Jane Sweeney: Blogging about Glasgow’s hidden past and other stuff
‘The Tale of the Anderston Grave Robber’
Most of the nonsense facts I have acquired throughout my life have been learned through books, things I have read that interest me stick. Being from a family of readers most of the debates in our house came from ideas generated by reading both the fiction and fact that enflamed curious minds. Not being terribly wealthy I suppose it was great for my mother to see us all reading. It saved her trying to entertain us when we three kids, often joined by our cousins who lived upstairs, would be engrossed in different worlds.
I have retained this curiosity throughout my life and still love to lose myself in a book, despite now being bombarded by information from a variety of sources. The musings which follow have been greatly aided by a bit of internet research plus a lot of walking about Glasgow and opening my mind to the possibility that what I thought to be true, is in fact a bit off kilter.
I received a gift of a book: “The Guide to Mysterious Glasgow” by Geoff Holder. which contains facts about different districts of Glasgow and one of the more interesting topics he touches on is grave robbing, or body snatching. Holder describes the capture of a body snatcher, John Gillies, in a graveyard in Anderston in 1828. John was caught with two bodies and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. One was the body of a child and the story goes that a wealthy lady offered to reinter the body of the child in her own plot, but when the grave was opened they found the body of her own recently deceased child was also missing.
My initial thoughts were as to the whereabouts of the graveyard as there are no graveyards in Anderston. What unfolded during my investigation really opened my eyes to a growing, changing city. I always knew Glasgow was a city of regeneration and growth, responsive to change in the face of different economic circumstances and technological advancement. However, it was only when I looked at a map available from Glasgow University Library Online Collection that I began to appreciate the massive changes that have occurred in the city over the past two hundred years. The collection has a choice of maps available to view – the one I concentrated on was David Smith’s 1828 map as it tied in with the date of the tale of John Gillies.
The map shows Glasgow almost as a mirror image of what the city is to this day. However, there is no West End as the modern Glaswegian knows it and at this point in history all the major attractions of the West End were roughly housed in the area of Glasgow Cathedral and what we now term the Merchant City. It provides a fascinating view of the city, a treasure map of Glasgow’s rich history, yielding real gems of information. It also reveals the existence of not one but three graveyards in the Anderston of 1828.
Body snatchers were also known as resurrection men. They stole bodies to feed the growing science of Anatomy. Probably the most famous being Burke and Hare, who were murdering their bodies on demand over in Edinburgh, like John Gillies, they too were tried in 1828. The main reason for the theft of corpses was that autopsies were not permitted on cadavers unless they were the bodies of a convicted criminal who had been executed. This changed with the Anatomy Act of 1832. The crime being committed was known as Violation of a Sepulchre – in itself having the body was not a crime as in law it belonged to no one.
In 1828, Glasgow University had a renowned Anatomy Department, based at the University in the High Street and a hospital at the Royal Infirmary. These locations could account for the fact that grave robbing was much more common in the East of the city. In addition there was a private school of anatomy in Blackfriars Street. Fifteen years earlier there had been a scandal when one of the school’s surgeons was prosecuted for stealing a body from St David’s Churchyard (or Ramshorn Church) in Ingram Street.. The case was found not proven; in what is claimed to be the first use of forensics where dental records were used to identify a body.
I searched for the case of John Gillies through court records and drew a complete blank. This may be as a result of Anderston having been distinct from Glasgow at this time, holding the position as a Burgh of Barony. The implications being that the judicial system was overseen by the landowner. It also had its own police force to ensure the safety of around 10,000 citizens. Some records of Barony Courts exist but many are held in private collections and I have drawn a blank at finding the trial of John Gillies despite a fairly decent search of various archives.
The three graveyards in Anderston were dug up in the 1960s to make way for the Kingston Bridge and the bodies were re-buried in various cemeteries throughout Glasgow. Apparently, one of the headstones remains at a bowling club in the area.
Who knows – the bodies moved may include those that John Gillies was caught with? Maybe they now lie beside the grave robber who disturbed their sleep first time round.
Jane Sweeney, January, 2017.