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Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 15:08 UK
London's Bodysnatchers

St Mary's Free School and the Watch House
St Mary's Free School and the Watch House

Thames tour of Rotherhithe: Stage 7

By the church in St. Marychurch Street you will find the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library.

They have a large collection of old photographs, postcards and magazines of the local area and it is free to the public.

It was opened in 1976 and is part of film company, Sands Studios.

If you want to visit the library it can be found on the left as you enter the building, the café is for film staff only.

Just past the library on your left, you have St Mary's Free School.

One of the many archive photos at the Rotherhithe Picture Library
Cherry Garden One of the many archive photos from the Rotherhithe Picture Library

You will notice the two statues of schoolchildren wearing uniform from the 18th century.

The school was founded in the 1600s by Peter Hills and Robert Bell, two Elizabethan seafarers, to teach the sons of local seafarers.

They funded the school with the sum of £3 per annum and a brass plaque and other objects can be found in the church.

The original school was founded in 1613 and later moved in 1797 to the building you see today.

It is thought to be the oldest elementary school in London.

In St Mary's Church a brass plate commemorates 'Peter Hills, Mariner, one of the Elder Brothers of the Company of the Trinity' and Master of Trinity House in 1593.


Next to the school is the Watch House from 1821.

Body snatchers were known as 'Resurrection Men'
Watch houses were common in many churchyards around London during the 1800s to deter body snatching
Opposite at Wapping, bodies from the Thames could fetch more money than those taken to the local mortuary in Rotherhithe

This was used by the local watchman or constable to watch out for wrongdoers, particularly body-snatchers raiding graves.

Watchmen wearing white overcoats and carrying lanterns were meant to be seen and heard, they called the time and weather.

Watchmen wearing blue were 'silent' and checked dark corners of the local area.

This watch house consisted of 1 beadle, 1 constable and 14 watchmen.

Bodysnatching was common in this area as surgeons at the local Guy's hospital required fresh corpses and body parts for medical research.

Cheese porters, Surrey Docks 1947
Cheese porters, Surrey Docks 1947

This practice was common around London and 'Resurrection Men' would take bodies from graves and disguise them as merchandise.

Legally, only bodies of convicted criminals could be taken.

In 1832, The Anatomy Act was passed, making it an offence to rob a grave.

It was only legal to dissect the unclaimed bodies of people who had died in hospitals or poor houses.

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