Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Darker Side of Georgian Edinburgh

by Lynne Wilson

“Within a few months past we have conversed with gentlemen who have visited the North and South, and the centre of Europe; and they all concur in stating that there is more want and misery in this country than in any other they have seen.”
The Scotsman, 1827, Article on ‘The Prevalence of Crime in Edinburgh’

Crime was, of course, prevalent in all cities in Scotland at this time as the excerpt above points out. Edinburgh, as the capital city and a city which was establishing itself as a centre of learning, culture and respectability, was no doubt more under the spotlight than any other when it came to its failings. The reasons for crime in Edinburgh were the same as they were everywhere, in short, a high level of poverty, disease, death and misery in many parts of the city gave rise to theft, substance abuse and crimes perpetuated through anger.

The population of Edinburgh, as with other cities, had rapidly increased in the 1820s due to the influx of people from rural areas who had found themselves out of work due to the industrialisation which was occurring. Manual labourers who had been used to steady employment suddenly found themselves replaced by machinery on farms and in factories. Many flocked to the cities trying to find work there, but inevitably there were far more people than jobs, and areas within Edinburgh became overcrowded, and with a lack of sanitisation they quickly became dirty and unsanitary. Alcohol and laudanum abuse became widespread as people tried to block out the misery of their situations.

The execution of William Burke
William Burke and William Hare both came to Edinburgh from Ulster during the potato famine hoping, as many people had, to find work. By all accounts they were hard working men who had met when Burke came to live at Hare’s lodging house.

When another tenant of the house, a man named Donald, died owing Hare rent money, the pair took the body to the medical school knowing that they would pay for a fresh corpse to dissect. It was then, when they realised how much money they could earn for a body, that they began to murder to obtain corpses to sell on.

Graveyard Watchtower, New Calton Burying Ground, Edinburgh
© Kim Traynor
The practice of obtaining dead bodies for dissection was a lucrative trade at this time as a growing medical school needed fresh corpses for anatomical dissection. As the only way to legally obtain a corpse for this purpose was to wait until a criminal had been executed, needless to say there simply weren’t enough bodies to meet the medical school’s needs, as unlike in the 18th century where people would be executed for fairly trivial crimes, by the 19th century only those convicted of very serious crimes such as murder were being executed. 

As the medical school would pay very well for fresh corpses in good condition, a great many criminals considered that stealing bodies from graveyards was a risk worth taking, particularly as this crime was not viewed by the courts as serious and only attracted a short spell of imprisonment or a fine. This being the case, many relatives of those recently deceased would take turns to watch over the grave until such time as the corpse would be old enough to be of no use for anatomy. Men were also often employed to watch over the churchyards to prevent the activity of grave robbing.


By Lynne Wilson, author of the historical non-fiction ebooks 'A Year in
Victorian Edinburgh
' and 'Crime & Punishment in Victorian Edinburgh'; and the paperbacks, 'Murder & Crime in Stirling' and ‘A Grim Almanac of Glasgow’.
My Amazon author page
My Website, Scotland’s History Uncovered


  1. Enjoyed your post, Lynne. This subject is very dear to my heart. If you were at the bottom of the heap in 1820s Edinburgh, life was about survival. These were tough times, thrown into sharp relief all the more by the squalor of the Old Town sitting right next to the glamour of the New Town. As RLS wrote later in the century, "To look over the South Bridge below and see the Cowgate full of crying hawkers, is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye."

    Are you planning another in your crime and punishment series dealing with Georgian Edinburgh? I'll be first in the queue!

  2. Thanks Maggie, yes I'm planning that at some point. There are certainly some interesting and varied cases to write about!

  3. that is a very interesting blog and i read it to my granny and she thought it was interesting too, i love this kind of thing i think this blog that i've subscribed too is very interesting i love the way that you wrote this did you research every-thing lynne before you wrote this because this is the best that you've ever written and i mean that thank you for letting me read that lynne i learned some-thing today :)

  4. Thanks Erica, yes the research is the part I enjoy most. I'm always learning new things as I go along too.

  5. i think you are a great writer and i love every thing that you write do you have any-more blog posts that i could read cuz i find all of the things that you write interesting to read?

  6. Hi Erica, yes I've written a couple of guest posts for this site; 'Strange Victorian Remedies' and 'The Higher Education of Women in the Victorian Era'. Thanks for your support!


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