Saturday 11 June 2011

St. Sepulchre's Watch, Nightsoil and the Resurrection Men

It was pointed out to me recently that London’s nightsoil (whom back here in March, in the piece on the old Necropolis Railway, I’d postulated had been killed in the 60s) are not entirely gone from the capital. I confess I’d taken the news from Mike Hodge’s 1971 production of Camberwell, where the last was famously held up for ridicule by the Richardson gang. I knew that they had prospered in the old railway that took the dead to Brookwood Cemetery, and knew they’d been driven out when the station took a hit in the war. I’ve got a lot of family came from round there, Lambeth and especially the music halls so I knew the tales from very young. My Granda indeed used to delight in frightening me as he showed me south London with stories of horror and gruesome gossip, most especially about the nightsoil.
So I was delighted to learn that three at least remain, albeit north of the river.
Pictured is the Watch House for St. Sepulchre’s. This is in Giltspur Street, close on to St. Pauls. It was built to protect the dead from the resurrection men back in the 1700s. Then and you might know that cadavers for dissection could only come from executed murderers and the need far outstripped demand. A good body could fetch £50, and foremost amongst the fiends doing the digging were the nightsoil. The provision for these ‘grey friars’ as the watch were and are commonly called (not from any link to abbey or even vestment but rather because the former method to prevent such robbery were sets of metal bars called mortsafes, and most famously in Grayfriars churchyard, though that distant in Edinburgh) remain still today. Their wages paid from a great many devotions and their duties legal and by ancient charter. Indeed the three grey friars are one of the few private bodies legally able to go armed in the City – albeit with the weapons of the day, and the exact weapons of the day so that blunderbuss and pistol are determinedly maintained.
The irony that the grey friars now are nightsoil, tickles me. I checked in case of an obvious windup but yes, it seems to be true and indeed I’ve an open invite to drop in. This is rather flattering as the Watch House is a haunt for everyone that works the city, and at night. They were hesitant on the phone until I mentioned I was Bill Vose’s grandson, when they warmed perceptively.
I’ll let you know how it goes.

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