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Stories From Skeletons

200-400AD

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We have a fascinating insight into Roman lives in what is now Ferry Meadows thanks to the Coney Meadow Cemetery, which was in use around 200-400AD. Over 40 skeletons were discovered of men, women and also children from Roman Peterborough. Archaeologists discovered that the people who were buried here had tough lives, through analysis of the skeletons.  These skeletons give us an understanding of death and disease in Roman Britain. They discovered a family with arm abnormalities and children with ear infections. They also found women with new-born babies, who may have died from complication associated with birth. Recently 3 of the skeletons were subjected to DNA analysis. Scientists were able to date the skeletons to the mid to late Roman period. One of the skeletons, know as 'skeleton 24' was identified as a woman. She had a bone bracelet and bone comb with her when she died, which were both dated to the fourth or early fifth centuries. DNA analysis revealed that she was alive somewhere between 240AD and 390AD. Combined with the bone objects, this reinforces the likelihood that the woman was alive in the late fourth century. There were also fragments of cheap, rough pottery close to the burials on Coney Meadow Cemetery. The lack of expensive pottery suggests these were everyday Romans and not the elite and therefore better representative of other Romans.





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Death of Variety Star Nosmo King

1949

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Mr Vernon Watson was born in Thorney in 1885, in his youth, a clerk  at Barclays Bank in Peterborough. His interest in the stage began with performances at smoking concerts and when, in 1911, he appeared at the old Empire, Leicester Square, he became an overnight success. He took part in many subsequent productions there and as a single turn on the music halls. At first he relied entirely on his voice in his imitations of the popular comedians of the day. His imitation of Wilkie Bard - exact in every way - was as remarkable a piece of virtuosity as the variety stage has produced. Among his favourite subjects were Harry Champion, Fred Emney and Frank Tunney.  His stage name Nosmo King was inspired by seeing two open doors at a music hall which had split the notice 'No Smoking' into Nosmo King.  He was later assisted by 'Hubert' - his son (Petty Officer Jack Watson) He appeared at the Embassy in Peterborough in April 1947 as Colonel Blimp in a G.I. Bride farce 'For the Fun of it' Though it was 39 years since he had been a clerk at Barclays, he still remembered his old friends in and around Peterborough. Mr Watson died at his home in Chelsea on January 13th 1949. His funeral was held at Thorney Abbey and he is buried at Thorney cemetery, with 'Nosmo King' on his headstone.    





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St Leonard’s Leper Hospital Established

1125

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Founded before 1125,  St Leonard's Hospital was a leper (or lazar) house supported through almsgiving by Peterborough Abbey. Leprosy was particularly prevalent at this time though such houses also provided for other categories of ill and destitute people. St Leonard’s became known as “The Spital”. [Spital was a Middle English term used to describe a hospital or its endowed land.] It was still in existence in the 16th century and is assumed to have closed at the time of the dissolution of the monastery. It was probably located close to the northern end of Peterborough railway station with its own cemetery to the west. It gave its name to St Leonard’s Street which was the section of Bourges Boulevard which now runs past the station. Associated with the hospital was a healing spring or well which was still documented in the mid 17th century.    





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Thomas Hunter, the Lonely ANZAC

1916

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Thomas Hunter was born in County Durham in 1880 but emigrated as a young man to Australia where he worked as a coal miner. At the outbreak of the First World War, he, like many young men enlisted, in his case in the 10th battalion of the 10th division, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces. He fought at Gallipoli and then in the trenches of France and Belgium. In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, Sgt Hunter was badly injured, so severely that he was shipped back to England for surgery. He was put on a train for Halifax with other wounded but on the journey his condition worsened badly so he was taken off the train at Peterborough and brought to the infirmary where, sadly, on the 31st of July 1916, he died. As he died away from home and his comrades he came to be known as the 'Lonely Anzac'. His death touched the hearts of Peterborians, in a way he came to represent their young men away fighting. A public subscription fund paid  for his funeral and a memorial. The mayor and civic dignitaries led the funeral procession to the Broadway Cemetery and the entire town came to a stop to pay their respects. A two metre tall granite cross was placed on his grave, and a brass plaque to his memory mounted in the military chapel in the cathedral. Every year on ANZAC day, April 25th, a civil ceremony is held at his graveside, attended by the mayor, civic dignitaries and a representative from the Australian High Commission.





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Body Snatching!

1828

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Body snatching was a fairly common practice in the 18th century and 19th centuries. Doctors were in need of human corpses to study, but these were in short supply since the common religious belief at the time was that the body must remain intact for the Day of Judgement. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in Britain was those condemned to death and dissection by the courts.  Body snatchers (or resurrection men) were the entrepreneurs who filled the demand! Interfering with a grave was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and therefore only punishable with a fine and imprisonment rather than transportation or execution, so the lucrative trade was worth the risk. In Peterborough the first instance of body snatching was in 1828. It happened in Cowgate cemetery which used to stand at the top of Cowgate (it was completely removed in the 198os with the development of Queensgate Shopping Centre). One evening a cart was seen outside the cemetery with two men loading suspicious sacks onto it. The alarm was raised and the men fled, with a cart-chase ending near Norman Cross, where the men abandoned their getaway cart with its grisly cargo and fled over the fields. Body snatching continued to be a problem until about 1860. To prevent it relatives would watch over the graves and guard huts were set up in the cemeteries, one of these from Eye cemetery can be seen in Peterborough Museum.    





Repairs to the Dead Man’s Door

1548

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The cemetery for Peterborough Cathedral is to the north of the building. Thousands of people were buried there, from monks to grave diggers. In the past, any people who had their funeral in the cathedral exited the building via the north door, which gave direct access to the graveyard. This is the last door that their body would pass through, so it is known as dead man's door. In 1548/9 the lock of the door needed repairing, which is not surprising given how old the door is. Two pence was paid for 'mending the loke [lock] of the dedmans dore [door]',(1) which appears a bargain in modern terms. No records exist to say if the lock was needed to keep the living or the dead out of the cathedral!
Reference
(1) W. T. Mellows, The Last Days of Peterborough Monastery, Northamptonshire Record Society, 1950, p107





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The Loss of a Wonderful Image

1817

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Judith Image was the daughter of Reverend John Image and his wife Mary. She was baptised on 12th February 1775 in St. John's Church, Peterborough, by her father. She was one of at least seven children born to the Images, most of whom died in infancy. Her father was vicar of Peterborough, so the family lived together in the rectory, which was in Priestgate. Fortunately Judith, or Julia as she was often known, survived to adulthood and married well. Her husband was Thomas Alderson Cooke, who was originally from Salford in Lancashire. Together they had 12 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood. The family are best known as the residents of what is now Peterborough Museum. Thomas commissioned the building of the house on the most impressive site in the city, which just happened to be opposite the old vicarage, Judith's childhood home.
Tragedy
Sadly Judith died after only a few months of living in the mansion. Her death was unexpected and a terrible loss to both her husband and 10 children. She was remembered in an inscription: Judith Cooke, wife of Thomas Alderson Cooke, Esq., and daughter of the late John Image, clerk, many years vicar of this parish, whose virtues she inherited, on the 15th February 1817 and in the 42nd year of her age, she was so suddenly snatched from a numerous and affectionate family, whose consolation under so heavy an affliction is the humble confidence that she is taken to a region where pain and sorrow are known no more. She was buried next to her children Mary Caroline and Thomas Henry, who both died at 6 months old in 1800 and 1806 respectively. She was joined later by Thomas' third wife Mary Joanna (died 1825) and Thomas himself in 1854. All of the Cookes were buried in Cowgate Cemetery which was located where the Crescent Bridge roundabout is now located. All the remains were moved to Broadway Cemetery.