St Nicholas gardens have always been rough around the edges. One of the first entries in the Parks and Gardens minute book in 1951, following the reopening of the churchyard after the clearance, was about disorderly youngsters causing a nuisance and breaking things; going back further, evidence given at the inquest of Stanley Stokes, who died following a homophobic attack in 1836 indicates that the churchyard was then a popular gay cruising ground. In 1809, a retired marine and veteran of the Napoleonic wars slept rough in the old chalk pit which was to become the Rest Garden; the vestry book records that he was to be given a great coat and a blanket from parish funds.
In the 1820’s grave robbers known as ‘Resurrectionists’ were greatly feared by relatives of the recently deceased and at least one grave at St Nicholas was said to have been desecrated. It became the practice for ‘watchers’ to camp in improvised tents in the churchyard to ensure that no more bodies were carried off into the night. Starting as a beneficial civic service, the watchers degenerated over time, furnishing their night vigil with alcohol, tobacco, fires, cutlasses and muskets and became so notorious that no-one else would venture into the churchyard at night. The costs of their excesses were most likely defrayed by approaches to the relatives of the recently buried to fund the ‘protection’ on offer …
This situation prevailed until the law was changed to permit the supply of subjects for dissection, which removed the need for both burkists and watchers, and since the last burial at the site (around 1854) interference with the graves in this way has ceased to be a problem.
These tales are a piece of the picture touching on the many stories of the living who have spent time in this place of the dead and have made use of the freedoms and licence which such places afford.