The first inmates arrived at the Norman Cross Prisoner of War Camp in 1797, which was the first purpose built camp of its kind. Its location was chosen because it was within reach of London, close to the Great North Road and accessible from a river, but deemed too difficult to escape from easily. It was built primarily of timber in the style of an artillery fort and divided into quadrangles which contained barracks for the prisoners.
During the Napoleonic Wars and at its height, it housed over 6,000 low-ranking soldiers and sailors from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which dwarfed the population of Peterborough. Higher ranking and well-respected officers paroled outside the camp, mostly in Peterborough and local towns and were free to live as citizens. The camp was not designed as a correctional facility, so there was the chance for prisoners to make and sell goods locally, get access to education and entertain themselves with a theatre, drinking and gambling.
All of the buildings and equipment were auctioned off in 1816 a couple of years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Many fine examples of the delicate bone, wood and straw work objects created by the prisoners to earn money can be viewed in Peterborough Museum in an interactive gallery dedicated to the Norman Cross prison.
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.
Dr Thomas James Walker was a second generation doctor. He had a thriving practice in Westgate, and in 1862 he was appointed to the post of surgeon at the infirmary, a post he held until 1906.
He had other interests, notably local history and his archaeological finds and acquisitions formed a base for the Peterborough Museum Society collection, and he became the society's president in 1892. He was also interested in the Napoleonic prisoner of war camp at Norman Cross and wrote a book on its history, published in 1913.
In recognition of all his contributions to Peterborough and its inhabitants, on his 80th birthday in 1915, he was granted the Freedom of the city, the first native born Peterborian to be so honoured.
The first inmates arrived at the Norman Cross Prisoner of War Camp in 1797,…
Body snatching was a fairly common practice in the 18th century and 19th ce…
Dr Thomas James Walker was a second generation doctor. He had a thriving pr…