An East End Murder & A West End Grave
Contributing Writer Ruth Richardson tells the pitiful tale of Carlo Ferrier or ‘The Italian Boy’ and the current threat to his last resting place in a paupers’ graveyard next to the Cleveland St Workhouse
Click image to enlarge (With kind permission of the British Library)
London is a big place, yet its neighbourhoods and boundaries are permeable and people move between them all the time. This is the story of a child murder that took place in the East End in 1831, but where the victim was buried in the West End. It is a sorry tale, made even sorrier by the fact that the old paupers’ graveyard in which the boy was buried is currently being eyed-up by developers.
In 1829, a couple of years before this poor boy’s death, William Burke had been hanged and dissected in Edinburgh. The Burke & Hare murders for dissection had spread a ripple of fear and horror – known as ‘Burkophobia’ – across the nation.
This particular London murder was a copy-cat crime. It took place in an East End slum called ‘Nova Scotia Gardens.’ The perpetrators were two ruffians who usually worked as body-snatchers but who had devised a clever method of murdering new victims for sale to the medical schools. Like Burke & Hare, Bishop & Williams chose people who would not be missed. They selected vulnerable individuals who were part of the drifting population of London. The metropolis was full of migrants from all parts of Britain and from abroad, many of them lone children begging for a living on London’s streets.
Food and warmth were probably sufficient to entice victims into their cottage. Their technique left no marks. They would ply their visitors with spirits or drug them into insensibility, then suspend them head first down a small well in their garden. There was no way the poor souls could save themselves. Their last victim was never satisfactorily identified but he became known Carlo Ferrier or the Italian Boy. He had made a thin living by displaying a little cage with white mice.
The murderers were caught by an astute anatomist at King’s College Medical School who was offered the boy’s corpse for his students to dissect. He noticed that the body was unaccountably fresh, and that it had not been laid out for burial. There was nothing to suggest the body had ever been buried and he found blood in the child’s mouth. Body-snatchers regularly extracted good teeth from their victims’ mouths for sale to dentists for authentic-looking dentures, yet a dead body should not bleed. The anatomist was quick-thinking enough to say to the men that he had only a large bank-note, but could break it by the afternoon if they would return to collect their fee. He preserved the evidence and had the police waiting.
Professor of Anatomy at King’s College, Herbert Mayo, wrote at the time:
“ Two incidents trifling in themselves concur to strengthen in my mind the suspicion resulting from the facts detailed in the report that the boy was intentionally destroyed. The first is that no less than six boys have recently disappeared, as we learn through those, who have visited the station house to identify the body. The second is, that ten days ago, an offer was made by a resurrection man of bringing to us the body of a boy, which was described as remarkably fresh: this offer was refused at the time, as it happened that a body was not then required in the dissecting room: this body was not brought to King’s College. It is perhaps too horrible to suppose that there are villains in London, who kill people to order; but the preceding circumstances point frightfully to this conclusion. For my own part I entertain little doubt that from time to time murder is perpetrated in London for the value of the body of the victim.”
After Bishop & Williams were caught, it was rumoured that they had confessed to sixty murders. Sixty. Other people’s clothes were found buried in the garden at Nova Scotia Gardens, and the discovery of the murder of the Italian Boy and the subsequent trial at the Old Bailey received very wide publicity. Both murderers were hanged and publicly dissected.
It was this terrible case which brought about the passage of the infamous Anatomy Act of 1832 which requisitioned for dissection the bodies of the very poor dying in workhouses and other institutions, instead of hanged murderers. It effectively transferred what had been a most loathed and feared punishment for murder, onto poverty. The politicians that enacted it also passed the 1834 New Poor Law which so successfully established the hated regime of the Victorian Workhouse as a place of privation and punishment.
The Italian Boy had been lodging in the parish of Covent Garden, so that parish undertook the murder prosecution against the brutes who had killed him and his poor body was carried to the burial ground that surrounds the eighteenth century Covent Garden Workhouse in Cleveland St.
This is the same Workhouse which was saved from demolition in 2011 by my discovery that Charles Dickens had lived a few doors away as a child and again, as a teenager. In 1831, when the Italian Boy’s coffin was carried up the street to the Workhouse graveyard, Dickens knew the Italian boy’s destination. Dickens had renewed his Reader’s Ticket for the British Museum Reading Room from the same street that year and he may even have been the reporter of the case as published by John Fairburn of Ludgate Hill in an anonymous pamphlet with illustrations created by the members of the Cruikshank family.
Later in life, in the eighteen-forties, Dickens visited a charitable school for Italian Boys established in Clerkenwell several times: “I was among the Italian Boys from twelve to two this morning… ” he wrote in a letter to his best pal. And when his wealthy friend Angela Burdett Coutts was searching for a site in the East End for her great philanthropic project, Columbia Market, Dickens was very happy to help her identify and acquire the insanitary slum of Nova Scotia Gardens.
The Columbia Market building, a magnificent piece of Victorian architecture, was shamefully demolished in the twentieth century. Fortunately, the same fate has so far been prevented for the Workhouse in Cleveland St because of its association with Dickens and it is now widely accepted that this Workhouse is likely to have been inspirational for his famous novel Oliver Twist. The oppressive regime inside the Cleveland St Workhouse was very like the one he portrayed in the novel: Oliver’s uniform was the same regulation brown and there was a reiterated ban on second helpings of food. Crucially, it has been proved that while Dickens was actually writing the novel, a tallow chandler’s shop opposite the Workhouse was run by a man called Bill Sykes!
The Cleveland St Workhouse later became part of the Middlesex Hospital and it has been eyed by developers since the main Middlesex Hospital building was closed and demolished. Now two new planning applications have been made to gut the Cleveland St Workhouse for luxury apartments and demolish everything else behind it, including its two fine Nightingale wards. A building twice the height of the Workhouse and a car park will occupy almost the entire graveyard, and destroy nearly 250 years of history on this unique site which embodies the story of health care in the capital since the seventeen-seventies.
Swift opposition from numbers of people who care about London’s history will make the planners and developers think more carefully about the historical importance of the entire site, including the consecrated burial ground where so many Londoners still lie. If you are willing to email the planners, please go to www.workhouses.org.uk/ClevelandStreet/ and follow the links.
The case of The Italian Boy is believed to have reported by Charles Dickens as cub reporter, published anonymously (With kind permission of the British Library)
Provenance for Dickens’ authorship of the report of case of the The Italian Boy (With kind permission of the British Library)
Entry in the Burials Register for St Paul Covent Garden showing the last resting place of the Italian Boy
The Cleveland St Workhouse dates from the seventeen-eighties
Charles Dickens’ calling card while resident in Fitzrovia (reproduced courtesy of Dan Calinescu)
Nineteenth century glass side of Columbia Market built over Novia Scotia Gardens and demolished in the sixties (Courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute)
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