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Weird Norfolk: The Norwich street once rife with tales of bodysnatchers

PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 July 2018

Rampant Horse Street, Norwich. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Rampant Horse Street, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2015

Today, it’s in the heart of the city – but in 1823, Rampant Horse Street was at the heart of a deeply distressing tale of bodysnatching from five Norwich churches.

Rampant Horse Street sign.
 PICTURE: EDP LIBRARYRampant Horse Street sign. PICTURE: EDP LIBRARY

On July 15th 1823, two men, Joseph Collins and Thomas Crowe, appeared at the Norwich Court of Quarter Session charged with stealing the body of Thomas Brundall from Lakenham churchyard.

Thomas had died earlier that year in February aged 71, leaving a wife and three daughters, one of whom, Anne Alden, had seen her father’s body before he was buried at Lakenham churchyard six days after his death. It would not be the last time she would see her father, even though she had watched the earth fall on his coffin and bid him a final farewell.

The day after Brundall’s death, William Blogg, the bookkeeper of the Telegraph Day coach to London, which had its office at the Rampant Horse Inn on St Stephen’s Street (where Debenhams is today) received a letter which led him to believe that bodies from Norwich were being sent to London by coach.He recalled seeing heavy, canvas-covered boxes travelling to London at various times in the preceding months to a JC Roberts of London where they would be left at the Flower Pot in Bishopgate Street “till called for”.

Blogg told staff to detain anyone bringing in similar boxes. He didn’t have to wait long: on February 15, a man called Ephraim Ulph brought such a box to the Horse whereupon he was detained by coach porter John Tee. The box, it is said, bore a distinctive odour. When the three feet long and 18 inch wide box was opened, it was found to contain the body of a man enveloped in canvas and doubled up to fit inside, his head lodged between his feet – it was clear the man had only recently died. Further investigations led magistrates to two London bodysnatchers, Joseph Collins and Thomas Crowe, who had paid Ulph to deliver their deadly packages into Norwich.

Mr Paraman, the city gaoler, went to Crowe’s lodgings. He found the two men together

and arrested them. After handcuffing Collins he searched him and found two skeleton keys in one of his pockets and a further 11 in the room.Later he tried the large keys in the locks of seven churches and succeeded in opening five of them: St Peter Mancroft, Lakenham, St Stephen’s, St John Timberhill and St Andrews. He continued to search and found a black leather pocket-book which contained a packing needle, packing thread and some cards marked with the London address. On the chimney-piece he found two front teeth – later, in the presence of a surgeon, he compared them with two gaps in the upper jaw of Brundall. They fitted exactly.

In the stable he found a spade, a hammer, a pair of trousers, two knee-caps, a jacket, a pair of leather gaiters and a piece of rope which was stiff with mould. Thomas Nicholls, sexton at Lakenham, identified Crowe

and Collin as two men he had noticed at Brundall’s funeral

and when he opened the poor man’s grave, all he found was

a shroud, a pillow and some

items put into the coffin to keep it steady in the earth. Addressing the jury, council for the prosecution said the law did not award adequate punishment for body-stealing. The cry of surgeons and their pupils was “we want and must have subjects” to dissect, and it was under the plea of advancing science that a frightful increase had taken place in this practice. In spite of defence council’s plea that great strides had been made in medical science and that men like the prisoners had contributed to it, the “resurrectionists” were found guilty. They were sentenced to three months imprisonment and fined £50.

Meanwhile, poor Anne found herself facing her father – the man she had seen buried just five days previously - one last time on February 18, in one of Norwich’s workhouses before his second (and hopefully final) burial.

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