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The Tale Of John Crosby

July 3, 2024
by Ruth Richardson

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On the eve of the General Election, Historian Ruth Richardson uncovers a salutary tale from a century ago that eloquently illustrates the divergence between the two major parties in respect for the sanctity of the human body.

Dressing upon the grave of John Crosby, Barking Cemetery


This is the story of John Crosby, an east ender who died in the workhouse. His story offers one explanation of the appeal of the nascent Labour Party to many Londoners.

John Crosby was a decorated ex-serviceman, a veteran of the Crimean War, who died in 1921 in Romford Workhouse. He had outlived his family and, until he fell ill in the last year of his life, lived in lodgings on his army pension. The National Health Service was still a quarter-century in the future, so Mr Crosby was taken to the local workhouse and, when he died there, his body was sent for dissection.

I discovered Mr Crosby’s story when I was researching the records of the Anatomy Office. A news cutting had been heavily marked up for attention and it caught my eye. When I had read it, I understood the Anatomy Inspector’s official interest and possibly his alarm.

The Inspector of Anatomy’s job was to oversee the smooth working of the Anatomy Act, an unpleasant piece of class legislation passed in 1832 to create a new source of fresh corpses for medical schools. It went through quietly, mostly at night while Parliament was debating the Reform Bill during the day. The national uproar over the difficulty of extending voting rights occupied the newspapers for months, so reporting of the ‘midnight’ Anatomy Bill was effectively buried.

At the time, the teaching of anatomy was hampered by a shortage of corpses. Ever since Tudor times, dissection had been a exemplary punishment for murderers yet there were too few to supply medical students’ needs. Grave robbers were efficient but by the eighteen-twenties efforts to protect graveyards made their work more difficult and costs were rising. The discovery of the serial murderers Burke & Hare in Edinburgh in 1828 and then the London ‘Burkers’ of 1831, revealed that the high sums offered for fresh corpses had in fact served to commission murders. Between 1828 and 1832 (when the Anatomy Act was passed) the country was gripped by ‘burkophobia’ – the widespread terror of being murdered for dissection.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 was skilfully drafted. It transferred dissection from being a terrible judicial punishment, inflicted only upon the worst of murderers, to the very poor. Anyone receiving a pauper’s funeral could now be requisitioned for dissection without their consent.

Enormous resistance to the new law erupted across the country, including the phenomenal growth of the Victorian burial insurance industry, yet the Act remains the basis of corpse procurement even today. The same cruel inclination resulted two years later in the passage of the New Poor Law, establishing the harsh workhouse regime which terrorised the poor throughout Victoria’s long reign and well into the twentieth century.

In the nineteen-twenties, Dr Alexander MacPhail was the newly appointed Anatomy Inspector, travelling nationwide to persuade local authorities to send their unclaimed dead to medical schools. In April 1921, the Tory majority on Romford’s Board of Guardians obliged. Since Mr Crosby had no known living relatives and his friends were too poor to pay for his burial, he was classified as an ‘unclaimed’ pauper and sent for dissection.

But a minority group of the Guardians, who were elected from the nascent Labour Party, perceived the social injustice of the Anatomy Act and were implacably opposed to it. They tried to defend the Romford poor from its reach. Outnumbered, they had failed just as they had failed to prevent the Tory majority from forcing unemployed men from Barking, both fit and war-disabled, to walk six miles and back to the Romford labour yard to take the ‘work test’ – smashing stones etc – to qualify for unemployment relief.

Yet Mr Crosby’s case was another matter. Word got out that a decorated army veteran had been consigned to dissection. In 1921, the Great War was a recent memory and Romford War Memorial was being constructed while Mr Crosby was dying. It was unveiled in the town centre while Mr Crosby was lying on a dissecting table as his body was in the process of dissection.

The Guardians of the Romford Workhouse met fortnightly and, since the Tory majority also held the Chair, decisions already voted through were difficult to reverse. It took public outrage to force the decision to recall Mr Crosby’s corpse and weeks more passed before the Guardians’ resolution was effected by the Anatomy Inspector. Eventually, John Crosby’s body was returned to Romford.

The Tory group on the Guardians in Romford realised they were in the wrong and were so shamed by their own ugly decision that all but one of them avoided attending Mr Crosby’s funeral. 12th October 1921 was the day of a huge celebration in Romford and Barking. The streets were lined with silent spectators as a military escort from nearby Warley Barracks accompanied the coffin, draped in the Union Jack and borne on a gun-carriage. The procession marched from Romford Workhouse, via Mr Crosby’s old lodgings in James St, to Barking Cemetery. Wreaths had been sent by friends and neighbours, a Labour councillor, and from the ‘mother of a soldier’.

As the coffin passed through the cemetery gates, the military band in attendance struck up the Death March, three volleys were fired over the grave, and the plaintive sound of the Last Post echoed out across the cemetery.  Speeches followed, and it was these – as reported in the local paper – which had been of such interest to the Anatomy Inspector. The graveside addresses included one from a highly respected local public figure, Mr Edwin Lambert, one of the minority Labour Party Guardians of the Poor.

‘As Labour members who recognised the rights of all, they held that if it was good for John Crosby to have his body put on the dissecting table it was good for anybody else. There should be no distinction. If it was necessary at all, let them be balloted for. But they did protest against this man’s body being taken to the dissection table without his sanction beforehand, while Lord Tom Noddy was allowed to go quite free because he could make a pomp and show of it.’

Between 1855, until his discharge from the Royal Artillery in 1883, John Crosby’s years of service included India (1857 onwards), Afghanistan (1878-80) and Egypt (1882). Like many recruits, Mr Crosby probably fibbed about his age in 1855 when he enrolled as a bugle boy in the Royal Artillery during the Crimean War. His age was recorded as thirteen but at his death in 1921 was recorded as seventy-seven years old, which does not add up. So it is possible that he was only eleven years of age when he joined the army.

Mr Crosby was certainly not the only army veteran sent for dissection by so-called ‘Guardians’ of the Poor in the years following World War One. He probably represents many workhouse inmates who ended up on the slab after serving this country in war. Thousands of working-class men injured or limbless from battle had been forced into workhouses on their return from the trenches and a good proportion of them had died there ‘unclaimed’, despite what they had been told by the ruling politicians about a ‘Land Fit for Heroes’.

It took two more years after Mr Crosby’s funeral for the Anatomy Office to issue a circular to corpse-suppliers – workhouses, infirmaries, mental hospitals etc – to the effect that any institutionalised veteran in receipt of an army pension was henceforth exempted from requisition for dissection.

The interwar period was brief, less than a generation. Veterans of World War Two knew that the ‘Land Fit for heroes’ had dishonoured its own rhetoric by sending injured servicemen to the workhouse. Their votes helped secure the 1945 Labour government which created our National Health Service.


With many thanks to Gemma Norburn, Staff at the Essex Records Office at Chelmsford, Staff at the British Library, Simon Donoghue at Havering Central Library, and Simon Hutchison.

You may like to read these other stories by Ruth Richardson

An East End Murder & A West End Grave

At the Cleveland St Workhouse

Florence Nightingale in Cleveland St

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    July 3, 2024

    This story comes as no flipping surprise .
    My grandma and Mum may they rest in peace spoke terrible words about the Board of Guardians who humiliated them .
    I remember going to get help myself and was made to feel shame by certain people .

    A disgrace .

  2. Peter Harrison permalink
    July 3, 2024

    Thank you for this valuable insight into the contempt of the ruling classes for the humanity of those upon whom they relied for their own defence!

  3. Mark permalink
    July 3, 2024

    Highly interesting tale.
    My Grandma told me years ago that in the 1920s, the rent collectors would terrorize whole streets (of basically slums) of people in order to extract the cash for their paymaster landlords. They were the Tory class. My lovely Grandma, with her 8 brothers and sisters all grew up as Labour voters because of the cruelty of the boss classes. Very proud of them all. All gone now. Let’s rid the country of these leeches once and for all. It’s been a tough 14 years.

  4. July 3, 2024

    Staggering cruelty in the name of king and country.

    (with country misspelled as a courtesy to the dead)

  5. Sue permalink
    July 3, 2024

    Thank you for another fascinating insight into events that only happened one generation ago.

  6. July 3, 2024

    The lack of care and gratitude to non-commissioned service personnel was a disgrace then and continues today: it shames us all. Thank you for this beautifully written tale.

  7. Pippa Richardson permalink
    July 3, 2024

    Beautifully written, moving and poignant. How important it is to remember what our ancestors went through under an ever-cruel ruling class.

  8. Lorraine permalink
    July 3, 2024

    This moved me almost to tears, probably because at this specific moment I am waiting anxiously to see if the people of the UK do the decent thing on 4 July. Now more than ever we need a government that has integrity and compassion and gives us hope. Reading this wonderfully written piece, the parallels with todays attitudes by the same sector of society are apparent. A leopard never changes its spots as they say. Everyone on this planet should be treated with respect decency and humanely no matter what their background. Sorry, consider soap box now removed from beneath my feet.

  9. Ruth permalink
    July 7, 2024

    Listen to a Great War soldier speak on the Imperial War Museum website:

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