Friday, 19 November 2010

Churchyard watch huts, Warblington

The enlarged northwest watch hut

Near the entrances to the churchyard of St Thomas à Beckett in Warblington, Hampshire, are two curious little buildings. These are watch huts built in 1828 to shelter the men employed to guard the churchyard against body snatchers.

At the time, the only corpses medical and anatomical schools could obtain legally were those of criminals sentenced to death and dissection by the courts. However by the early nineteenth century demand rapidly outstripped supply as new medical schools opened across the country and the courts were passing far less death sentences than in the eighteenth century, when even a petty crime could lead to the gallows. The result was an imbalance of ten to one. Since these schools needed fresh corpses for their teaching and were ready to pay good money to get some, body snatching became a lucrative business, with relatively low risks. Provided they hadn't taken any belonging from the dead, such as jewellery, body snatchers only faced a fine or imprisonment as stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour and not a felony. Additionally the authorities considered this to be an unavoidable evil if medical knowledge were to progress and often turned a blind eye.
However the general public and church authorities became extremely worried and took different actions to prevent recently deceased parishioners from being dug up from their graves. Relatives of the deceased would keep watch over the grave for several days, until the corpse was too decomposed to be of much value. Those wealthy enough would pay for a heavier table tombtone, install railings around the grave, or bury the dead in a vault or a mausoleum. Such was the despair of some families that they would ask undertakers to soak the body in vinegar or ammonia to make it unusable by professors and students. In 1816 the first mortsafes -extremely heavy iron and stone cages- appeared in churchyards near the Scottish medical schools of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Throughout Britain groups of volunteers were set up to protect the churchyards at night and in several places church authorities actually paid watchmen to keep an eye on the graves.

With only a couple of buildings in the proximity of the churchyard, pasture-land all around and the waters of Chichester Harbour not far away, Warblington was certainly a good spot for body snatchers. Most of the parish inhabitants lived in Emsworth, a thriving little town two kilometres to the east, but burials still took place at St Thomas à Beckett as the chapel of ease built there in 1789 did not have burial rights until well into the nineteenth century. Coffins had to be carried or brought by cart along a footpath to be buried at Warblington. A few more houses were located along the Porstmouth-Chichester road, to the north of the original settlement.
How many corpses were stolen from Warblington is something I have not found but the problem must have been serious enough for the church to build two watch huts: one in the northwest corner of the churchyard, by the main entrance, the other next to the east entrance. Originally both buildings were similar: a square structure of flint and red brick quoins with a pyramidal slate roof. The door and windows have pointed heads, giving them a distinctive -and more attractive- appearance. Each hut also had a central fireplace. Needless to say, the watchmen certainly appreciated the warmth of the fire during the long, cold and wet nights. The light might have discouraged some from entering the churchyard as well. The northwest hut was enlarged at some point and the fireplace removed in the process.

The watch huts remained in use until Parliament passed the Anatomy Act 1832, which regulated medical reseach establishments and made it easier for them to obtain corpses, which were no longer spoilt by earth and other elements. Actually the Act was passed because of growing public outrage, especially after several people were murdered by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and the London Burkers in Shoreditch, who sold the fresh bodies for a higher price. After 1832, people could donate their bodies to science -although in practice not many did- and for a fixed amount, medical schools could buy unclaimed dead bodies, in particular from prisons or workhouses. Poor Law Guardians welcome the move as it provided an additional income and several medical faculties established close links with them in order to get a relatively regular supply of corpses. As a result, the despicable practice of body snatching came to an end.

Nowadays few churchyard watch huts still survive. This makes the two at Warblington all the more special.

The east watch hut

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