Bayleaf

The Destruction Of The Sheffield School Of Anatomy In 1835

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This article first appeared in the transactions of The Hunter Archaeological Society and is reproduced by kind permission of the Society.

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE SHEFFIELD SCHOOL OF ANATOMY IN 1835: A POPULAR RESPONSE TO CLASS LEGISLATION

By F. K. DONNELLY

On the morning of January 26, 1835, the Sheffield School of Anatomy in Eyre Street was completely wrecked by a crowd of `upwards of 1000 persons'.[1] At 7.00 a.m. a group of about thirty men and youths forcibly entered the building, threw the books and furniture into the street, and set them ablaze to the delight of a large assemblage of the townspeople.

Later the doors, ceilings, floors, and even the staircases were fed to the flames. At half past nine the constables tried to put a stop to the affair but the violent opposition of the crowd prevented them from interfering with the work of destruction.

When one of their number was seriously injured by a brick thrown from the crowd, the constables wisely decided to withdraw. The firemen met with a similar reception when they arrived to put out the fire which by then had reached dangerous proportions. They retreated when one of their engines was overturned by the crowd and it was only under the protection of a military force that they were able to return to extinguish the flames.

More troops and magistrates were brought in, the Riot Act was read, and by noon the streets were cleared.

At 2.00 p.m. all seemed quiet enough to withdraw some of the soldiers and seizing this opportunity, the crowd returned in force.

They soon had the building and its contents burning again, and again the soldiers were required to disperse the crowd to allow the firemen to save what little remained of the Sheffield School of Anatomy.

Later that same evening, with the School of Anatomy well guarded, an attack was made on the nearby Medical Hall. Its windows were broken by volleys of stones before the military could chase away the persistent disturbers of the peace.

When the day of violence ended there were few injuries to persons, but the Medical Hall was without windows and the School of Anatomy was a gutted building with damages to the extend of £577 and 10 shillings .[2]

What explanation can there be far destructive and apparently irrational behaviour of this type? Why should Sheffield, a town which had suffered hundreds of fatalities in the cholera epidemic of 1832, be so ill-disposed towards medical research and training? [3]

Contemporary `respectable' opinion can provide only stock answers to this question. In both newspaper accounts and letters to the editor the disturbance is seen to have been caused by the drunkenness, superstition, or plain vulgarity of the `lower orders'.

One such letter to the editor refers to the incident as a `drunken scene', but in actual fact drunkenness was only reported later in the day and it was not the central issue in the matter. [4]

A more fundamental explanation of this popular disturbance can be attempted only if the Sheffield incident is seen against a background of early nineteenth century medical history.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there was an expansion of both the medical profession and medical research owing to the increasing demands of a fast­growing society for medical services. [5]

This process eventually resulted in the foundation of provincial medical schools at Manchester in 1824, Birmingham in 1825, Sheffield in 1828, Leeds in 1831, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1832, Bristol in 1833, and Liverpool and York in 1834.

For a while (1829-1835) there were actually two such schools in Sheffield as the local doctors could not agree an a suitable site. One group, led by Dr. Knight, set up the Medical Institution in Surrey Street between July of 1828 and July of 1829. This school later became the Sheffield School of Medicine and it in turn was eventually incorporated into the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Sheffield in 1905.

A second group of Sheffield medical men, led by Dr. Corden Thompson and Mr. Wilson Overend, opened the School of Anatomy and Medicine in Church Street on 17 October 1828. This school was re-located to Eyre Street in 1834 and its brief institutional life was extinguished by the violence of the Sheffield crowd in January, 1835. [6]

The growth of the medical profession and the upgrading of the medical standards in this period created a problem of a very controversial nature. The difficulty was that the demands of the medical schools for `cadavres' or human corpses far exceeded the supply. The only legal source of bodies was the prisons. Under an old statute from the time of Henry VIII, murderers could be sentenced to have their bodies dissected after execution.

It was estimated in 1832 that whereas 1100 to 1200 bodies were required each year by the medical schools, only 900 were being supplied and only a dozen or so of these were the bodies of murderers ! [7]

Various illegal solutions were being found to the problem. Medical professors often sent their students out for same nocturnal spadework in the local burial ground to find specimens for the next day's dissecting class, but the activities of these amateurs did little to meet the growing demand for cadavres.

A more professional service was provided by the So-called 'Resurrectionists'. [8] These men worked in gangs to raid graveyards and they often paid the local sexton a bribe to look the other way.

The bodies stolen by the Resurrectionists reached the doctors through the intermediary of the porters of the medical schools. The doctors, for their part, simply asked no questions and left the details of payment to the porters.

However, the shortage of bodies persisted and there were fears that English medical students might have to go to France to receive a proper training [9]

The problem became so acute by 1832 that a corpse would fetch about £10 at any medical school.

At that time £10 was a considerable sum of money and in Edinburgh two Irishmen, named Burke and Hare, were tempted into taking a short cut to relieve the bottleneck in the body supply. In 1828 Burke and Hare simply murdered innocent persons and sold their bodies to one Dr. Knox.

For Burke the economics of the situation was straightforward. In a week's hard work as a shoemaker he and his wife could make only 15 to 20 shillings, while one simple act of violence could earn them ten times that amount and the doctors offered the further incentive of higher prices for fresh corpses! [10]

When their crimes were discovered, Hare was granted immunity to testify against Burke and popular sentiments were outraged. Enraged crowds chased Hare out of Edinburgh and twice attacked the house of Dr. Knox.

Burke was found guilty and his execution was cheered by about 25,000 persons who took some comfort from the part of the sentence that was yet to come. For Burke was to suffer the murderer's penalty: his own body, like those of his victims, was sent to the surgeons for dissection.

Such was the impact of this sensational case that a new word entered the English language: `To Burke' means to `murder by smothering'.' [11]

In Parliament these events resulted in an attempt to introduce a bill designed to alleviate the problem. In March 1829 Henry Warburton, M.P. for Bridport, tried to get Parliament to consider legislation based on the report of a Select Committee which had been set up in 1828 to deal with Resurrectionism. However, owing the contro­versial nature of the subject and the strength of the various objections to it, the bill was withdrawn in June 1829 . [12]

It took another sensational trial to force Parliament to reconsider.

In November 1831 two Resurrection men turned `Burkers' were caught trying to sell a corpse at Kings College in London. At their trial one of them-named Bishop - ­confessed that in twelve years in the `trade' he had sold over 500 bodies. The latest technique of these men was to incapacitate their victim with an opium drink and then drown him in a well.

Thirty thousand people attended their execution at Newgate in an atmosphere of universal public outrage over these latest revelations of murder as an economic enterprise . [13]

In December Henry Warburton introduced a new version of his bill in Parliament. Parliamentary opinions on the subject had changed and Warburton was able to win large majorities in the divisions at every stage of the legislative process.

The bill provided for the licensing of schools of anatomy and an inspectorate to monitor the conditions in these institutions. Clause sixteen repealed the existing legislation that reserved the dissection of the corpse as a punishment far the most vicious forms of murder.

More controversial was clause seven which allowed the legal possessor of a body to permit it to undergo dissection if there was no evidence of the deceased having been opposed to it in his lifetime. [14]

This piece of legal obfuscation meant that the governors of the public workhouses were permitted to send the bodies of persons who died in poverty to be dissected.

It was a piece of class legislation that Prof. Williams has aptly termed `the pursuit of the propertyless beyond the grave'. [15]

The bill received the support of various medical institutions but there were indications of widespread popular opposition to clause seven. The inhabitants of Blackburn in Lancashire, for example, petitioned Parliament against the bill and they . . . complained of the power given to the governors of workhouses to sell the bodies of those persons who died in those houses; thus making a distinction between the rich and the poor. . .[16]

The popular view did not go unrepresented in the House of Commons as one member declared that:

He knew the public were opposed to this clause, and he would not consent to such an outrage on public feeling. There was already a prejudice amongst the poor, that the rich had no sympathy in their sufferings, and this clause would tend materially to increase that prejudice. [17]

Another stated that 'It was a bill in support of science against humane feeling' and that it was `calculated to expose the poor, and protect the rich'. [18]

It is significant that the major opponent of the bill was Henry Hunt-the radical M.P. for the wide-franchise constituency of Preston in Lancashire.

Similar statements were made against the bill in the House of Lords. The Earl of Harewood, for example, `did not see why the bodies of the poor and friendless should be particularly selected for the dissecting knife'. [19]

The Parliamentary opponents of the bill realized that some legislation was needed, but they wanted a voluntary system in which individuals would be able to donate their bodies to medical research.

The supporters of the hill argued that it did not discriminate against the poor and that it made no reference to the governors of the workhouses. The bill, they said, was designed to put an end to Resurrectionists and Burkers who preyed on the poor more than the wealthy.

Also, they claimed that the advance of medical science generally would benefit the poor to the greater degree . [20]

It was true that the activities of the Burkers and Resurrection men weighed heavily on the poor than on the rich. The wealthy could protect their graveyards with fences, hired guards or expensive crypts and this left the exposed grave of the common man the easier target for the Resurrectionist. Similarly, the Burkers did not murder prominent persons as there was less chance of discovery if the victim was a pauper, a transient or someone with few friends.

However, the other arguments in favour Warburton's bill do not stand up under examination. Although not specifically mentioned in the bill, the governors of the workhouses were the legal possessors of bodies of persons who died in those institutions and it was the undeclared intention of this legislation to use the bodies of paupers for medical research in imitation the system that prevailed on the continent of Europe.

The assertion that the fruits of medical research would most benefit the poor is hardly acceptable. In a society which all power, goods and services were very unevenly distributed, it is difficult see how the middle and upper classes would not have been the greatest beneficiaries of the expansion of anatomical research. Only insofar as it advanced the study of preventive medicine could the Anatomy Act have benefited the whole of society. [21]

In spite of all objections the Anatomy Act passed through Parliament to become law in August 1832. It was class legislation; it was unpopular and undemocratic; but 1832 England was not a democracy. [22]

It is against this background of national developments that we must examine the local events which led to the destruction of the Sheffield School of Anatomy in January 1835.

Late in October 1834 Samuel Roberts a Sheffielder and self-proclaimed champion of the working man, wrote a pamphlet which raised the whole issue of the Anatomy Act once again. In Roberts's view dissection of human corpses under the act was a `dreadful infringement of all humanity and justice'; it was a punishment which until recently had been considered `to be so horrible, that it was not decreed even against common murderers, but only against be most atrocious of them'.

If dissection was a punishment then, he argued:

Have the rich, then, any right to doom those who are compelled by poverty to demand relief, on that account, to any species of punishment? Certainly not; any more than the other members of a sick club have to inflict punishment on the sick members. But the rich have done this ! [23]

Further he predicted that the terms of the Anatomy Act would convert the medical schools `into little better than Burking houses '. [24]

This issue was complicated by the fact that Samuel Roberts was involved in a dispute over the tenancy of the building that housed the Sheffield School of Anatomy. The building had been owned by his late relative Jacob Roberts and had been converted into a medical school in September 1834.

Samuel Roberts claimed that the house been let to the doctors without his consent and that, as an executor of his relative's estate, he was entitled to ask them to leave.

The doctors took legal counsel and refused to move. Roberts then declared them to be in illegal possession of the premises. [25]

In summary, Roberts argued that Parliament had no right to pass the Anatomy Act and that the local doctors had no right to occupy the School of Anatomy in Eyre. Street.

His pamphlet was an effective and articulate attempt to undermine legal authority in this situation. [26]

Later Roberts was accused of having personally caused destruction of the medical school and he was obliged to publish a second pamphlet denying any direct involvement on his part in the incident and condemning popular violence . [27]

The national situation and the pamphlet of Samuel Roberts had, however, created a volatile combination which only required a `triggering incident' to precipitate a violent outburst . [28]

In 1835 such a 'triggering incident' occurred in the evening before the crowd's attack on the medical school. [29]

The caretaker of the building had gone out drinking with a friend and on their return the two men proceeded to beat the caretaker's wife. They threw the poor woman out of the house and she began to scream: `Murder! Murder!' This scene attracted a crowd and it was concluded by those assembled that an attempt had been made to `Burke' the woman in the School of Anatomy.

The woman herself was hysterical and could offer no information. A group of men broke into the building and found, in accordance with their suspicions, various skeletons and cadavres in a partly dissected state.

Rumours quickly spread through the town and it was resolved that the building should be attacked in the morning. The rapid spread of the rumours was probably facilitated by the fact that one of the founders of the School of Anatomy was 'Mr. Wilson Overend, whose connection locally with the traffic in dead bodies was well-known. . . .' [30]

Evidence was later presented to show that all human remains in the building had been obtained `legally' under the terms of the Anatomy Act [31]

So, although the popular suspicions of `Burking' were unfounded in this case, violent protest seemed to have been the only channel far popular hostility to the use of the bodies of paupers for medical research. Hence the destruction of the Sheffield School of Anatomy on 26 January 1835.

The action of the crowd in this instance may be termed `traditional' in the sense that it was a dispensation of popular justice rather than a politically oriented attempt to overthrow or modify existing relations of power. The attacks on property were confined to the various medical edifices in Sheffield and the disturbance was not the signal for a wanton rampage through the town. One observer noted the behaviour of the participants in the destruction of the Eyre Street school:

The persons who entered the house acted their part with as much coolness as if they had been engaged in some lawful employment, Whilst those without seemed to enjoy the scene as if some glorious deed had been performing. [32]

Another witness concluded that 'they seemed more like day-labourers, desirous of not doing more than a day's work for a day's wages, than angry and violent rioters'. [33]

The crowd was, in fact, simply engaged in the ritual of `pulling down the house' of a villain who had apparently escaped punishment under the law .[34]

The attack on the School of Anatomy was accompanied by the cry `All in a mind'-a phrase which often preceded acts of collective violence in the West Riding of Yorkshire. [35]

No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the destruction of the school and this may be indicative of a certain amount of local support for the popular view. Even the editor of The Lancet had a sympathetic word for the crowd and he pointed out to his readers that: When the people are so severely condemned for their display of excitement on the occasion, it should be recollected that the Burke and Bishop murders are still to them as a horrid tale of yesterday.[36]

The attack on the Sheffield School of Anatomy, seen as a popular response to class legislation, illustrates some of the problems of early nineteenth century British society.

The whole affair concerning the Anatomy Act demonstrates the gulf which separated the mass of the people from the medical profession at that time. If the former can be accused of clinging to their superstitions about the sanctity of the human body, the latter certainly displayed an intellectual arrogance that was out of all proportion to the achievements of their science. [37]

More importantly, the debates in Parliament on the Anatomy Act took place at the same time as the debates on the first Reform Bill. In fact the Anatomy Act was one of the last pieces of legislation passed by the old `unreformed' Parliament. It demonstrated that simply having the popular view represented in government was not enough.

For the will of the people to be felt, many more citizens would have to have the right to vote. The niggardly extension of the franchise in the first Reform Bill of 1832 came as a great disappointment to workers in the urban areas and in Sheffield the election of that year was marked by a violent disturbance in which several persons were killed.

In the 1830s the Anatomy Act, and later the New Poor Law, served as constant reminders of the inherent contradictions of an undemocratic political system. At the same time, such popular disturbances brought to the fore middle class fears of widespread disorder and revolution. The demands of 'respectable' persons were focused, for example, on the need for an efficient police force.[38]

In conclusion, we may sympathize with the analogical warning of Samuel Roberts :

The lower classes in this kingdom (I include now all who of late have been termed operatives) are like a high pressure engine, possessing almost enormous power, and while not oppressed, constantly exercising that power for the public good; but too much may be laid upon it. If forced beyond its powers, nay, if it be forced even near the extent of its power, and any neglect or accident to the safety valve occur, the consequence is an explosion, attended by the destruction to, all within its reach. [39]

<b style=""><br style="page-break-before: always;" clear="all"> </b> Footnotes



1 Sheffield Independent, 11 April 1835. The main accounts of the disturbance are in Annual Register, 1835, pp. 13-14; Sheffield Independent, 31 Jan. 1835; Sheffield Iris, 27 Jan. 1835; Sheffield Mercury, 31 Jan. 1835.

2 `The Doctors', M.P. 285M, miscellaneous paper in the Sheffield City Library.

3 John Stokes, The History of the Cholera Epidemic of 1832 in Sheffield (Sheffield, 1921), pp. 31-47.

4 Letter to the editor from `Z', Sheffield Independent, 31 Jan. 1835.

5 Charles Newman, The Evolution of Medical Education in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1957), especially chapter two, `The Rebirth usf Science and the Apothecaries Act', pp. 56-80.

6 William Smith Porter, The Medical School in Sheffield, 1828-1928 (Sheffield, 1928), pp. 2, 5-10 and 30-31; Charles F. Favell, An Introductory Address delivered at . . . the Sheffield Medical Institution, Surrey Street (Sheffield, 1835).

7 Hansard, 3rd series, Vol. 9 (1831-2), p. 580.

8 On the Resurreetionists see J. B. Bailey, The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-12 (London, 1896); James Moores Ball, The Sack-'Em-Up Men (London, 1928); Hubert Cole, Things for the Surgeon (London, 1964) and George MacGregor, The History of Burke and Hare (Glasgow, 1884).

9 Hansard, 3rd series, Vol. 9 (1831-2), p. 1276.

10 G. MacGregor, The History of Burke and Hare, p. 49.

11 G. MacGregor, The History of Burke and Hare, passim.

12 Opponents of the bill included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Royal College of Surgeons.

13 G. MacGregor, The History of Burke and Hare, pp. 254-258.

14 `An Act for Regulating Schools of Anatomy', 2 and 3 William IV, cap. LXXV. Sometimes referred to as the `Dissecting Act', but more commonly called the `Anatomy Act'.

15 Gwyn Williams in his introduction to Dorothy Thompson, The Early Chartists (London, 1971), p. xi.

16 Hansard, 3rd series, Vol. 10 (1832), p. 377.

17 Hansard, 3rd Ser+ies, Vol. 12 (1&32), p. 318.

18 Hansard, 3rd Series, Vol. 12 (1832), pp. 319 and 321.

19 Hansard, 3rd series, Vol. 13 (1832), p. 827.

20 Hansard, 3rd series, Vol. 10 (1832), pp. 377-379 and Vol. 14 (1832), p. 534.

21 It is not clear how effective the Anatomy Act was in supplying bodies to the medical schools. Writers on the subject assume that the act solved the problem, but in 1839 and 1840 London doctors complaining that the situation was worse than ever. See -the Memorials of the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons and Sir Asfley Cooper in H.O.44/34 in the Public Record Office, London.

22 The percentage of those over twenty years old eligible to vote was 5.0% in 1831 and 7.1% in 1832 after the Reform Act. J. Ryder -and H. Silver, Modern English Society (London, 1970), p. 74.

23 Samuel Roberts, The Lecturers Lectured, and the Dissectors Dissected (Sheffield, 1834), p. 3. Roberts was a member of a wealthy silverplating family. For his life see The Autobiography and Select Remains of Samuel Roberts (London, 1849).

24 S. Roberts, The Lecturers Lectured . . ., p. 10.

25 S. Roberts, The Lecturers Lectured . . . pp:-4-7.

26 Some of those involved in the disturbance apparently believed that Roberts had authorised the destruction of the building. Sheffield Independent, 14 Feb. 1835.

27 S. Roberts, Appendix to the Lecturers Lectured (Sheffield, 1835).

28 On the importance of triggering incidents in popular disturbances see George Rude, The Crowd in History (New York, 1964), pp. 244-245. At the same time it must be emphasized that the destruction of the Sheffield School of Anatomy was not simply the result of a series of fortuitous coincidences. A similar incident occurred in Manchester immediately after the passing of the Anatomy Act. In that case a crowd attacked a cholera hospital when it was suspected that a boy had been `Burked' in the building. Sheffield Mercury, 8 Sept. 1832. In Sheffield in 1862 there were disturbances when the sexton of St. Philip's Parish was discovered to be selling bodies for dissection. W. S. Porter, The Medical School in Sheffield, pp. 10-13.

29 See footnote number one for the sources of this account.

30 W. S. Porter, The Medical School in Sheffield, p. 10.

31 Sheffield Mercury, 31 Jan. 1835.

32 Annual Register, 1835, `Chronicle', pp. 13-14.

33 Sheffield Independent, 31 Jan. 1835.

34 On the pulling down of houses see George Rudé, The Crowd in History, p. 60. In 1790 the house of a man who gave false testimony in Court which resulted in the execution of two innocent men, met with a similar fate at the hands of an angry Sheffield crowd. Sheffield Register, 23 April 1790.

35 Sheffield Independent, 31 Jan. 1835.

36 The Lancet (1834-5), Vol. I, p. 688. 37 It was a popular belief that the body could not be resurrected in the after-life if it had been dissected. G. MacGregor, The History of Burke and Hare, pp. 271-272. For the elitist views of one local doctor see Corden Thompson, An Address delivered at the opening of the Sheffield School of Anatomy and Medicine (Sheffield, 1828); A Letter to the Public on the Necessity of Anatomical Pursuits . (London, 1830); and Strictures on James Montgomery's Essay on the Phrenology of the Hindoos and Negroes (Sheffield, 1829). The latter argues that phrenological `science' proves the racial inferiority of Africans and Indians.

38 Letters to the editor from `Z' in Sheffield Independent, 31 Jan. 1835, and from `Sheffieldiensis' in Sheffield Mercury, 31 Jan. 1835.

39 S. Roberts, Appendix to the Lecturers Lectured, p. 5.

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Excellent read, Thanks are due, once again to you and them.

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Received by email today

Hi there;

I just came across the article on the Sheffield School of Anatomy. What a great

article! And I'm not saying that just because I wrote it.

Indeed I wrote that piece when still a graduate student at Sheffield way back when.

Is there any way I can get a copy of your online version? Your web page won't let me

copy it.

I'm very glad you have brought that piece to a wider audience after all these years.

Cheers,

Fred Donnelly

Professor of History

University of New Brunswick

Canada.

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Received by email today

Hi there;

I just came across the article on the Sheffield School of Anatomy. What a great

article! And I'm not saying that just because I wrote it.

Indeed I wrote that piece when still a graduate student at Sheffield way back when.

Is there any way I can get a copy of your online version? Your web page won't let me

copy it.

I'm very glad you have brought that piece to a wider audience after all these years.

Cheers,

Fred Donnelly

Professor of History

University of New Brunswick

Canada.

No problem Stuart, can you pm me an email address to send to, either direct or via you?

Peter

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Received by email today

Hi there;

I just came across the article on the Sheffield School of Anatomy. What a great

article! And I'm not saying that just because I wrote it.

Indeed I wrote that piece when still a graduate student at Sheffield way back when.

Is there any way I can get a copy of your online version? Your web page won't let me

copy it.

I'm very glad you have brought that piece to a wider audience after all these years.

Cheers,

Fred Donnelly

Professor of History

University of New Brunswick

Canada.

Very fine; contacted by the author !

I do like the "Wider audience" comment. It was me that asked for this article, great stuff, as are all the HAS postings.

Many Thanks to all concerned.

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I sent Prof. Donnelly a copy and have just received a reply (including a thanks to Stuart). He mentioned another article that's online and I thought that people might find it interesting,

"The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1820".

Here's the link.

He also wrote the entry for Joseph Gales of Sheffield in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which may be available online via your local library.

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I've just been reading a story from the Christmas 1885 Independent, which sets out a fictional 'pre-quel' to the Medical School riots of fifty years previous. The early part of the story is set in Holmesfield:


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can anyone give the location of the Sheffield school of anatomy on eyre st in1835

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There is reference to the riot in Margaret drinkalls book the Sheffield Workhouse. But only states it as eyre st

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Bayleaf's document quoted: "A second group of Sheffield medical men, led by Dr. Corden Thompson and Mr. Wilson Overend, opened the School of Anatomy and Medicine in Church Street on 17 October 1828. This school was re-located to Eyre Street in 1834 and its brief institutional life was extinguished by the violence of the Sheffield crowd in January, 1835."

Dr Corden Thompson's picture is on display in the Hallamshire Hospital:

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In 1887 the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph looked back at these events and reminded readers of the location of the School of Anatomy:

(10 Dec 1887)

1887-12-10 Old Stories retold 1.JPG

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(with apologies for the offensive racist language at the end)

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1896 Insurance Map
Eyre St left, Charles Lane bottom.
"P.H." = Foresters Arms [beerhouse]
1896 insurance map - 45 Eyre Lane - Foresters arms.JPG

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