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Posts Tagged ‘Body snatchers’

 The Churchyard on Cocker Hill has seen some changes in the almost 250 years it has been looking down on Stalybridge. Three Churches have come and gone on the site and there have been a number of fairly serious landslips.     

Looking at the graves and reading the inscriptions is interesting too. Some are just so sad;  for example in the one shown below for John and Peggy Kershaw you can see in the high infant mortality in the area only too easily. Their first child, Matty died in April 1800 aged 2 years, Mary died in May 1803 aged 4 weeks, Daniel died in june 1804 aged 9 weeks, Jno Hiram died in August 1807 aged 4 weeks, Nathaniel died in January 1811 aged 3 weeks, Margaret died in January 1812 aged 48 weeks and James died in February 1813 aged 7 weeks. John Kershaw died himself in 1821 aged 48 and Peggy died in 1841 aged 68. John was the Sexton at the Cocker Hill Chapel. There are many other memorials with similarly sad stories to tell.         

John and Peggy Kershaw and their Children

 

 Then there are other Gravestones that the “tourists” like to come and see in their groups on summer evenings like the one for Neddy Hall, owner of the first steam-powered Cotton Mills in the area. Neddy’s Mill was known as “Sootpoke Mill”         

There is a full list of all the gravestones and their inscriptions on the New St Georges Church Website.       

The Church and Churchyard were the first in Stalybridge. Built in 1776         

The land that the Church and Churchyard were built upon was originally owned by the Earl of Stamford. It was first conveyed in 1698 and was described in the deed as “a chance close, a parcel of land”  It is recorded that nothing was made of the land at the time. As the population of Stalybridge grew the need for a Church in Stalybridge  increased . The first Church was built on the site in 1776 and was consecrated as the “Chapel of St George in Staley Bridge within Ridgehill and the Lanes in the Parish of Ashton Under Lyne”.          

The first recorded Burial in the Churchyard was 16 January 1777.         

In a “return”  to the Bishop in 1821  the vicar the graveyard as described as being small-quite full and was kept in good order by allowing sheep to graze upon it.  Tameside council now keep the graveyard in good order with regular mowing, but it is not unknown for sheep to graze on it even now.  In the early hours of the morning a few years ago a neighbour of mine saw a small flock of sheep quietly grazing there……….we initially thought she was seeing things but it was a true a local sheep farmer had brought the sheep to graze on churchyard when his own grass was worn out.         

In the book Bygone Stalybridge there is an account of the funeral of  Joseph Hall of  Stalybridge. It describes  Joseph Hall as being connected with the Staly Hunt and describes his burial in the Cocker Hill church yard “attended by upwards of a hundred devout followers of the chase, many of them dressed in their well-worn livery, and attended by their faithful hounds”.  Apparently the sight provided material for a Lancashire sketch entitled “The Huntsman’s Funeral” by Ben Brierey.   

In February 1877 there was the first of two major landslips from the churchyard. Described as an “Alarming incident”. A section of the graveyard had collapsed onto the road below. An investigation by the police and the vicar showed that five or six coffins had fallen with the soil. The particular corner of the graveyard that fell was mainly used for the interment of still born children and it was these coffins that had fallen. Also when the work men began to sort through the debris it became clear that there appeared to have also been a number of  unofficial burials of still-born babies in addition to those in the Church records. Infant mortality was high in those days and many people could not afford to have their children buried. News of the landslip spread rapidly and by the early hours hundreds of people were viewing the scene and were reported to be “lining the bridge and adjoining places eager to get a view of all that had gone on.” The photo below shows the church and churchyard and the bridge where the crowds stood to see what was going on.         

Old St Georges Church and Churchyard.

 

 In 1968 the Church was demolished and in 1972 the churchyard was remodeled and landscaped  with new trees planted. This apparently made it easy to cut the grass and keep it tidy. I understand that it was at this time that the gravestones were moved into the positions they are now in forming steps down into Stalybridge.        

Cocker Hill Churchyard May 2010; The Gravestone Steps

 

A number of the past vicar’s from old St Georges had memorials in the Churchyard. The memorials for Rev Cape Atty and Rev Leeson can still be seen in the churchyard today. The memorials for Rev Kenworthy and Rev Jelly-Dudley were removed when the churchyard was remodeled.   

 1982 there was another landslip, not serious this time, just a small proportion of the retaining wall, and then in January 1983 there was another, more major landslip. This exposed he end of a large coffin and took a large section of the wall and a lot of earth into the River below.  I’d love to have seen the local paper that week!       

At that time it was also discovered that a family vault had been disturbed some years before. There were signs that the Stalybridge Body Snatchers had been at work as the coffin lids were off, some coffins were on their ends and all were empty.  However all that was in the past and the churchyard can now finally Rest in Peace and be enjoyed by all those who walk through it.    

Cocker Hill Churchyard; At Peace; May 2010

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200 years ago there were no accurate models of human bodies for Doctors to train on. People didn’t leave their bodies to “medical science” so it was difficult to train Doctors and Surgeons. The only bodies Doctors were allowed to dissect for training were the cadavers of those who had received the death penalty for a crime. With an increase in medical schools and less harsher sentencing the Doctors did not have enough cadavers to allow them to train properly so they turned to body snatchers to supply bodies fresh enough to be examined.

Body snatching became so common in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being stolen.

During 1827 and 1828, some body snatchers changed their tactics from grave-robbing to murder, as they were paid more for very fresh corpses. Their activities resulted in the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by the deceased’s family to be used for study which essentially ended the body snatching trade.

Stalybridge was not without its own band of Body Snatchers. Captain Sellars and his band of resurrectionists met in the Pack Horse Inn on Cocker Hill to plan and plot and the graveyard itself was pilfered many times.

The following is taken from the book “Reminiscences of a Chief Constable” by William Chadwick. William Chadwick was made Chief Constable of Stalybridge in 1862 and remained there until he retired in 1899.

“It was on a certain night, over sixty years ago, three men assembled in the bar parlour of the “Pack Horse ” Stalyley, smoking out of long clay pipes and drinking glasses of spirits. The evening was so far advanced that the spindle had ceased to whirl and the shuttle to rattle, and all was quiet save the heavy steps of the watchman proclaiming the hour in the lower portion of the village, varied by the screeching noise of an owl in the wood on the opposite side of the River. The men were deeply engaged in conversation carried on in an undertone, and there was such an air of mysteriousness about their conduct that the host was anxious for the room……..”

How good a start is that to a story? Love it.

After the described meeting in the pub the three  proceeded to Mottram Churchyard where they stole a body and placed it in a sack in a hamper and took it to a stable in Stalybridge. Later the following day a carrier’s cart received the hamper and took it on to Manchester. A well organised trade involving most of the graveyards in the area.

Another mention of Cocker Hill in William Chadwick’s account concerns a John Chadwick (no relation). John apparently had a strange way of walking and a slight speech impediment causing him to say “Bup a den”. Upon his death he was buried in the Cockerhill Churchyard. The doctors were specially anxious for his body as they thought it was likely to possess some peculiar features. A good sum was offered and the body snatchers went to work in earnest. The men were just lifting the body out of the coffin to put  it in a hamper, when the wind, whistling among the tombstones seemed to say “Bup a den”. At this one of the robbers took to his heels, and in his fright jumped over the graveyard wall, rolled down the hill to the river.

This and other cases caused a further search of the graveyard and it was discovered that the bodies were missing of old Joseph Platt, carrier, Rassbottom Street; old Joseph Hall, clothier, Cocker Hill. Joseph Hall has special significance to me as he could have been one of  Joseph Halls who owned Rock Cottage on Cocker Hill many years ago.

The Churchwardens at Cocker Hill prohibited the opening of any more graves to check the occupants; however when the graveyard was remodeled in 1972 it was noted that a number of the graves were empty.

The photo below shows one of the gravestones still in the Cocker Hill Graveyard with the Caption “This grave not to be re opened”. Whether that stone was first moved by Captain Sellars and his gang or when the graveyard was remodeled I wouldn’t like to say!

Cocker Hill Churchyard; Gravestones now used as a path into the town.

 

You can find a full list of the burial records for Old St Georges Churchyard together with the gravestone inscriptions on the website for New St Georges Church Stalybridge. Burial records Old St Georges.

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