A grisly tale of the councillor and two in a coffin


James Dewar

James Dewar

In the midst of the horrors, anxieties and deaths of the Second World War the people of Aberdeen were rocked by a home-grown outrage on their doorstep.

A poem typed on a single piece of flimsy paper dated April 1944 was retrieved from a suitcase of ephemera belonging to a late relative. It was entitled The Talk of the Town and as I began reading I realised I knew nothing of this revolting episode from the city’s past.

The Talk of the Town:

Aberdeen’s crematorium chief –

Not yet convicted as a thief,

May find himself in Peterhead

If it is proved he robbed the dead.

On first reading I imagined it was connected with the grisly tale of Nellfield Pies but quickly realised that gruesome episode came from a much earlier era. (Nellfield is a graveyard – you can imagine the rest) The subject of this poem was Aberdeen’s relatively recently opened crematorium.

Councillor James Dewar, managing director of the city’s crematorium at Kaimhill and Alick George Forbes, an undertaker from Woodside, found themselves on trial in the High Court in Edinburgh during 1944. Dewar was charged with the theft of over 1000 coffin lids, coffins and shrouds while Forbes faced accusations of reset of 100 coffin lids and two coffins. The offences took place between 1939 and 1944.

‘It is a conspiracy’ insisted the councillor on his arrest.

People talk as people will,

And some who’ve never seen Kaimhill

Will tell you yarns with bated breath

Of what takes place there after death.

The initial hearing was held in Aberdeen but aroused so much interest with the public queuing in great numbers to get into the courthouse it was decided to transfer the case to Edinburgh to avoid their ‘ghoulish curiosity’ and ensure the men got a fair trial.

The trial created such a stink (literally) that perfume was sprayed around the court to counteract the odour emanating from repeatedly used coffin lids brought into the court as evidence. The judge resorted to inhaling smelling salts to prevent passing out.

Councillor Dewar who represented Woodside was, as well as being in charge of the crematorium, a police judge and JP. He was also the owner of a garage. When the police had it searched they found a substantial amount of chopped up wood and a number of intact coffin lids. Even more lids were found stored at the crematorium, as Dewar had straightaway alerted them to the basement.

‘What you will find down there is the lids of coffins.’ He explained then the ‘usual procedure’, ‘… when a cremation takes place the coffin lid is removed, and that coffin lid is held here and used as firewood, or is thereafter employed from the economical point of view of not destroying the lid. This is the general practice throughout the whole crematoria movement …the coffins are the property of the company…in the case of babies the coffins are used simply for the service in order to avoid unnecessary expense to the parents. That is all I want to say.’

Undertaker Forbes told how bodies were removed in simple coffins or shells from hospitals or other institutions and taken to the crematorium. There the families would purchase a proper coffin and shroud etc through his shop for the cremation. When the exchange took place the shell was returned to his shop. Forbes explained Dewar and he worked out a deal that Dewar hired coffins and shells from him and following the funeral service the body was cremated sometimes in an open coffin or no coffin at all, squeezing two corpses into one coffin. ‘Spare’ coffins were returned to Forbes’s shop for resale. Similarly with lids, they were removed and stored.

When Forbes realised they’d been found out he went about trying to remove evidence by cutting up lids and hiding what he could of the wood that had been kept to make into other items for selling on, such as rabbit hutches.

In evidence it emerged some of the coffins involved were for children. The lining in one that had been re-used was found to be stained with blood. Another showed signs of wear where the screws had been worked in and then back out again.

Unseemly, but then the evidence was to take a more bizarre turn.

Our Fire Force Leader never tires

Of fighting local city fires,

And sees that coffins never burn

When there is cash for their return. 

At the city fire station headquarters on Queen’s Road the police discovered all kinds of wooden objects from a bureau to a date-rack. Yes, the fire service was acquiring timber from the crematorium for a spot of woodwork on the side in what was described as a ‘hush-hush’ arrangement. The idea there was anything illegal going on never occurred to any of them it was claimed. Dewar insisted the reason he told the firemen to keep quiet about their arrangement was to prevent a general clamour for wood. Asked why he had told the NFS men to pick up the lids at night, Dewar replied that was when they finished their duties.

Imaginative use of flogged-off coffins and lids popped up right across the city. It appeared there were several hush-hush arrangements that led to the production of tea trays, radio cabinets, seed boxes, desks, hutches on a near industrial scale.

It was put to Dewar and Forbes that poorer people were not treated with the respect and decency provided to richer ones when evidence emerged of corpses being cremated together, including adults and unrelated babies who were placed at their feet for cremation.

For £50 they’ve each found bail,

And there is many a gruesome tale,

Of dark deeds done at dead of night,

When moon and stars are hid from sight. 

You can only imagine the impact these revelations had on the people of Aberdeen whose family and friends had passed through the crematorium during the war years until 1944.

In evidence Dewar described seeing a hand from a corpse move in the intense heat as he watched through the peep-hole of the furnace door, for the coffin was without a lid, it having been removed, he said, to prevent it being blown off and damaging the furnace brickwork.

His defence for running the crematorium in this appalling way implied too little was paid by Aberdeen hospitals for disposal of bodies: 21 shillings for a stillbirth and 25 shillings for newly born babies. Defiantly he maintained there was no obligation to provide coffins, and it was an unnecessary expense for parents.

When pressed on the treatment of dead children whose mothers had trustingly placed them with an undertaker and paid for a coffin and funeral Dewar argued that when the coffin with the child reached him from the undertaker the need for the coffin was completed – the child could then be cremated without a coffin, it having become scrap.

One such ‘scrap’ coffin was discovered to have been repeatedly reused in the crematorium between 1941 and 1944.

This month we speak of April showers,

Though some may talk of re-sold flowers,

And gazing up at darkening clouds

Will ask, who buys the dead men’s shrouds? 

In his defence Dewar hinted there was nothing underhand going on and that the crematorium was liable to be inspected at any time. When asked if it had ever been inspected, he replied, ‘No.

It emerged that brass name plates and handles had also been removed. This was explained again as being necessary to prevent damage to the furnace.

Let each one to his daily task,

And no more Kaimhill questions ask,

Like Asquith you must wait and see

The verdict of the powers that be. 

It took the jury 26 minutes to find them guilty. When Dewar heard his sentence of three years penal servitude his head fell back and his face flushed. Forbes, given six months in prison, showed no emotion. 

In total Dewar was convicted of stealing 1000 lids from unknown persons, 44 lids from known persons and 2 coffins. Forbes was found guilty of reset of 100 coffin lids.

Both appealed their sentences arguing under Scots law it was not possible to be convicted of stealing from the dead. Their appeals failed. Anyway I would have thought it was the living who made funeral arrangements and purchased coffins etc..

Finally it is interesting to note that a local doctor, who counter-signed cremation certificates, without checking identities of the deceased, was given a reprimand. I suspect there may have been a degree of class prejudice involved in his light slap on the wrist.

In the end justice was done. I expect Dewar was found employment in the quarries around Peterhead prison for his spell behind bars. What happened to them on their releases from prison goodness knows. Their faces would not have been made welcome back in Aberdeen, of that I am sure.

The crematorium at Kaimhill is no more. It was replaced by the current one at Hazlehead. But it too has been embroiled in unsavoury activities relating to the cremation of babies. It seems lessons are never properly learned by the people who need them most.

4 Comments to “A grisly tale of the councillor and two in a coffin”

  1. Excellent! Most of the men in my family were firemen so will pass this on. Thank you

  2. I was sent this email today about the current situation at Aberdeen Crematorium. It appears lessons have not been learnt and that lack of respect for the deceased and their families continues into the present.

    I am writing this e-mail to complain about what I witnessed today at the Aberdeen Crematorium, I was in paying my respects to one of my dear friends that passed 12 years ago and I was horrified to see the ground staff finishing off digging a child’s plot.

    Let me set the scene, as I said the plot was just finished as the staff was placing the boards over the hole to accept the small coffin, just then two gentlemen of Middle East descent got out of a car and approached the grave site. I can only surmise that they were part of the grieving family, these two gents was approached by one guy in a ACC fleece (which must of bee the charge hand) however he was still on his cell phone when the grieving gents were trying to talk to him.

    Then to compound the situation two other ground staff approached the grave, one was wearing a Aberdeen football top and the other guy looked as though he was just back from some army exercise as he was dressed head to toe in camouflage and smoking a cigarette.

    I was just standing watching this pan out and thought if it was my child that just passed the last thing I would want to see is these three guys and the way they dismissed common decency.

  3. And most appropriately Councillor Dewar was appointed to the National Fire Service in 1942, establishing a firm contact with firemen and no doubt asking them some burning questions. He was elected to the Council 1936 and stood as a Moderate. Thank goodness he’d not been “radicalised”, heaven knows what he might have done. Moderation in all things must have been his motto, after all he steered clear of a Burke & Hare.

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