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Matlock's Leap

Town Street

The Goyt in Marple Bridge - early years of 20th century 

(note bushes on Town Street side of river)

by Dr. Tim Campbell - Green

A while back I was reading through some online resources of local history and archaeology, and came across the diary of a certain George Booth of Chisworth, which contained entries dated between 1832 and 1834. The diary is not perhaps what you would describe as the most riveting record of life in a small village; typical entries are very short, personal, and along the lines of “Today and yesterday I have been building a wall as a spur against the weir” (April 11th 1832) and “Daniel Thorneley’s wife died today” (April 28 1832), but these are recorded history, and for this it is invaluable. And whilst it is largely Charlesworth and Chisworth based, Mr Booth wanders all over the area, to Glossop, Gamesley, Chinley, Marple Bridge, Broadbottom, and beyond. It was one of these entries that caught my eye:

3rd May 1832
A Stone to commemorate Matlock’s Leap was fastened in the wall by the river side a little above Marple Bridge on the Derbyshire side, on this occasion there was a Mare [Mayor] chosen (I suppose the first Mare there ever was at Marple Bridge of this sort) and a regular Mare’s Walk consisting of the Mare (John Kirk) and a great many of the neighbouring Gentlemen after the walk the partook of a good Dinner at one of the Inns. which was paid for out of a subscription raised for that purpose this took place last Easter Monday.

I was intrigued. What was Matlock’s Leap? And why was it so important that it required a stone and a slap up meal to celebrate it, and particularly on Bank Holiday Easter Monday (it would have been held on 23rd April 1832), and at the same time as choosing a mayor? Clearly it was so familiar to George Booth that it required no further explanation – it is almost a throwaway comment - and yet, the phrase “Matlock’s Leap” typed into Google provides just one relevant hit. It turns out that whilst the mystery was relatively easily solved, it is nonetheless quite a tale, and there may be yet more to be uncovered.

The single reference to the ‘leap’ is in ‘Cheshire Notes and Queries‘ dated 30th March 1889.

About fifty years ago I recollect seeing a tablet in the wall, about twenty yards from the bridge, on the Derbyshire side, with the words Matlock’s Leap, and I think the date was upon it. I recollect being told at the time that it had been placed there by the landlord, Mr James Boulton, who, at that time kept the Norfolk Arms Inn, to commemorate a miraculous escape that a man named Matlock had one dark night. This man was in the Norfolk Arms, and he was suspected of having committed some depredation, and he was told the constable was at hand, when he immediately ran out of the house, ran across the road, and jumped over the wall down into the river, which I should think is here about forty feet perpendicular. I was told the man was not hurt. His friends got a ladder and got him up again all right. I have noticed that the tablet referred to has been removed from the wall where it was fixed. I shall be glad if any of your readers can tell me why and where it has gone.
Ashton-under-Lyne.

I. W. B.

Matlock was a person, and his leap was one over a wall and 40ft into the river Goyt… and he lived. However, the tablet commemorating the event had evidently disappeared by 1889, but at least we know where it was – about here, to be exact:

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 Roughly 20 yards down from the Norfolk Arms

I looked, and could see no sign of where the stone would have been fixed, and looking along, it seems to me that the whole of the wall has been replaced at some stage post-1832 – it looks Victorian, rather than Georgian, and it may have been then that the stone was removed.

Presumably, given the Norfolk Arms was the location of the leap, and that the landlord had put the tablet up, the pub was also the location of the slap up meal mentioned by George Booth. I was also intrigued by the ‘depredation‘ of which Matlock was accused; it’s an oddly specific word... so what did he do? Two weeks after the above question in Notes and Queries was published a comprehensive answer, dated 12th April 1889, was provided:

In reply to your correspondent who asks about Matlock’s Leap, I may say that I do not profess to give anything I know personally, but I recently accidentally met a friend who lived at Marple when a youth, now he is over 70 years of age, and he told me a few matters he remembers about it. His first recollection of Matlock was before the “leap” had taken place, but he had often heard of “burkers,” “body snatchers,” and “resurrection men,” and was no little alarmed when he was told that these men stole dead bodies from churchyards for the doctors, and that the doctors made physic out of them which caused physic to taste “so bad.” One day, quite 60 years ago, my friend went to the Horse Shoe Inn for his father, who was indulging rather unduly to the neglect of his business. When he got there he found his parent in conversation with a man, and the father wishing to let the lad know who he was, contrived to whisper to him, and said, “that is Matlock; he is a burker, fetches dead people out of church yards at nights.” This was so strongly impressed on his youthful mind that he remembers it yet quite distinctly.

With regard to the stone that formerly marked the place of Matlock’s leap, my friend informed me that a present Alderman of Stockport told him on one day that he last saw it in Compstall Gardens when they were kept by Mr Calab Warhurst.

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The view of the Norfolk Arms from the place where Matlock jumped into the Goyt.

A short account that I have had from another source about the immediate cause of the leap, may be of interest to some of your readers. On the day I read your last issue and saw the account of Matlock’s leap, I met with a person who resides not far from the place, so, in a jocular manner, I said to him, “Do you know anything about Matlock’s leap and the resurrectioning case?” He replied “Yes,” and added, “and you will be surprised when I tell you whose body it was. Then he told me that the grave had been watched for seven nights for fear that some one should come and snatch a body which he said was that of a large stout man that had been buried in Mellor Churchyard, in the year 1831, and after watching the grave for so long, the family and friends thought there would not then be any attempt made to take the body, but on the eight night it was ‘snatched’ or taken away, and a week after the coffin was found in a lime hole in the neighbourhood” and, he continued, “I have a cousin now living at Hazel Grove who was one of the watchers, and the body was that of my father.” The informant was only six weeks old when this occurred, so of course only knows what he has been told, perhaps chiefly by his own family.

leap m 3

This photo, taken from the bridge, shows the place where the leap took place – roughly where the kink in the wall is.

I will conclude with a short account of the leap as it has been told to me by my elder informant who was living on the spot at the time. One night a number of men of the village were at the Norfolk Arms, and were bent on having a lark. It had been agreed that there should be a tap-room trial of Matlock for the ”snatching” of this body. A judge was appointed, a jury was empanneled, and Matlock was on his trial; when matters were at their height, one, Dick (Richard) Middleton, a plumber and glazier, went into the room and said to Matlock “the constable is after you d_____l“ [presumably this is Matlock’s first name, redacted – Daniel?]. Now, just what was expected, happened. Matlock was startled, and rushed out of the house; it had been planned that a number of men should be outside – on the right side of the house, and a like number on the left side – so that whichever way he went they were to pretend to try and catch him. He first ran up the bridge and was met, and a scuffle took place, from which he was permitted to escape, and ran to try the other way; here again he was met by another gang and again there was a scuffle, without any serious attempt to secure him, for that, too early accomplished, would have spoiled their sport ; but he saw the two crowds meeting together, and himself hemmed in between them and in such close quarters, and having only time to think of the judge and jury in the house, the crowd on the right hand and the crowd on the left, in a sort of despair, he took the terrible leap into the river, as stated by your correspondent. This is correct in the main. If any little error of detail is seen by anyone who may be better informed, perhaps they will be kind enough to correct it.
H.H. Stockport.

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 The same stretch of the river viewed directly down from the bank. Here Matlock landed in the river

Prior to 1832 only the bodies of people executed could be cut up and examined anatomically, and it was considered to be part of their punishment. This meant there was a serious shortage of cadavers with which to teach anatomy, which in turn meant that doctors, and in particular surgeons, often had little experience in the reality of the human body and how it worked. In order to address this, an illegal trade in corpses was started, in which criminals – ‘resurrectionists’ – dug up the newly buried, and reResurrectionistsmoved them to be sold to doctors, surgeons, and medical schools. Seemingly few questions were asked, and from a rational and medical perspective, this made sense – the dead are dead, but they can in turn help the living. Ethically and morally, however, the trade left a little to be desired, and the public at large, as well as grieving widows and parents in particular, were outraged. As the ‘trade’ reached fever pitch in the 1820’s and 30’s, watch groups were set up to keep a watch over newly buried bodies to ensure they got their eternal rest.

Resurrectionists (1847), by Hablot Knight Browne. This illustration accompanies an account of John Holmes and Peter Williams who, for unearthing cadavers in 1777, were publicly whipped from Holborn to St Giles.

There was a gang of ressurectionists based in Cocker Hill in Stalybridge with whom Matlock must have been connected as it is unlikely that two groups would have been operating in the area at the same time. Their fascinating story is told on the Cocker Hill website (cockerhill.com). It seems the gang were active in the Hollingworth area as well, so Marple and Mellor are but a cart ride away. Bodies were dug up by the gang and spirited away to Stalybridge, where they were transported via canal to Manchester. However, the Peak Forest Canal actually passes through Marple Bridge on the Cheshire side, so the journey from Mellor church (mentioned in H. H.‘s answer above) would be easier to make.

Might we suggest, then, that Matlock was also connected to the taking of bodies from Mottram Church? Famously the churchyard of Mottram St. Michael and All Angels is the home of the empty grave of 15 year old Lewis Brierley, whose corpse was stolen in 1827. His grieving father displayed the empty coffin at the Crown Pole at Mottram, opposite what was once the White Hart pub (now being converted to houses), giving the eulogy that was later inscribed on the gravestone above the empty grave:

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 Lewis Brierley’s gravestone. Thanks to Sandra Teasdale

Tho’ once beneath the ground his corpse was laid
For use of surgeons it was thence convey’d.
Vain was the scheme to hide the impious theft
The body taken, shroud and coffin left.
Ye wretches who pursue this barb’rous trade
Your corpses in turn may be convey’d
Like his to some unfeeling surgeons room
Nor can they justly meet a better doom.

In memory of Lewis, son of James and Mary Brierley of Valley Mill who died October 3rd 1827 in the 15th year of his age.

The father apparently kept the coffin and was eventually himself buried in it. The gravestone, complete with inscription, is to be found to the north of the church.

In 1832 parliament passed the Anatomy Act, which effectively ended the trade by allowing any unclaimed body to be anatomised, and from then on poorhouses in particular supplied the surgeons with their dissection corpses in great numbers.

So where is the Matlock stone now? The above letter by ‘H.H.’ of Stockport suggests it was last seen in Compstall Gardens sometime prior to 1889. I presume this refers to the pub once known as The Compstall Gardens Inn and the formal gardens that were attached to the pub. The pub, now known as The Spring Gardens, still exists on Compstall Road, as do the gardens. But here the matter must rest, alas… the trail went cold. I emailed the Spring Gardens asking if they had any information about the stone’s whereabouts, but sadly to date I have not heard anything back. I will pop in for a pint (or two) when lockdown ends and make an enquiries then, but I am not holding out hope. It was most likely lost or made into part of a patio, which is a shame, but at least now this little slice of history is now more widely known about.

If anyone has any further information, then please feel free to contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via the Glossop-based local history and archaeology blog I run - The Glossop Cabinet of Curiosities at https://glossopcuriosities.wordpress.com/