Meandering along the cobblestones of Hackney’s quaint Columbia Road, it’s hard to imagine that two hundred years ago this romantic ramble was instead decrepit with poverty. Squalid slums rose up here due to rapid population growth and industrialisation. Columbia Road was previously the site of Nova Scotia gardens – a slum built directly on top of human waste. It was the poorest who lived here, scrabbling along the edges of society.
The Illustrated London News describes Bethnal Green in the 1800’s: “nothing picturesque in such misery; it is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death.”
It’s no wonder that here was the central hub for one of the creepiest crime waves for centuries to come. While we all know plenty about Jack the Ripper, the East London body snatchers known as the London Burkers, tells a story just as chilling with a far larger body count.
The gang, lead by John Bishop and Thomas Williams, either robbed freshly buried bodies from their graves, or sourced their own supply by murder. They would then sell on the bodies to anatomists. The gang modelled their activities on notorious body-snatching duo, Burke and Hare of Edinburgh. “Burking” had come to mean ‘killing someone for their marketable cadaver’, hence the name ‘London Burkers’. Other gang members included, Michael Shields and James May, an unemployed butcher also known as Black Eyed Jack. What was especially shocking about their morbid crime wave was that it revealed a deep corruption in the medical sciences, which had secretly walked hand-in-hand with these criminals for almost a century.
Gang leader, John Bishop came from a solid, small-business background. He inherited a successful carting company but drank away the family firm. He then turned to the trade of bodysnatching, able to use the front of a respectable transport company to move his very questionable goods around the city surreptitiously.
In 1831, a young boy thought to be of Italian descent was seen screaming and waving for help by John King and his 11 year old sister Martha as they hung the washing out at their home in Crabtree Road. The boy was thought to be 14 year old Carlo Ferrier, and came to be known as ‘The Italian Boy’. He was the first known victim of the London Burkers.
Later that day, Bishop and May attempted to sell the body to anatomists in central London but were refused due to the suspiciously fresh appearance of the corpse, which had obviously not been buried. After being turned away several times, they finally took the body to the King’s College School of Anatomy where anatomist Richard Partridge alerted the police and blew the whistle on the gang’s activities, opening up the corrupt system to the outraged public.
The London Burkers were arrested and tried in court. Confessions from the gang led to the police to a yard in Nova Scotia Gardens where they discovered the well that that the gang would drown their victims in. The police also found clothing of other victims inside the well including those of vagrant woman, Frances Pigburn, who had been sleeping rough in Shoreditch at the time.
The gang would lure their victims into their cottage and drug them with a concoction of rum and laudanum. Bishop and Williams would then pass their time at one of the local pubs, either the Feathers near Shoreditch Church, or the Fortune of War in Smithfield biding time as the drugs took full effect on their unsuspecting victims. On their return, they’d tie their drugged victim by the feet, drown them head first in the well and place the body in a bag. The gang would then go on to sell the bodies to anatomists in London, often fetching around eight guineas.
Bishop also admitted to stealing and selling between 500 and 1000 bodies over a period of twelve years. The gang would raid fresh graves, steal the body and replace them with bricks. The bodies were sold to anatomists from St Batholomew’s Hospital, St Thomas’ Hospital and King’s College.
At this time in the 19th Century, medical science was experiencing huge developments. Anatomists needed bodies to discover more about the human body and to teach the surge in medical students but the supply didn’t meet the demand.
In the previous century, the primary source of bodies had been from executions. Hundreds of people were executed each year, often for quite trivial crimes. In the 19th century the rate of executions went down to just 55 a year and most of these criminals who would have been previously executed, were being transported on prison ships to Australia instead. Medical science was at risk of declining with 500 bodies per year needed and not even a tenth of that met, so illegal measures were taken instead. An unspoken bond between the medical science community and criminal body snatchers was formed. The activities of body snatchers was not uncommon after this and became publicly feared. Relatives would often pay someone to guard new graves for a period after burial to prevent raiding.
After their arrest, Bishop and Williams were executed on 5th December, 1831 in a public hanging. 30,000 people came to watch. The bodies were taken to King’s College Hospital for dissection and in the following days large crowds came to view the remains. Ironically, the anatomist who received the body claimed it was one of the healthiest specimens he’d ever seen.
By an extraordinary arrangement, the police also opened Bishop’s premises at Nova Scotia Gardens for public viewing, charging 5 shillings. Visitors carried away the dwellings piece by piece, as souvenirs.
In the same year lace and cotton seller Catherine Walsh of Whitechapel was murdered by Elizabeth Ross who then attempted to sell the body to surgeons. Ross was hung for murder. This crime, along with the London Burkers, led to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which set out to provide a legitimate supply of corpses for medical science.
In 1869, philanthropist Angela Burdett-Couts purchased the land of Nova Scotia Gardens and established Columbia Road Market and the area began to blossom, it’s dark past well behind.