Old Glasgow Club

Minutes of an Ordinary meeting of the Old Glasgow Club held at Adelaide’s, 209 Bath Street on Thursday 10th November 2011 at 7.30pm





Ms Sannachan (President)


Ms Sannachan welcomed everyone to the meeting and explained the fire regulations.


There were apologies from Anna Forrest, Brian Henderson, Margaret McCormack, Linda Muir, Rosemary Sannachan and Graeme Smith.


The minutes of the last ordinary meeting held on Thursday 13th October 2011 were approved, proposed by Sam Gordon and seconded by Margaret Thom. There were no amendments or matters arising.

President’s report

Ms Sannachan commented on the attendance tonight and added that she has been delighted by the attendance figures over the last few meetings which are regularly over 100 people.

Ms Sannachan encouraged members and visitors to take leaflets and perhaps distribute them on their visits around town.

Secretary’s report

Mrs McNae advised that Glasgow 2012 calendars were on sale at the merchandising table as well as the usual items. Mrs McNae also encouraged participation in the picture quiz.

The Glasgow Boys Gallery in Kelvingrove Art Gallery was opened in October and is well worth a visit. The gallery are hosting free tours of the artworks at 11.00am and 14.30pm daily until the end of the year.

At St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art eight Buddhist monks will create a sand Mandala from the 23rd-26th November. It will be destroyed in a ceremony on the 27th November.

Pollok House will hold a “soup tour” on the 23rd November. This will include a talk on “Why did James Thomson write Rule Britannia?”

The Christmas lights will be switched on at George Square on the 20th November.

This year’s summer outing is to the Burns Experience in Ayrshire on Saturday 9th June. Anyone interested in a place please see Margaret Thom.

The next Ordinary meeting on Thursday 8th December will be a talk by Alex Pringle on “From a tour bus – the development of tourism in Glasgow”.


Ms Sannachan introduced Dr Stuart McDonald who would talk on the procurement of cadavers by anatomists in early 19th Century Glasgow. Ms Sannachan thanked Dr McDonald for swapping the date of his talk from January. Dr McDonald is a Senior Lecturer in Human Biology at the School of Life Sciences in Glasgow University. Mr McDonald thanked the Club for his invitation to speak on a subject that everyone associates with body snatching or “resurrectionists”.

Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act where bodies could be legitimately donated to medical science, a physician’s only source of human cadavers were those of hanged felons. In Glasgow at this time there were several anatomy schools in the vicinity of the Old University buildings in the High Street. In 1814, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars there was great demand for military surgeons in the army, this combined with the curtailment of studying on the continent meant that there were around 800 anatomy students at this time. Professor James Jeffrey was Professor of Anatomy at the University from 1790-1848 which was the peak of the “body snatching” era. He was an eminent and innovative scientist who invented a surgical chain saw from a clock mechanism and a prototype iron lung. His lectures were well attended and required a cadaver for each demonstration in the “Paris” style, i.e. a hands on dissection rather than an illustrated lecture. Therefore there was a great demand for human cadavers at this time.

The 1752 Act of Parliament “Act of Better Preventing the Horrible Crime of Murder” which introduced the sentence of hanging and gibbeting for a murderer was, for a while, the only source of cadavers for would be surgeons. Between 1752-1832 there were 38 executions for murder in Scotland, which resulted in 23 dissections in Glasgow. There are many accounts of such public hangings on Glasgow Green “facing the monument” as it came to be known. James McKean was tried and hanged for murder and robbery. Dr McDonald read out a newspaper report account of his final journey from the Green to a College off High Street. The hanging of Matthew Clydesdale is well documented. His body was escorted to the University on a handcart by eight militia, with crowds gathering to watch and onlookers at every available window. Clydesdale’s body was used in an experiment by Jeffries and Ure whereby an electrical current was passed through his body resulting in muscles twitching and spasming as if still alive. They also tried to revive him with currents to his brain. This story is thought to have inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write Frankenstein. “The Clydesdale Chair” is still at Glasgow University and is still in use.

The premium that physicians were willing to pay for fresh samples paved the way for the resurrectionists or body snatchers. Glasgow Cathedral and the Ramshorn Kirk Graveyards were particularly frequented by body snatchers, as evident by the railings and mort safes still evident today.

Efficient bodysnatching required a gang equipped with spade, carpet and lanterns. Dark, windy nights were favoured with the noise of the wind masking the noise of the spades. Only the upper third of the grave was excavated, the coffin crowbarred and the body taken out and hidden in a carpet or large sheet. Evidence from Cadder Kirkyard shows mortsafes as metal coffins in which bodies were kept for 2 to 3 weeks then removed when they were of no use to the medical students. Watchhouses were erected at this time where a family member could keep vigil for a few weeks after a burial. Dr McDonald read an article from the Glasgow Herald 17th April 1823 describing the theft of a body from Cadder Kirkyard which resulted in a riot by the people of Cadder who searched all the anatomical schools in the region. The body was eventually found in a house in Castle St, Glasgow. Another article from 25th February 1831 recounts how a party of body thieves were disturbed in the act of snatching in Kirkintilloch. Hundreds of people were involved in the chase. One thief who was caught was taken into police custody for his own safety. On 18th January 1823 two young men were watching over the graves of relatives in the Ramshorn Kirkyard when a gun accidentally discharged, killing one of the vigilantes.

Resurrectionists often hid the body at a known site for collection by a third party. For example Seabegs Wood in Bonnybridge was also known as Doctor’s Wood because they frequented it so often. The Herald reported on 24th Feb 1823 that a woman’s body was found on the Hamilton Road after a passing dog alerted its master by persistently barking at a cairn built at the side of the road. The body was later identified as Mrs Susan Smythe who had died one month previously.

On 11th September 1829 a “gentleman” hired a hackney cab (or “noddy”) to take him to little Govan. He stopped to pick up a “servant” on the way. At Govan Kirkyard the hackney driver observed several men with shovels and a large piece of “luggage” which the passenger picked up and asked to deliver to Glasgow Cross. The taxi driver took all involved to the nearest police office.

The penalty for bodysnatching varied. If the family of the deceased did not complain then there were no further proceedings. The first offence would warrant 3 years hard labour and a second offence in 7 years transportation to the colonies.

In the 1820’s, the advent of steam ship travel allowed bodies to be quickly transferred from Ireland to the Boomielaw, hidden in boxes of salted beef or piano boxes. A report from December 8th 1826 described “a horrible seizure of dead bodies” associated with a Dr Paterson who regularly bought bodies from sailors.

Such was the poverty in 1820’s Scotland that many bodies were stolen before the funeral by family members. An article from 2nd December 1831 described a husband who sold his wives’ body before her funeral and then tried to sell the unused coffin. The undertaker recognized his handiwork and informed the authorities of the scam.

The most well known bodysnatchers in popular history were Burke and Hare who were prepared to murder to collect their money. Such was their notoriety that in 1827/1828, Burkophobia was a phrase coined by the popular press.

By 1832 the Act of Parliament brought about the changes to the anatomy system that we recognise today, however so great was the public’s mistrust of doctors at this time that it is attributed to the spread of cholera by people too scared to go into hospital.

Q. How long can a body be used for?

A. Now bodies are embalmed and body parts can be used indefinitely if the family wishes. Legally a body can be returned to the family after 3 years if desired.

Q. Are bodies regularly donated?

A. Yes, around 50-60 are regularly donated and used every year. Any donation is very much appreciated.

Q. Is it true that bodies were dug up in summer and then stored in salt for winter use?

A. In theory it could be since the Glasgow University terms were the same as now, October to March. Bodies imported from Ireland were definitely salted to preserve them.

Q. What was the going rate for a body?

A. In 1832 London bodies paid 30 guineas, Edinburgh bodies paid 15-20 guineas and Glasgow bodies paid 4 guineas. There’s no premium today.

Q. When working in the Anatomy department, have you ever had to deal with the body of someone you knew?

A. Thankfully not but there are many urban myths out there.

Vote of Thanks

Mr Gordon thanked Dr McDonald for his talk. After spending nearly 35 years working in Glasgow University’s Department of Medicine he found the talk fascinating and stated it brought a whole new meaning to neighbourhood watch schemes. Mr Gordon again thanked Dr McDonald for swapping the night of his talk.


The Quiz was won by Mrs Elizabeth Smith who correctly identified the statues on top of the Clydeport authority building at the Broomielaw.

Next Ordinary Meeting – Thursday 8th December 2011


Ms Sannachan wished all a safe journey home.


P Cairns, Recording Secretary.