nor fire on the civilians outside.

James Ripley, the butler who provided pistols, Mathews and Herbert who were nearest the parlour and Richard Burton the corporal in charge must have breathed a sigh of guilty relief.



Let them eat stale bread. The diet of the poor in the Regency

Britain was running out of bread in 1800.The Napoleonic blockade was beginning to have an effect and British domestic production had not yet started to increase. Bread filled the bellies of the poor; children had dry bread for breakfast; workers had bread and cheese for their lunch; the workers wife’s had bread and lard ; drinkers had a salted herring and a slice of bread in the pub; everybody had  bread was the main accompaniment for scraps of bacon. Only on Sunday afternoon did bread not rule the house.

Something needed to be done, so in 1801 the government passed the Stale Bread Act. This did not, as the name may suggest, ban the sale of bread that was old and hard. Indeed it was the opposite; it was fresh bread that was banned. Bakers had to keep all loaves for 24 hours before selling them. This logic here was sound, but brutal. Stale bread did fill people up more, and added about 20% to the stomach filling capacity of the loaf. The government believed that up to 50% of all bread sold in the streets of London was hot, and eaten immediately as a snack. This indulgence by the poor could no longer be allowed

Bread consumption fell. Stale bread was also less pleasant to eat, so the government was also able to stop poor people being greedy. However, the Act lasted less than a year. Like many governmental panic measures through the ages, it turned out to be impossible to enforce. The government did try; they had draconian punishments for bakers and offered rewards to people offered fresh bread. They would receive half of the 5 shilling fine; the other half would be given to the poor. A second offence would mean that the bailiffs would take all   of the baker’ property. Many criminals made a living entrapping bakers into breaking the law.  

News of the arrest of bakers was always popular. People were very suspicious of them throughout the eighteenth century.  They were accused of   giving short weights (hence the bakers dozen being 13). Local city authorities, not usually ready to interfere in business, were more than happy to raid bakers and check their weights and measures. Some towns like Derby insisted that the bakers put their initials into each loaf so the bakers could be tracked down if necessary.

People did not, as a rule bake their own bread, so the bakers had a near monopoly. Most fireplaces in Britain were calamitously   inefficient   and it made no economic   sense to use fuel to bake at home. By 1800 poor people could no longer buy small amounts of flour at a reasonable price, as it was more profitable for millers, who were as unpopular as the bakers, to sell it to middlemen.

Bread consumption was reduced by people starving and living off other staples. The potato was unpopular; some people still believed that it was poisonous   and many resented the link with the Catholic Irish. It was regarded as watery and tasteless; outside of Lancashire, it was merely boiled to death. The North West had the advantage of a potato   industry in from the early eighteenth century, and then later on, am Irish diaspora which knew slight more about the tuber through regular and monotonous contact.

 By 1812, large numbers of farmers in Scotland were saved from death by the potato, and the working classes of Manchester were living off potatoes, bread, bacon, gruel, tea and beer- a similar diet to the Irish farmer, who had the same but probably a little more milk.

 Millers and bakers were still the scapegoats after 1815, when the government artificially maintained the price of wheat by banning imports until the price reached a level that could maintain aristocratic rents and profits. Most   rural riots in the period 1815-1817 would converge on the millers. Armed with sharpened agricultural implements, they would demand that prices returned to an earlier level. In towns, sellers in the markets would have their food stolen as a protest at the price. The normal cry was   “Bread or Blood” , often with a loaf on a stick as a symbol of the problem and a way of breaking windows.


Killed by Beer; the Meux brewery flood of 1814



At about 5.30 pm on Monday October 17th 1814, a clerk inspected the huge vat of Porter- a strong black beer- at Meux’s Brewery, near the Tottenham Court Road in London. A large iron hoop supporting the outsize barrel had fallen off an hour earlier; however, there was no real concern- this had happened before. The barrel was huge – the size of a two storey building. And, as it turned out later, rotting away.

The huge fermenting barrel then exploded, and a million pints of beer, mixed with bricks and timber, streamed through the brewery at waist height and spread into the nearby streets of New Street and George Street. The lethal stream of beer, beer fumes, bricks and wood filled the basement cellars of New Street where people where having their tea, and destroyed three houses in George Street. Bricks from the brew house also rained down on New Street. The explosion weakened the facades if the houses and the inundation destroyed the walls, partitions and roof supports.

Eleanor Cooper, aged about 14 was working in the Tavistock Arms public house at 22 George Street. She was scouring pots and pans at a water pump when she was drowned by the incoming wave or crushed by a collapsing 25 foot wall. The beer wave filled the cellar first and then smashed into the yard where she was working. She was found at 8.20, clinging to a water-butt. The Surgeon Ogle was present to help but Eleanor was quite dead.

The newspapers added to the distress by lamenting that 60 pans were smashed beyond recognition. Early newspaper reports gave Eleanor’s age as 10; while this turned out to be incorrect, it did not seem implausible to the press that ten-year old would be working as a servant in the pub. Other reports suggest she was nearer 16; once again the lack of knowledge shows how important a young woman like this was to Regency Society. Her body was sent to the local workhouse and her aged was settled at a guess of 14.

At the partially demolished 3 New Street, the body of the child Sarah Bates was discovered at 1 am in the morning. She was between 3 and four years old .This was part of a heroic campaign by the locals and the brewery servants to locate bodies in the rubble. As today, there were constant calls for silence as people listened to noises from the destroyed buildings. The local working class poor behaved well throughout.

In another part of the house, a Mary Banfield, wife of a coal heaver, her daughter and another child was   having tea and the wave of beer washed the mother out of a tenement window and pushed the daughter into another room, where she was smashed into a partition and killed. Her name was Hannah Banfield and she was about 4 years old; the other child was found nearly suffocated but alive; the mother was sent to the Middlesex Hospital in a serious state but eventually recovered.

Most of the deaths were in New Street.  This was the home of many poor, predominantly Irish families, many of whom lived in cellar dwellings.  At midnight, the corpse of Elizabeth Smith was found on the first floor of one of the two houses in New Street that was completely destroyed.  Elizabeth was a 27 year old bricklayer’s wife. Elizabeth had been in the cellar of No 2 New Street with other local Irish at a wake for a child who had died 2 days before. He was John Saville and his mother Ann Saville was one of the victims. Ann was found floating but drowned in the actual brew house itself at 7.30 on the first evening; her house was immediately behind the brewery.

She was placed with her son in one of the 5 black coffins put in the open air to solicit donations for the funeral of these victims who were drowned in the cellar-   Mary Mulvey (30), her son by an earlier marriage, Thomas Murray (3) and Catherine Butler , a widow(65) . There were no adult men in the cellar for the wake of John Saville; however, if the explosion had happened two hours later, the men would have  been back from work. However, John Saville, wife of Ann, John Bates, father of Sarah and Thomas Smith, husband of Elizabeth, were present at the coffins of their loved ones. They formed, according to the papers “a doleful group”

Anne and her child were buried at St Giles Churchyard on 21 October and the other coffins lay a bit longer at the Ship Inn, Banbury Street, were £33 was raised for their burial.

This was more than enough money for pauper funerals; however the money was more or less extorted from the crowd rather than being a charitable donation. It was more of an entrance fee; two police offers were stationed at the door with a plate in hand to collect sixpences and shillings.  The money was to be used for the general welfare of the local poor too, who had lost an estimated £3000 in property- which puts the £33 into some perspective.

The local working poor who survived were soon forgotten; and the backlash began a little. On October 25th the Bury and Norwich Post reported that the “lower class of Irish” that lived in the area were seen by Wednesday “busy employed putting their claim to their share…every vessel from kettle to cask were used…many were seen enjoying their share at the expense of the proprietor”

However, there was, on the whole a lack of victim blaming in this case. Many of the reports of drunkenness and beer looting do not originate from the primary descriptions and I was unable to find the claims of about the Irish repeated in any other papers. The newspaper could-shock horror- have invented the story to pander to the prejudices of its readership.

By November, the emphasis continued to turn away from the victims. The inquest jury at St Giles workhouse had taken only a few moments to declare that the eight were killed “accidently, and by misfortune”   The newspapers reported with relief that the Horseshoe Brewery of Henry Meux was insured, and that in November 1814 the company successfully asked the Treasury for the rebate of £7664   of excise duties that had already been paid for the beer

Another £800 in aid was raised in the next two months from local people, including a substantial donation from the Young Brewery at Wandsworth. Meux’s brewery made no contribution. The victims were, after all, merely the poor, and the Irish poor at that.


Converting the Jews 1809-1813

FreyThe Rev Frey ( above)

The conversion of the Jews to Christianity was seen by many of the Regency period as an important charitable act, similar to the help given to fallen women and the industrious poor. The main engine of this philanthropy was the London Society Promoting Christianity Amongst The Jews. It was proposed in August 1808 and was inaugurated on February 15th, 1809.

Its aim was “the benevolent purpose of rescuing the unhappy Jews from the state of moral degradation in which they find themselves”. They were a missionary organisation. One of their key members was William Wilberforce, the most famous proselytising evangelical of the time. They were mostly from the Church of England, with the addition of a few token dissenters.

By 1810, they had purchased a French Protestant Church in Church Street, Spitalfields, which had originally been built by the Huguenot community in 1743. Their newspaper advertisement said that they had produced 8000 pamphlets and opened a school in the East End, a printing press and a House of Industry.

Their leading light and founder was  the Reverend Joseph Samuel C.F Frey, a Church of England Minister who was a Jewish convert. In April 1810, the Rev Frey was in Oxfordshire and in October he was in Scotland. It seems that the whole message of the London Jews’ Society was quite conciliatory in an age where Jews were held under the greatest of suspicion. While the society stressed the necessity for conversion, they asked their lecture audience to realise the importance of the first five books of the Torah as a foundation of Christianity. Jews had been a positive boon to civilisation, despite their error 1700 years ago. “Gratitude” says one of their newspaper reports “demands our assistance and commiseration” The Society pointed out that the treatment of Jews in Christian had been  historically appalling and was not likely to encourage them to repent. They also praised Napoleon, a dangerous thing to do in Britain in 1811.

“Whatever the rapacity and injustice of the French Emperor, his enlightened policy towards the Jews deserves the imitation of every European power”

A letter to the Chester Courant (31.12.1811) supported the work of the society and the writer equally keen not to slur the Jews; the author was Michael Collin, a Jewish Rabbi convert. However there was a whiff of condescension; the Jews were in a lethargic slumber from which they need to be wakened; their ancestors had made the errors and had put the modern Jews under terrible, untenable obligations.

By 1811, the Society had set up an auxiliary branch in Carlisle and Dublin. The Carlisle Branch used mass subscriptions of 1 penny a week to raise £50 per year and the Dublin branch did the same, with the added help of donations from the enlightened yet pious members of the Irish “bon ton”. Both organisations raised money for a House of Industry for Jewish Women in the East End. The Dublin Branch, meeting for the first time in November 1811, noted with concern that there were 400   Jewesses in London, in “a debased state of human wretchedness”.

The Rev Frey was still sermonising around Great Britain. In 1811 he was in Chester and North Wales, at ten places in 12 days, including one day when he was in  Conway at 11am and Bangor at 6pm.

In April  1811 the society boasted a new Hebrew –Christian  Chapel in Bethnal Green, an increase in Jewish Children at the school from 36 in 1810 to 51, many thousands of more tracts in English, German and Hebrew and 24 baptisms. From our point of view, this may be a low number, but when the Society  was formed  in 1809 it was noted that there were no more than 30 converted Jews in the whole of the country.

A Jewish printing house had been established with many converted Jews employed; the implication was that they were being provided with jobs after losing them when they converted- to quote the Sussex Auxiliary Society formed in 1814-those persecuted for righteousness sake”. Cotton weaving equipment was purchased for a group of converts who had been pushed out of their synagogue and were now the deserving poor. Frey was in constant danger from the working class Jews of Spitalfields too; his early convert Bernard Jacob was attacked with his children in 1809. Frey  was a hard working and brave man.

In May 1812 the Rev John Hutchins was in Colchester and Ipswich. In July he preached to 2000 people crowded into St Mary’s Bungay. They were now up to 35 baptisms with 70 children at two schools (slightly ominously)they were pleased to   add that 55 of the children were “entirely taken from their parents” .

In many ways this seems to be a real achievement; although the number of new baptisms seems disappointing poor. Indeed most of the audience for the sermons were Christian. Most of the lectures and sermons were held in Church of England places of worship; but dissenter chapels were also used; there were no visits to purely Jewish audiences.

Twenty eight pounds were raised from both poor and rich at Bungay; like all advertisements and propaganda from the Society, it was made very clear that ladies were very welcome and would be accommodated. They used the same techniques of taking money from both rich and poor, creating elite fundraising   events and penny societies for the poor. Cheshire had its own separate gentlewomen’s Society, were the lowest  respectable annual subscription was a guinea.

As auxiliary branches sprung up, their success continued.. At Ipswich in March 1813 it was announced that there were 42 baptisms and 104 children in the school and their Chapel in Church Street Spitalfields now had a Congregation of the Hebrew- Christian Benei Abraham (The Children of Abraham)-the first Chapel for Converted Jews in Britain.

The Society expanded into a global missionary organisation and survives today as the The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People, and is one of the ten missionary societies of the Church of England.


The Complicated Lives of the Poor: Seeking a Living

Pen and Pension

colonial-bricklayer-18th-c-grangerIn a previous post, I explained the demands of the 18th-century English Poor Laws. I also mentioned how I came on a locally-printed booklet of transcripts of records made by magistrates taking depositions under the Poor Law in Holt, Norfolk[1]. This post looks at what can be learned about how some people tried to earn a living in difficult times.

To my surprise, what I found revealed quite a complicated picture. I tended to assume the lower classes lived humdrum lives, played out in and around the villages or towns where they were born. That seems to be a long way from the truth. Many travelled widely in search of work or adventure. There was a far more mobile workforce – and a much more flexible attitude to the organisation of work – than I had expected. Ordinary people seem to have done whatever they wanted, pretty…

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Regency Road Accidents, 1816


Death and injury on the road are not new. For the whole of the regency period people were being thrown about and thrown out of wheeled vehicles.

The most common form of wheeled transport was the gig- A two- wheeled one horse device that would carry one or two people. If people were thrown out of them, then their fate depended on the surface on which they landed. Mrs Parsons of Warsash (carefully described in the newspapers as   “the wife of Mr F Parsons” ) died when her gig overturned. Mr Parsons himself was merely bruised. It was a random event.

Mrs Mary Kirby and 15 months George Kirby were killed at Hyde Park Corner when a coach tried to overtake them and the gig turned over. This was the type of dangerous driving that cyclists know about today, and the Coach driver was accused of manslaughter; however, he had absconded   and a warrant was put out for his apprehension.

Overtaking was a danger point. The worse accident of 1816 was the collision of the Dart and the Phoenix. They were both travelling from London back to Brighton and were doing the last leg from Patcham   when the Phoenix tried to overtake the Dart at Preston, near their final destination.  Both coaches were full of passengers, inside and out.   The Phoenix overturned and the passengers on the outside were thrown clear.  Those inside were smashed against the side of the coach and arms and legs were snapped, ribs bruised and teeth smashed out. The Landlord of the Golden Cross, Princes Street, Brighton broke his arm. His Inn was a major Brighton coaching house; his overturned coach may well have been destined for there. Mr Mayhew, solicitor, lost teeth.  “A German gentleman”, with the highly unlikely name of Mr La Skirk,   cracked his ribs.

The Driver and proprietor of the Dart, Snow, was also the owner of one of Brighton’s main coach companies, but these not stop him behaving dangerously. The competition based on speed and price probably encouraged   reckless overtaking. Both stage coaches were being driven by their owners.  Overtaking at Preston would led to the winner getting to the coaching Inn first

There was some public disquiet about the way the industry was organised. The “Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser” (17 October 1816) welcomed the competition and the lower prices, but worried about the stage coach owners travelling to fast and carrying too many passengers and too much luggage. The newspaper mentioned the London and Brighton route as one of the main perpetrators. There was also a slight hint that the horses were being driven furiously and there was some growing interest in animal welfare.

Poor quality roads and gradients were another problem. In 1816, the Royal Mail was travelling through the night -as they always did, to increase their speed from about 10 to nearer 18 miles an hour. They were at Tgaout Hill, between North Wales and Holyhead, when a rock overturned the vehicle and the driver was thrown off as the coach was going down a very steep gradient. The newspapers  made it clear that it was not the drivers fault. He was sober. The Lamps were lit. But it was hurtling down a narrow road on a step gradient.

The driver fell off the coach at a narrow part of the road and smashed himself into a low wall. This was actually a good thing as beyond the wall was a 2oo feet sheer drop into a river. He broke his leg but lived. The guard was thrown into the road. As it was a Mail coach, there were no outside passengers and only one inside. It took 200 yards for the Mail Coach to stop; had it been an overcrowded Stage Coach, there fatalities would have been much worse.


Further reading

Coaching Accidents



Joseph Crouch- “A Body Snatcher since a child”


Joseph Crouch was fortunate in his timing when he was finally found guilty of stealing dead bodies. His career was over anyway; the new Anatomy Act of  1832 was to provide the anatomy schools with a regular supply of bodies  and body snatching as an organised, lucrative trade was about to come to an end. He and his accomplice David Baker were found guilty of stealing the shroud from one of the bodies that they had stolen from   St John’s,   Horsley down in Southwark. They   were intercepted with two bodies still lying on the ground, one without a shroud, on 8 April. Crouch’s last words  before arrest were “Don’t hurt me. I will go with you quietly; this way I have got my living for the last twenty years”

There is no reason to doubt the claim. Joseph was a relative of Ben Crouch, a famous resurrectionist and the leader of the Borough gang; and Joseph himself had made headlines on at least three occasions. In January 1832 he and a David Baker were accused by a William Dunelly of stealing his rope and ladders. Dunelly was away from the weekend and found his equipment missing.  Crouch had a solid defence. Dunnelly was, like him, a body snatcher. It was by no means a coincidence that Dunnelly’s lodging had a view of St George’s Burial grounds in Southwark. They worked in a gang of six- a plausible number. Two to carefully remove the body (without disturbing any property, which would be a crime) and four to take them away to a teaching hospital. The rope and ladders were owned in common, according to the defendant. Crouch was dismissive. Dunnelly was such a bad character that “ne’er a decent body snatcher would ‘sociate with him”. ( Morning Post, May 1832)

Joseph appears in the newspapers twice in 1832 but before that had 10 years of what we must presume to be a decade of not getting  caught. There are a few possible reasons for this; it seems that he was a professional, full time body snatcher rather than an occasional one, as his admission in January 1832 proves .He was a relative of Ben Crouch and a known associate of Patrick Murphy, who took over the Borough Gang when Ben Crouch retired to run a hotel in Margate. This was hard core criminality, and well organised.

It was also very easy to evade arrest.  The graveyard watch was more designed to deter than to catch; in a gang of six it would take only two to remove the body; the rest could scarper.  Grave diggers and deacons were poor and could be bribed. At the worst, a surgeon at the anatomical hospital could give them bail. Unless property was damaged or stolen they were safe from serious punishment.

Joseph Crouch appears in the newspapers again in 1828 with an abortive attempt at raiding the mortuary of St Mary’s  church workhouse Newington. They had forced an entrance into the building and removed two male and four female bodies.  An Irishman called Fitzgerald seems to have been sub- contracted to move the bodies to St Bartholomew’s and Guys in his pea green cart. He claimed to have no idea about the possible contents of the six unwieldy sacks. Even his admission that he had dropped the two sacks off at the famous anatomical hospital had not given him any clues. By the time the authorities has tracked down the bodies they had been dissected to the point of not being recognised. The police tried to use Kent to point the finger at Crouch, which he duly did. The judge was not impressed by the police admission that Kent was certainly drunk when he implicated Crouch. The judge asked them to find bail.

Grave robbing was a treacherous world, with little loyalty. When Joseph Crouch reappears in the newspapers again it is as a witness for the prosecution. In the Morning Chronicle in February 1820, Crouch explained that he had seen Patrick Murphy, Michael Wood and a man named Wild, remove three bodies from the St Clement Danes burial ground near Portugal Street.  Notice the different  ways that Crouch uses to  suggest his  high level of knowledge.



The defence case was simple. Crouch had been a body snatcher “since being a child” He was presenting this evidence due to motives of revenge. This all sounds very plausible- perhaps the gang had fallen out over the distribution of money, or Crouch had been cut out of a deal. It could have been that Murphy supplanting his relative as the leader of Borough Gang was the problem.

 They were told to by the judge find bail

 Whatever the situation, it is clear that Crouch was a major criminal (he would need to be very brave to take on Patrick Murphy), he was associated with the leading resurrection  gang,  and was able to act with near-impunity in Regency  England.



An extended version of this blog is part of my new book – The Dark Years of Georgian Britain

Available from Amazon, Pen and Sword and Waterstones





Other blogs by me on the same subject





The Eton College Riot, 1818




Britain had a ruling elite in the Regency period, and it was educated at Eton College. In November 1818, the College contained 530 boys of the ruling class and it was widely regarded as the premier educational institution in England. The “Morning Advertiser” called it   “The First Public School”

So  all the national press were alarmed in November 1818, when many of the boys rose in rebellion against the Head Teacher , Dr John Keate  on three separate occasions.

These rich young men had money at their disposal, and this was a time before the Public Schools gained their reputation for any sort of academic excellence. It seems that the boys spent their time hunting, shooting and driving. The press at the time was probably too deferential to add “drinking”

Dr Keate knew that his charges were causing havoc in Eton and Windsor, but was finding it very hard to do anything. The boys stuck together   and Keate was unable to pin an evil deed on a named person. One newspaper described this as the “honourable tenacity “of the students.

Keate’s   first tactic may seem odd. Students were normally told to go back to their Dames (boarding houses) at 6pm and stay there for the night.  The Head teacher changed the time to 5pm. It is hard to see how this would reduce hunting or shooting, especially in November. It seems that Dr Keate was simply looking for a form of provocation, and two of the boys refused to take any notice of the new curfew. One was the son of Justice Holroyd and another was a nephew of an MP called Marriot. They were not expelled; their parents were told to take them home. Perhaps Dr Keate though this was enough.

The outbreak of desk smashing and window breaking the same night showed him that was not true. Once again, the authorities could not pin the crime on the right people so the Head seemed to have blamed somebody at random, knowing that the person would confess the guilty parties rather than be expelled from College. There would be no place for anybody expelled in Oxford or Cambridge, nor would they be allowed into the military and the church. It perhaps shows the sense of the entitlement of the young gentlemen that they knew this perfectly well.   Messieurs   White. Pitt, May and Jackson were expelled.

Keate called an assembly to press home his advantage. He told the boys that obedience must be their watchword from now on; one boy John Palk, muttered the word “Never” in too loud a voice and was expelled as well. There followed another night of rioting. Dr Keate was pelted with eggs, windows were broken and the local militia called.Two companies of foot soldiers and fixed bayonets were required. By the time the authorities had gained control, two more- the brothers Elton- had been expelled

The London papers did not name the seven   boys who had cut themselves off from the establishment. One, according to the press “was going to Kings College, and then the Church..he must know choose some other path in life”.  The further from London, the less likely the boys were to have anonymity. The Taunton Courier and the Exeter Flying Post named them. By late November, parents were being blamed as well. Too many of these young men received too much pocket money. The Worcester Chronicle and other papers reported that one young man was spending £400 a year. In an eerie premonition of the Bullingdon Club, many papers bemoaned those privileged young men   “whose inclinations led themselves to seek pleasure from some other sources than their books”