Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Beckenham Resurrectionists

Beckenham churchyard experienced a problem for several years in the 1800's and the euphemism Resurrectionists was applied to the practice of disinterring bodies after burial and removal to the medical schools of London for dissection.
The Beckenham Parish accounts and Vestry minute records cite several incidents and Robert Borrowman in "Beckenham Past and Present" published Beckenham 1910 records the memories of at least one body reinterred at Beckenham.
Beckenham has one of the oldest Lych Gate roofs in the country. Lych gates or Corpse gates originated around the 7th century and were the point at which clergy met the funeral congregation and began the last rites for the deceased. The larger gates had a shelf for the corpse to rest upon. Most surviving lych gates are from the 15th century. However the Saint George Beckenham gate roof dates from the 13th century. The sides and foundation were restored by a grieving father in 1924 to commemorate the loss of two sons in the First World War and a plaque commemorates the restoration. The roof however is over 700 years old.
The church was originally built in the twelfth century and remained as a medieval church until it was taken down and the current town church was built in 1885-1887 by local architect W, Gibbs Bartleet. The tower was added in 1902-3. It's predecessor had suffered fire damage on 23 December 1790 when the medieval shingle spire was struck by lightning and burnt down causing damage to the church also.


In 1818 the Beckenham Parish Accounts record an entry for 11 shillings "paid 2 men for watching the Church 2 nights". The Watchers used to hide in the beams of the old Lych gate.
On 24 November 1822 certain bodies were removed from the churchyard;the perpetrators were apparently identified but no record of punishment survives and Borrowman records several examples of grave watching of recent burials.
The Vestry Minutes record that in 1823 William Arnold Parish Clerk was suspected of being complicit in removal of bodies and that by unanimous resolution that there was no grounds  whatsoever for giving information about burials of being involved with the theft of bodies. Arnold was exonerated by the Vestry.
Borrowman includes the memories of Beckenham people who describe an incident around 1826 of the burial of a schoolmaster followed next morning of the churchyard discovery of burial clothes and the coffin being found empty. The son of the deceased travelled to London and searched all of the hospitals and is said to have identified the partially dismembered corpse which was returned to Beckenham for reinterment.