The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy: Bodies, Books, Fortune, Fame by Ruth Richardson is the story of the most famous medical textbook in the world. Richardson, a historian, writer and broadcaster, tells the story of Henry Gray, the favored and confident physiologist and of the illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter, one of a family of artists, young, shy, and inclined to religious introspection, as well as the tales of the publishers, and of mid-Victorian Britain. In the excerpt below Richardson looks at the type of unlucky souls who were Carter’s models.
The Victorian writer Ellen Barlee’s book Friendless and Helpless features the story of a period in the life of a Portsmouth woman whose husband, after a period of unemployment, was offered work in Liverpool. He wrote home to ask his wife to pack up the family and join him. He would send money to the railway office at Paddington Station to cover the family’s journey north. His wife used their last money to get herself and the children to London. Arriving at Paddington, she discovered to her dismay that the promised letter had not arrived.
There was no money for a telegraph, even had she known where to send it. She must find somewhere for the family to sleep for the night in a place she knew nothing of, and with no money to pay for it. The first thing this mother did was to sell her own shawl, to pay for a night’s lodging, and the following night was able to find a cellar in which the family huddled together. But within a matter of days-the letter still not having arrived-they were evicted, starving, cold, distraught, and now homeless. Their only prospect seemed to be the workhouse, where the family would have been broken up completely. Rather than face such a terrible prospect, the mother resorted to begging on the street.
At this point, however, their fortune changed. A kindly person gave her the address of a homeless refuse, and they were taken in, hungry, cold through, and she now ill. The master of the refuge questioned the sick mother, uncovered the whole story, and wrote immediately to the man’s employer. By locating the husband’s whereabouts, everything was sorted out. The father’s letter had somehow miscarried and had been returned to him as a dead letter, but until the refuge master contacted his employer, the father had been at his wits’ end to know what had happened to his family, their previous home being deserted. The mother and her children were enabled to travel north together in good heart.
Communication being what it was in Victorian times, the simple miscarrying of a letter could have near-disastrous consequences. This was a real story, one among a myriad of other human predicaments the details of which will never be known because they were never recorded. We know of this family’s crisis only because a charitable woman heard their story when visiting the refuge, and later wrote it up as a telling individual case history for the homeless. Ellen Barlee was evidently attracted to the story because it demonstrated the importance of charitable giving towards the support of such places: it was a real-life narrative in which attentive charitable kindness had wrought a genuinely happy ending. There was a further reason, too. This mother’s story was perceived by Ellen Barlee as an exemplary case, because it served to illustrate a remarkable thing about the Victorian metropolis: the breathtaking speed with which a person-or indeed- an entire family-could innocently fall through social nets, and pitch into utter destiution.
The predicament in which this family quickly became mired, and which the charitable visitor visitor recorded and passed down to us, shall have to stand for that of all those individuals, less fortunate than they, whose faces and body parts appear in Gray’s Anatomy. Each one of them was individual human being whose story we do not know. Some had died at St George’s Hospital, others elsewhere: most likely in a workhouse in London, or in its hinterland. In each instance, no one had come forward to claim their corpse for burial. If anyone existed to make such a claim, they did not manage to do so in time to prevent the dead person’s body from being consigned to dissection at Kinnerton street.
The law governing the provision of corpses for the study of human anatomy at the time of Gray and Carter were working at Kinnerton Street was called the Anatomy Act. Prior to its enactment in 1832, the only legal source of corpses for dissection in anatomy schools had been the bodies of murderes fresh from the gallows. For generations that source had proved insufficient, and teaches and pupils of anatomy and surgery had resorted to grave-robbery. By the 1820s, grave-robbing had become a well organized professional business, and the prices bodysnatchers could demand were high. So high did prices rise, in fact, that people were being murdered for the price their corpses would raise. The Anatomy Act was designed to put an end to this despicable trade. It also helped make the Victorian workhouse the hated institution it was, as the Act decreed that bodies of those dying in institutions without anyone able to claim them for burial could be sent for dissection…