If you have visited the Garden Museum in the deconsecrated church of St Mary at Lambeth, you have probably looked at the impressive tombs of Captain Bligh and the Tradescants. But in the 18th century this churchyard had become so crowded, filled with approximately 26,000 bodies, a new burial ground was consecrated in the nearby High Street. In 1814 this burial ground, now called Paradise Row, was extended, but it was not a peaceful spot to lay in rest.
Many graves were being disturbed to supply the young doctors at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals with fresh bodies, so watchmen were frequently employed to protect the newly buried. In November 1817, the sexton, John Seager, employed two men to keep watch over the graves at night but the “grave snatching” continued. Suspecting that they were not doing their job properly, John told the men one night that they were not needed, although they knew 5 people had been buried earlier in the day.
John, his son and a young man called John Sharp, hid and after a while they heard the squeak of the gate and spotted two figures. Two concealed man traps were set off without causing injury. Seager recognised the men as Thomas Duffin and William Marshall, the very people he had employed to protect the graves. Waiting until Duffin and Marshall had stolen spades from the Bone House and started to dig up a coffin, Seager and his assistants moved in to catch them. But the robbers did not intend to be caught. Swinging his spade, Marshall swore his intent to murder Seager and knocked him to the ground. Seager’s son was armed with a pistol which he aimed at Marshall, shooting him in the arm. Meanwhile Duffin swung a cutlass at Sharp who fought back with a poker. After some time, Duffin and Marshall were taken to the Watch House where a surgeon tended their wounds and they appeared before the Magistrates next morning.
One of the Magistrates believed that the men’s actions made them subject to an archaic law which would mean the removal of their ears and branding as a punishment, but he was over-ruled. They were kept in custody until the following August, when they were tried at the Crown Court in the Guildhall at Guildford, accused of assaulting John Sharp with intent to kill and murder. The jury found Duffin and Marshall guilty and sentenced them to two years’ imprisonment. Twenty years later, in 1838, John Seager died in the Workhouse, at the age of 70, and was buried in the graveyard at Lambeth High Street where the struggle had taken place. Only two years later, 60 year old Thomas Duffin was also buried there.