Peter Lavender and
Janet Edwards each presented an illustrated 30 minute
to our meeting in the Methodist Church on 18th
January. The audience had been
tempted by titles which referred to “rogues, tyrants
and ne'er do wells”. The title of the first talk is a
headline from a local
newspaper of the time.
‘Horrible Murder in
In 1858 a young unmarried
Martham was put on trial for the
murder of her baby son. The local press
described the alleged crime in detail,
including the testimony of many local
people. The baby was found by farm
workers, naked and dying in a field off
the Rollesby Road one summer evening.
The story of Mary Ann Lowne and her
three-week old baby raises many
questions. She had no counsel to
defend her and at no point do we hear
the voice of the accused and her
version of events. However, Mary Ann's
case tells us about changing attitudes
to illegitimacy in the nineteenth
century as well as how the village
responded to this tragic event. Peter
Lavender shared the story of what we
know from publicly available records
about Mary Ann, her trial, and its
impact. We know she walked to
Martham from Great Yarmouth station
carrying her child and we know that
many people saw her along the way.
There are several more details to be
uncovered in this sad but puzzling
story. We don’t know who the father
was, nor what happened to Mary Ann
after she left prison. But we do know
that murdering your illegitimate child
was a specific capital crime and that by
1858 attitudes to poor women were
beginning to change. From 1800 to 1867
some 833 people were sentenced to
death at the Norfolk assizes, although
only 50 executions took place. Was
Mary Ann lucky (as the judge suggested)
or were public attitudes changing?
'18th & 19th
Century Body Snatchers'
This curious, dark side of our
history horrified the general public of
the time. The bereaved stood in
cemeteries to bury their loved ones,
perhaps unknowingly welcoming
‘Resurrectionists’ (also known as 'bodysnatchers')
amongst the mourners.
‘Resurrectionists’ were waiting
for their moment to steal the deceased
in the dead of night, as was their habit,
to put the unfortunate souls into a sack
and then bundle them into a box
transporting them to the burgeoning
medical schools for dissection. They
were paid for by some of the top
surgeons of the day.
This is what happened in Great
Yarmouth in 1827.
churchyard was said to look like a
ploughed field with wives looking for
their husbands, husbands looking for
their wives and parents looking for
their children. At least 20 coffins had
been opened and loved ones stolen.
As advances in Medical science
progressed, the need for freshly
acquired cadavers needed for
dissection became necessary for
anatomists to perfect their skills.
During the 19th century the study of
human bodies was an integral part of
medical students’ training. During this
time surgeons discovered the miracles
of the human body and were able to
perform operations never possible in
And so it was during the winter of 1827
when Thomas Vaughan with his
accomplice rented a cottage in Row 3.
On a Sunday night in November they
went to the churchyard and Vaughan
(alias Smith) raised the body of a
female and another from a near tomb
where there were palisades, put them
in bags and carried them back to Row 3,
when at 6am the following morning
they were transported in boxes marked
“Glass with Care” to London.
Vaughan was jailed for 6 months for his
crime. It was later realised that
Account books from the eminent
surgeon Astley Cooper showed that he financially
assisted Thomas Vaughan through those
months spent in Norwich Gaol.
Authorities of the 18th and 19th
centuries were acutely aware of the
importance of medical research in this
area and therefore, more often than
not ‘Turned a blind eye’.
Ethically we find it hard to socially
accept the fact that bodies were torn
from their resting places in order to
satisfy the advancement of medical
science, but remember the words of
Astley Cooper at the 1828
Parliamentary enquiry into grave
robbing: “That without dissection there
can be no anatomy and that anatomy is
our polar star, for without anatomy a
surgeon can do nothing, certainly
For the thousands of lives saved by
surgical advance since those dark
times, perhaps we should give thanks.