The History of Leith

March 8, 2008

The Scourge of the Resurrectionists in Leith during the 18th Century

If you enter South Leith Parish Church by the West Porch, you will see in a glass case, what look like two riding caps and a couple of batons. Not very interesting you may think, however, if you do, you would be completely wrong because these objects date from the 18th century and they belonged to the Churchyard Guards who defended the churchyard against the “Resurrectionists” or “Grave Robbers”.

This horrible trade came about due to a shortage of human bodies needed for dissection by medical students and throughout the 18th century demand for corpses rapidly increased due to increasing numbers of students not only in the Universities but also outside the universities. It became quite fashionable at this period to attend public dissections such as arranged by Dr Knox. Dr Knox was the anatomist who is notoriously connected to the scandal of Burke and Hare. However it should be pointed out that Burke and Hare were not “Resurrectionists” but straightforward killers and they are reputed to have murdered in excess of fifteen people and selling each corpse for £7.50 each. They were eventually brought to book and Hare turned King’s evidence and was never heard of again. Burke on the other hand was hanged and publicly dissected. His skeleton can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Dr Knox himself fled to London and never really cleared his name of the association. It is said Hare later found work as a labourer but when it was found out who he was, was thrown into a lime pit and was blinded.

However to return to Leith, books and stories of the period, are full of tales about carts rattling through the night and bodies being pushed into tea chests to be taken up to the surgeons. There is a Kirk Record of the 5th January 1721 that the officials of the Church searched a grave of a recently deceased lady, and found “the Chist in the grave, but the corpse away”. From the records, we see that it was common for the friends of the deceased to hire watchers or guards to watch over the interment to prevent the body from being stolen, and they came armed with flintlock pistols. However the problem with this is in Leith at this time, was that the water was polluted and dangerous to drink, and so if you were rich you drank wine or Claret, and if you were an ordinary working man you drank beer and as part of their refreshment these guards were given a big barrel of beer to drink. So they would watch and drink, watch and drink until they were completely drunk and after one particular violent drunken brawl they lost the use of their pistols and were given batons instead.

These watchers had the use of a building which unfortunately doesn’t exist now called the Cantore. This stood where the gates are now at the Kirkgate side of the Church. The building being demolished in 1822 at the same time as the King James VI hospital. This building if preserved would have been unique as it contained ecclesiastical cells for people who broke the very strict ecclesiastical laws of the period. It is also noted that they carelessly set the place on fire as well. There is also a note in the records of the 31st July 1735 to a “watchhouse” but what this refers to is not known. However a very good example of this can be seen in the Churchyard at St Cuthbert’s in Lothian Road, Edinburgh.

A further protection for interments apart from railings and Iron Gates were the mortsafe which enclosed the burial in an Iron cage. Unfortunately we don’t now have an example of this at South Leith as they were all removed sometime in the past but they certainly existed. Also the Tombs which lined the walls of the churchyard were completely sealed and enclosed by walls which were only removed in the 1930’s.

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