Street Tales: Body Snatchers of Barker Gate

Words: Joe Earp
Illustrations: Mike Driver
Monday 03 November 2014
reading time: min, words

During the Industrial Revolution, advancement in medical sciences came to Nottingham and with them, a gruesome new trade...


By 1827, Barker Gate had become a bustling community of closely packed terrace houses, two or more chapels, three public houses, a school and a number of shops and small businesses. Events which happened in Barker Gate that year were to cause great distress to the residents of Nottingham.

In November of 1826, a man called Smith took up lodgings on Maiden Lane, which ran alongside Middle Bury. On 18 January the following year, Smith took a large hamper to Pickfords for delivery to an address in London. The bookkeeper, Mr White, became suspicious and asked to examine the contents. Smith refused, saying that he must first ask his master William Giles, who was waiting with a horse and cart at Bullivants Yard on Leenside.

Smith left the office in great haste, hotly pursued by White and one of Pickford’s porters. In the street, White was quickly joined by Alderman Barber and Constable Jeffries. The four men pursued Smith to his meeting with Giles and before either could mount the cart, apprehended them. Both Smith and Giles managed to break free, but Smith lost his jacket in the escape. The pair burst through a nearby house into an alley and were never seen again. White and his posse returned to the office and opened the suspicious hamper. Inside they found the body of an old woman, Dorothy Townsend, and a three-year-old boy, who turned out to be the son of local woman Mrs Rose.

Word quickly spread about the incident and St Mary’s graveyards soon became full of people digging to find if their loved ones were still interred. Constables were called in and the random search ended, but not before discovering that thirty bodies had been stolen.

The subsequent enquiry showed that Smith may have been the ringleader, with Giles and another man, both of who had been lodging at a pub on Barker Gate, as his accomplices. Together, the three men had regularly taken packages to Derby and Loughborough for dispatch to London.

The gravedigger William Davies, aka Old Friday, was also suspected of being in on it, but nothing was ever proven. However, Davies narrowly escaped with his life when he was mobbed by crowds in Nottingham and Arnold. History does not record what became of him, but it is known that the disturbed Mrs Townsend and Master Rose were once again laid to rest.

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