Full steam ahead with trains - and bodies!
PUBLISHED: 21:20 01 March 2012
THE topic of railways has got up a good head of steam in this column of late, and we return to the theme this week to examine the side issue of...cadavers! Yes, cadavers! If you were seeking to win a prize in a competition for the most tenuous link, trains and corpses might well elevate you swiftly to first place...
It all stems from a BBC2 television programme I recently watched in which former Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo visited Great Yarmouth and Reedham as part of a series entitled Great British Railway Journeys. According to one TV listing, he was following “the Great Eastern Line and discovers the grave-robbing history of Great Yarmouth.”
The 1820s capture of body-snatchers Vaughan and Murphy, who had dug up at least 10 newly-buried corpses in St Nicholas’ Churchyard and sold them to students of anatomy in London, is well-known hereabouts: indeed, it was only a year ago that in this column I revisited the grisly goings-on.
However, it seemed unlikely that Michael Portillo would take the train to Yarmouth and then spice up his programme with the unrelated issue of Vaughan and Murphy, so I assumed there must be a specific railways link. It turned out to be one I had never previously heard.
After arriving at Yarmouth Vauxhall, the camera followed him into Row 6, known as Snatchbody Row because the notorious pair had their base there. Then came the surprise...to me, at least.
For after reporting that our parish churchyard was a favourite spot for body-snatchers, Portillo introduced medical historian Dr Elizabeth Hurren who told viewers that when the head of anatomy at Cambridge University needed corpses, he found the new branch lines from that city a convenient way to travel in East Anglia to find sources. He paid up to £12 for each corpse and did deals with the railways at a special rate of so much a ton – implying that it was a wholesale business, not the carriage of an occasional corpse.
Yarmouth’s first railway was opened in 1844 but was soon used for the body delivery trade. This railway, which Portillo said once specialised in importing coal, salt and Scots fisher lassies and exporting fish, was then carrying away corpses which arrived “as fresh as new-caught herring.”
Dr Hurren said after Parliament legalised the use of paupers’ bodies for dissection by anatomy students, there was no longer a need to exhume bodies from graveyards - “you simply went down the road to the Yarmouth workhouse, or to the back of it, or to the local pub.” It kept medical students well supplied with corpses for their studies but at a great social cost to the poor.
Portillo told viewers: “Astonishingly, this trade in bodies continued until the turn of the 20th century but after a popular outcry after the theft of a pauper’s body from Great Yarmouth in 1901, an extensive public inquiry finally brought the secretive trade in the town to an end.”
I cannot recall reading anything of that, apart from a mention in a local history book that at a meeting of the Board of Guardians it was admitted that some unclaimed pauper bodies were sent to the Cambridge School of Anatomy for dissection.
But, back to routine travel matters: at Reedham Portillo alighted from his train to try his hand at operating the famous swing bridge.
The whole topic of steam railways hereabouts was launched before Christmas by ex-Gorlestonian Chris Wright who sent me a painting done from a 1958 snap showing him as a young train-spotter on a South Town Station platform beside a gleaming passenger locomotive. He has since supplied more reminiscences.
He writes: “My family home on Burgh Road was next door to the site of the former Gorleston North Station, and as kids we delighted in playing soldiers in the old pill-box that was situated there. In the summer, we kids used to help the fire brigade extinguish the regular embankment fires which often started following the passing of a steam locomotive.
“I often used to cycle to St Olaves and watch steam pass through there and enjoy a home-made ice cream from the village shop. I do not know whether it is still there, but the big blue enamel sign from the station used to be displayed on the wall of the village garage.”
As for the City of London locomotive mentioned by a correspondent: “I remember it well. As I recall, it was one of five B17s shedded at Yarmouth South Town. I am the possessor of a Yarmouth South Town (32D) shed plate.
“I remember the class 37 diesels well. I think they started in about 1963 and were regular performers on the summer Saturday trains to London that year. I also remember the steam heating B1 locomotives. There was one at each of Vauxhall, Lowestoft and Norwich, and my late Uncle Ted regularly did night duties on steam heating in his last few years on the railway.”
Writing about railways has prompted a train of thought bringing a smile to my lips - nothing to do with body-snatchers or locomotive classifications but an office joke from long ago.
Back in the Seventies, the journalists in our Regent Street office included a young woman trainee who was gullible, a worrying condition if a reporter was unable to distinguish between fact and tongue-in-cheek fiction. Unkind and perhaps childish, we convinced her that the late Peter Bagshaw, a senior colleague with a lovely family home in Ormesby, actually lived in a converted railway carriage.
He went along with the jape, and we all chipped in with embellishments, like difficulties in using the loo when the train was standing in the station and not putting heads out of windows in case of accidents. A cartoon sketch of the oddball home appeared on a noticeboard.
One day, in the office alone with Peter, she challenged him, demanding to know whether or not he lived in a converted railway carriage. “Oh dear,” he replied solicitously. “Have they been spinning you that yarn?
“They ought to know better. A converted railway carriage? No, no. We live in an old double-decker bus.”
She hurried into the general office in triumph. “I knew you were all having me on about Peter living in a converted railway carriage!” she declared, happily satisfied that at last she had nailed our lie...