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Protected graves at Buckfastleigh

Graves protected against body snatchers at Buckfastleigh.

After the trial of the Stoke Damerel Grave Robbers, there was considerable panic in Devon and families went to great expense to protect their dead.

Iron railings surround one grave and its headstone. Behind it, is a formidable building completely covering a grave. A grid on one side enables the grave to be viewed but there is no visible door by which to enter .

©Richard J. Brine


Most people understand the meaning of  "body snatching" and those who do will associate the names of Burke and Hare with the infamous practice of removing bodies from graves and selling them to the medical profession for dissection. In fact, Burke and Hare were murderers who killed at least seventeen times and sold the bodies of their victims for a substantial price to the senior professor at the Medical School in Edinburgh. Other medical schools undoubtedly dealt with people who removed bodies from graves and there was reason for their collusion with criminals in such acts. In the final years of the 18th and early years of the 19th century, major break-throughs in medical knowledge were being discovered through anatomical research and for that, researchers needed a constant supply of human bodies to dissect.


At this time, under UK  law, the only bodies legally available were those of men and women condemned to death for murder and whose dissection had been ordered by the judge at the time of sentencing,  an order followed by the direction that when the usefulness of their remains had run out, the residue was not to be placed in hallowed ground. This was not a commonly-used form of the death sentence so legal access to bodies became more and more difficult as medical research blossomed.


When Burke and Hare were eventually caught and charged, Hare turned King's Evidence against his partner and escaped justice while Burke was convicted, and went to the gallows on the 28th of January 1829 , his body then being sent for dissection. Hare was smuggled out of Scotland (the scene of their crimes) and his final fate was never known.


After Burke and Hare had ceased to operate, other body-snatchers were deterred from plying their trade and dissection virtually ceased in the UK. Lobbied by leading figures in the medical profession, the government realised that, however unpleasant the subject might be to most men and women in the country, there were huge benefits in finding a means to facilitate research through dissection and so, in 1832, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act. 


This Act provided an official route by which the bodies of lunatics and paupers could be legitimately purchased from the Poor Law Unions and other proprietors of such institutions for the purposes of medical research, thus depriving the human beings concerned their lawful right to burial in their own parish. In these cases, deaths were recorded in the parish register as normal but no burial took place. It will shock many to know this practice continued into the 20th century but allows us to better understand the terrible dread that poor people had of having to go into a Workhouse as their lives came to a close. They knew that, unless a relative came forward within 7 days of their death with the money to pay for a coffin and churchyard burial, their remains could quite legitimately, within the regulations of the Anatomy Act,  be sent to a teaching hospital for dissection in return for a fee which contributed to the income of the Workhouse.


A debate in the House of Commons on 11 June 1844 confirmed that between 1839 and 1841, the bodies of some 300 paupers had been dissected quite legitimately under the provisions of the Act. It was further remarked that in the London area, some 600 bodies would be needed in the following year (1845). It was confirmed that not all Workhouse Masters were putting the fee paid for a corpse into the Workhouse Funds but were entering the death into the Union's Dead-Book and then pocketing the fee for themselves but it was felt that this was a matter for individual Workhouse Unions to put right and not a suitable matter for Parliament to handle. It was also stated that when body parts were no longer required in one place, they were being sold on, at a profit, to other hospitals and that lecturers were often adding to their own incomes through this practice. Again, Parliament stepped aside from the issue saying it was up to  individual medical schools to control this. The plea of some MPs to set up a Parliamentary Commission fell upon deaf ears and their motion was soundly defeated.


So what happened next? Quite literally - nothing, until 1984 when after 152 years, Parliament drew up a new Anatomy Act, repealing that of 1832 - an Act which set about trying to deal with the new and thorny problem of transplants.


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