Deathless tale of theWardsend bodysnatchers

LOCAL legend has it that of the four clock faces on the old St. Philip’s Church tower, one was never lit at night. This, it was said, was to allow the bodysnatchers at the nearby Wardsend Cemetery to carry out their grisly work, unable to see when the witching hour had come.

Abandoned by the Church of England after the last war, it has become a victim of illegal dumping and vandalism, a forgotten part of the city’s history.

The macabre saga, which culminated 30 years later with a riot by 3,000 Sheffielders and two celebrated trials at York Assizes, began in 1831 when the Rev. John Livesey M.A. became the Vicar of St. Philip’s.

A diligent and popular clergyman, Mr Livesey spent £2,600, mostly of his own money, to overcome a severe shortage of burial ground in the parish.

The Archbishop of York consecrated the new cemetery at Wardsend, on the steep hillside of a beautifully wooded valley near the recently completed Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway line, in 1859.

For dissection

All was well until a day early in June 1862, when a labourer, Robert Dixon, accused the sexton of irregular practices.

Dixon, who lived in the burial ground house at the cemetery, had already complained of an unpleasant odour emanating from the coach house under part of his home.

But now he alleged the sexton, Mr Isaac Howard, was disinterring newly buried bodies and selling them for dissection.

News of the allegation caused a wave of revulsion to sweep the people of Sheffield, many of whom had relatives recently buried at the cemetery.

On the evening of June 3rd, a crowd gathered at Wardsend to find a large hole containing coffins, with and without bodies, one of which had clearly been dissected.

Suspicion fell upon the sexton, and the crowd moved half a mile away to Howard’s home in Burrowlee. Howard learned a mob was on the way and fled, leaving his no-doubt terrified wife to face them.

Unable to persuade them to leave, she was forced to abandon her home, carrying away only a single suitcase. The mob set fire to the £500 home which was completely destroyed.

Four days later, an enquiry opened in the Town Hall, chaired by the Mayor, John Brown.

Dixon described how he had gone into the coach house and found twenty coffins and twenty four detached coffin plates. He opened one of the coffins and found the body of a fifteen year old boy. The next day the boy’s body had disappeared.

In Hiding

His wife told the inquiry that on one occasion, she had seen a porter from the town’s medical school with Howard and later overheard the sexton complaining because the porter had brought no money.

The implication was that Howard was disinterring corpses and selling them to surgeons for dissection. A notable absentee from the enquiry was Howard, who, it was later learned, was in hiding in Derby and Bakewell.

A surgeon from the medical school denied it had bought bodies from Howard or anyone else.

It was easy to get bodies legally. The usual source was from the workhouse from which they acquired the unclaimed bodies of paupers, he said.

It emerged that the law had been breached by both the medical school and the town’s workhouse.

The workhouse had sent bodies to the school in sacks, and the school, after dissecting them, had allowed Howard to convey them to Wardsend in plain wooden boxes. The law required that coffins should be used.

It appears that the medical school, nervous of its reputation as a school for bodysnatchers, were trying to hush up its activities.

Now the grim tale took a sensational twist as suspicion began to focus on the Rev John Livesey. It was revealed that he had made a false entry in the burial register, having failed to check that the body of a boy named James Greatorex had been interred.

On June 11th, a public meeting of parishioners at the Peacock Inn, Hoyle Street, severely criticised Livesey. The next night a crowd of 3,000 Sheffielders gathered in the Temperance Hall, Townhead Street, and demanded Livesey should be suspended until he had either been cleared or condemned.

Turn to dust

On June 23rd, Livesey was committed to York Assizes, his bail being set at £750, and charged with making a false entry in the burial register.

Howard now made a statement implicating Livesey. He said that he had removed bodies from their graves, but only on the instructions of the Vicar. The dis-interments were of children – whose small bodies would more quickly turn to dust – buried in 1857 and 1858. Their remains were placed in a large pit.

Howard was committed to York Assizes, charged with unlawfully disinterring the bodies of two children, William Henry Johnson and Charley Hinchliffe.

During Howard’s trial the following month, Uriah Hinchliffe told how, upon suspecting his two year old son’s body had been illegally removed, went to the cemetery with a detective. They opened the grave and found the body missing.

Although the evidence against Livesey amounted to no more than an excessive trust in his sexton’s word, the jury found him guilty. The judge showed what he thought of the verdict and sentenced the clergyman to one week imprisonment.

Howard, also found guilty, was also treated leniently and was given a three month sentence. Livesey was later pardoned, after Howard made a clean breast of his crimes.

The puzzling part of the Wardsend “bodysnatchers” affair is that it is unclear why Howard did what he did. There is evidence that he may have been lining his pockets by selling burial plots over and over again and that the dissected bodies were not being given decent burials according to the law.

What is clear is that Howard was not a ressurectionist. But the power of folklore is perhaps, stronger than truth and no doubt the tale of the Wardsend bodysnatchers will live to be told another day.

From an undated and unnamed local newspaper article by Jeremy Sutcliffe


The funeral of the most highly decorated soldier to be buried in Wardsend, was reported in the local press as follows:-

FUNERAL OF LIEUTENANT LAMBERT. – The funeral of Lieutenant and Adjutant Lambert, of the 84th Regiment, took place on Thursday, at the St. Philip’s burial ground. The ceremony was conducted with military honours, the band of the regiment marching at the head of the procession, and playing the “Dead March” in Saul. Most of the deceased’s brother officers were present, and his charger was led after the body, bearing his master’s boots reversed. The usual volleys were fired over his grave at the conclusion of the service, and the procession then returned to the Barracks. Lieutenant Lambert was greatly respected by all who knew him, and his sudden decease is greatly lamented. His death was caused by the breaking of a blood vessel on Friday week, whilst on the parade ground of the Barracks. He had been somewhat unwell for several weeks, but not so seriously as to cause any apprehension, or to prevent him from fulfilling a part of his duties. He had risen from the ranks, having been in the service about 18 years, and had earned his honours in India. 

Lambert, George V.C. – Born at Market Hill, December 1819. Served in Ranks June 6th 1840 to December 11th 1857; Ensign without purchase, December 12th 1857; Adjutant, July 2nd 1858; Lieutenant without purchase, September 17th 1858. Died at Sheffield, February 10th 1860. Served in East Indies, August 8th 1842 to September 2nd 1859. Present in the following Actions, viz.:- Oonao and Busseerutgunge, July 29th 1857; Busseerutgunge, August 5th 1857; Boorbeakee Chowkee, August 12th 1857; Blithur, August 16th 1857; Mungawar, September 21st 1857; Alumbagh, September 23rd 1857; Relief of Lucknow, September 25th 1857; and subsequent Siege, including the Storming of the Hirn Khana; Occupation of the Camp at Alumbagh; Siege and Capture of Lucknow. Served with the Azimghur Field Force in all the minor Actions with that Column. Served also in the Shahabad District until the suppression of the rebellion in that District. Severely wounded in the head at Relief of Lucknow, September 25th 1857. Awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the Field on July 29th 1857; at the Battle of Oonao,on August 16th 1857; at Blithur; and, on September 25th at the Relief of Lucknow. Medal and two clasps.



 Section of George Lambert's Death Certificate


  George Lambert V. C. 's Headstone


                                                 Mud splattered and Ivy clad.
                 Colour Sergeant Newell, still on guard duty at the Main Entrance



Today an inquest was held at the Freedom House Inn, Walkley, before Mr. Wightman, the Borough Coroner, upon the body of George Beaumont, Forger, of Owlerton, who was killed on Christmas Day, through inadvertently leaping into Mr. Nadin’s quarry after a football. The quarry is situated in the field used as a football ground by the St. Phillip’s Club.

James Beaumont of 248 Beet Street, file grinder, said he was brother to the deceased, who was 23 years of age and a steel forger by trade. He was a very tall man. Henry James Ollerenshaw of Fowler Street, stone mason, said he knew the deceased was a member of with himself of the Walkley and Owlerton Football Club. They were playing in a match against the St Phillip’s on Christmas Day in a field adjoining Dark Lane. There was a quarry in the field from which it was separated by a stone wall.

In the course of the game, the ball was kicked over the wall and into the quarry and the deceased, who did not know of the difference in the level between the quarry and the field at this part, ran and jumped on to the top of the wall. One or two of the stones gave way and he fell into the quarry, a distance of between sixty and eighty feet. Even had the wall been firm, the impetus with which he jumped would, in the witness’s opinion, have carried him over. He was found by a party of the players lying insensible in the quarry, slightly on his right side.

He was removed to the house of Mr. Hurd, where he received medical attendance and died the same day. The field was that used by the players of the St. Phillip’s Club and the club to which the deceased belonged were strangers to it. The wall fencing the quarry was about a yard in height. Joseph Toyne of Industry Street said that he was acting as umpire between the two clubs. The deceased had been over before after the ball, but in that place, there was a strip of ground between the wall and the edge of the quarry whereon to alight. Where he met with his death, the quarry came close under the wall. In all probability, the deceased supposed that there was a ledge between the wall and the edge of the quarry.

The Coroner said there was no doubt that the death in this case was accidental; but it was a question whether this field was a proper place to play football in. The Foreman (Mr. George Martin) said he did not regard it as a proper place for strangers and suggested that notice should be given to the owners of the quarry to heighten the boundary wall. Police Inspector Moore said that the field had been used for football for many years and that this was the first accident that he had ever heard of occurring there.

The Coroner said that something ought to be put up to show that danger existed. He thought that it was the duty of the football club to do this. The place was safe enough for the purposes to which it was ordinarily used. The club, when inviting strangers to play on their ground, ought to warn them of the danger. This was decidedly more the duty of the club than of the owner of or occupier of the farm.

Inspector Moore was instructed to convey this intimation to the secretary of the St. Phillip’s Club and the jury having returned as their verdict that the deceased was accidentally killed, the proceedings were terminated.

Thursday 27th December 1877







On Monday evening, Mr. Badger, coroner, held an inquest at Walkley, near Sheffield, on the body of Olivia Spooner, aged fifteen years, daughter of Edward Spooner, a working cutler. The habitation of Spooner presented a fearful scene of destitution. There was no furniture worthy of the name; and Spooner and three of his living children were seated in the kitchen, apparently on the verge of starvation themselves, and clothed in dirty rags. The body of the deceased girl was lying on a bed, covered with a heap of miscellaneous clothing, men’s and women’s, ragged with age and as black as ink with filth. The body presented a very pinched and attenuated appearance. From the evidence adduced, it appears that Spooner has been suffering for some time past for want of work, but about three weeks ago he totally disabled himself by falling down some steps. Since then he has had out-door relief from the Ecclesall Poor-law Union, and Dr. Wilson, medical officer to the union, has attended him for his injuries. During one of his visits, Spooner called Dr. Wilson’s attention to his daughter Olivia, who had been ailing for a week or two previously, and who was then in a very weakly condition. Dr. Wilson at once saw that the chief cause of the poor girl’s suffering was want of proper food and clothing. Upon leaving the house, he gave information of the facts to Mr. Dearden, the relieving officer, who at once sent a cab to bring Spooner and his family to the workhouse, so that they might be properly attended. Upon the cab reaching the house, Spooner positively refused to allow himself or his family to be removed, bolted and locked the door in the face of the man in charge of the cab, and put the poker in the fire to attack him, should he attempt to remove them by force. The consequence was that they remained in their destitution, and two days later, the unfortunate girl Olivia, died. From the medical evidence there was no doubt that the girl had died from some internal disease, aggravated by the want of proper food and clothing; and the jury returned a verdict to that effect, accompanied with a censure upon Spooner.



An inquest has just been held at Sheffield, on the body of Olivia Spooner, aged 15, daughter of Edward Spooner, a table knife hafter. The mother of the deceased died several years ago, leaving a husband and six children. The man was stated to have been of very intemperate habits, and only occasionally employed; and therefore the family had long been in great distress. Lately their condition had been rendered still worse by an accident to the father, which had incapacitated him for work, and 5s. a week (one half of it in bread) from the parish was for some time all on which they had to subsist. The deceased had been unwell for some weeks previous to her father’s accident, and very ill subsequently; but it was not until a few days before her death that he requested the union surgeon, who had been attending on himself, to see her. The poor girl was found lying upon an old mattress, with nothing to cover her but a few pieces of wearing apparel disgustingly filthy. The parish officers wished to remove the family to the workhouse, but the father stubbornly refused, and the girl at last sank under the influences of cold and want of nourishment. The body was found shockingly emaciated, and the house most desolate and filthy. The jury returned a verdict that death had been accelerated by want, blaming the father for not sooner procuring her medical aid.


Contemporary newspaper reports of the inquest of Olivia Spooner.

The 1851 Census shows the family consisting of Edward aged 41, cutler, wife Elizabeth aged 35, son Edward aged 13, son Albert aged 11, daughter Olivia aged 9, daughter Mary aged 7, son Robert aged 3, son Frederick aged 2 and daughter Julia aged 1, living at Ran Moor.


Olivia Spooner died on 30th March 1858 and is buried in Wardsend Cemetery.


The 1861 Census shows the family now consisting of Edward aged 51, Table Knife Hafter, daughter Mary aged 16, son Robert aged 13, son Frederick aged 11 and daughter Julia aged 10, now living at 116 Eyre Lane.


                                               Boating Tragedy at Boston
                           from the Boston Guardian and Independent – July 4th 1914
A visitor to Boston, Ernest Gibson, aged 28, from White House Lane, Infirmary Road, Sheffield, was drowned an inquest was told and two others had narrow escapes. The death was due to an overloaded rowing boat. The inquest heard that the circumstances were as follows.
The victim, with a friend Thomas France, a file forger, was in Boston for a fishing weekend it is presumed. They hired a boat from a Mr J. Upsall, boat hirer of Grand Sluice on the Witham, they planned to row to Anton's Goit, arriving at noon. Once there, they frequented the Malcolm Arms Inn and met another companion, Charles Cowley, who had walked along the bank and had been fishing. The three men then met another man from Boston who had also rowed to the inn. At about 2pm the four men left the pub, the victim and France in one boat and the other two men in the other boat.
After a short while the four men pulled into the bank and sat for a while smoking. An hour later three men set off again while the man Boston, decided to stay. The rowing boat which was meant for two people was overloaded when Cowley also agreed to go with Gibson and France. They had gone about 100yds when they got into trouble and the boat sank by the stern, the victim went under and never surfaced, his body was later recovered after the river was dragged under the authority of Det. Sgt Swain.
France and Cowley also went under but were rescued by another Sheffield visitor. George Henry Hurst and Bert Tooke of Argyle St Boston. The body when recovered was taken to the Witham Tavern. The deceased was single and came to Boston on Saturday he planned to go home on Monday but extended his stay into Tuesday.
The inquest took place at the Baptist schoolroom, Witham St, Witham green under Dr. A. Tuxford. The Inquest jury heard that each man had drunk three bottles each in the Malcolm Arms, beer for Cowley and stout for France and Gibson. The men got into the boats at about 2.10pm and rowed towards Boston. Cowley, after a short while said, 'you are not going to run home yet – pull into the bankside'. At about 3pm, the three men decided to row to Boston with the deceased doing the rowing, the boat started to go down and Gibson said, 'By god, the boat is filling'.  All three were thrown into the water.
The coroner asked whether they were sitting still and were sober; Cowley replied that they were. A juror asked whether the boat was capable of holding three people. It was added that the boat owner was in no way responsible as he had no control over how many got into the boat. Cowley a file driver of Ellerton St, Sheffield said that all three were thrown out of the boat and he did not see the victim go under.
The suggestion was made that the boat leaked, but on investigation, Det. Sgt. Swain had found the boat to be sound when it was recovered. Tooke who was fishing at the time said that he went speedily to fetch a rope to render assistance. Hurst who was fishing from a boat about 70yds. away from the victim's boat said that he heard a shout and went to the accident as quickly as possible, he saw one man go down twice, he thought about diving in to save Gibson but saw that the other two couldn't swim and went to help them. Upon being asked if the boat was big enough for three he agreed with Joseph Upsall that it wasn't. Upsall added that the boat was new. Gibson could row the boat but the more he rowed the more he pulled the boat down.
A verdict of accidental death was recorded. The body was identified by the victim's brother Frank Gibson.
Ernest Gibson is buried in Wardsend cemetery in H section.  


                                           St Philip's Church - 1860

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