John FORREST (1804-1865)

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Dr John FORREST, Honorary Physician to the Queen, was born on 20th June 1804 in Stirling[1]. He was the eighth child of Dr John FORREST and Elizabeth GLAS.

Dr Forrest had a prestigous career, serving in the Army Medical Staff for 36 years and being involved in a number of conflicts including the Crimean War, rising to the title of Honorary Physician to the Queen. However, as a medical student seeking a cadaver to further his understanding of medicine, he was convicted of grave-robbing. Fortunately, he was subsequently pardoned by the King, obtained his medical degree and joined the Army.


'Resurrectionists' stealing a corpse from a cemetery to be sold for anatomical study and dissection, circa 1840. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1822, when John was a student of medicine at Edinburgh University he was involved in the removal of the body of Mary Wotherspoon from Stirling Churchyard[nb 1]. The crime was discovered and John along with James Shiels, a street sweeper, Daniel Mitchell, a servant and changekeeper, and James McNab, the local gravedigger, were implicated as the culprits.[2]

A trial was held at the Stirling Spring Circuit Court on 19th April 1823 however John Forrest had absconded and was absent from the hearings. He was assumed to be heading for Paris whilst McNab and Mitchel were held prisoners in the Stirling Tolbooth. The Court documents do not mention James Shiels however. The crime had been discovered when the grave of Mary Wotherspoon, who had been buried a week before, had been observed to be a couple of inches below the surface. A rope was discovered near the surface and digging down to the coffin revealed it had been broken open and the body removed, however the clothes had been thrown back inside[nb 2].

In McNab's statement he described John Forrest as the ring-leader who had approached him a number of times trying to persuade him to assist in the removal of bodies from the Church yard, offering him up to four Guineas per body. In McNab's role as the Church gravedigger he would have held the keys to the Church yard which would be of great use in such a crime. Although McNab admitted being with John Forrest, Daniel Mitchel and James Shiels on the night before the crime was discovered, he protested his innocence and claimed the crime was conducted after he left the group.

Mitchel's statement supports the claim that John Forrest had offered a number of times three of four Guineas for assistance in the removal of bodies from the graveyard. Mitchel also mentions one of John Forrest's accomplaces being "a tallish man with a great white coat with a number of capes and whom he heard to be called Mr Johnston from Edinburgh". This man was not located and assumed to be a fictious character, however this could have been Dr Alexander Johnston who was married to John's elder sister Marion Forrest.

Mitchel goes on to describe how John Forrest had offered him a large amount of whisky and being intoxicated, agreed to go with him, McNab and Shiels to the church yard where Mr Johnston gave him a pound note (which he admits he split with James Shiels the following day). However, Mitchel denies assisting with the crime, saying he left immediately afterwards.[3]

As all evidence pointed towards John Forrest being the principal offender in the case and that he had absconded, the court decreed that he should be outlawed from Scotland[4].

The Lord Advocate also decided that because John Forrest was absent, the trial against McNab and Mitchel who had merely been acting as agents was halted pro loco et tempore. In Scots Law this phrase refers to a case where the trial is stopped but the prosecution retains the right to bring a fresh indictment against the accused. They were freed from jail, however this incensed the local populace who formed an angry mob and started to riot in the streets. The 77th Regiment were brought down from the Castle to disperse the rioters who fired on the mob in Spittal Street, but no-one was injured, the soldiers intentionally firing over the people's heads. For their own safety McNab and Mitchel had to take refuge in the jail they had just been released from[5][6].

On 7th July 1824, Dr Forrest was pardoned by the King[7]. The reasons are not clearly documented, only referring to John Forrest's contrition of the crime and "favourable circumstances"[8][9] which possibly refer to him passing his degree and becoming a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Early Military Career

Much of John's Military Career is documented in his Obituary in the British Medical Journal[10]:

In 1825 John Forrest was awarded a Doctorate from Edinburgh University[11]. His dissertation, written in Latin, was on the subject of gangrene[12].

On 10th November 1825 he joined the British Army as a Hospital Assistant. Shortly after, on 9th February 1826 he was promoted to Assistant Surgeon in the 20th Regiment of the Foot where he served in the expedition against the Rajah of Kolapore in 1827.

On 3rd September 1829 he was transferred to the 23rd Regiment of Foot, on the 11th October 1831 transferred to the 8th West India Regiment of Foot and on 9th July 1832 transferred to the hospital staff.

On 2nd July 1841 Dr was promoted to surgeon of the 2nd class and served in the 75th Regiment of Foot until 13th May 1842 when he transferred to the hospital staff in Cape of Good Hope.

He was employed during the expedition against the insurgent Boers beyond the Orange River in 1845, and in the Kaffir War of 1846, for which he received a medal.

Whilst in Cape Town, John became the Medical Attendant to Lady Sarah Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, and wife of Sir Peregrine Maitland. He was mentioned in a letter dated 17th January 1847 from Sir John Hall:

“Dr. Forrest, who belongs to the Medical Staff here, and has made a good deal of money, I hear, by private practice, is indignant at being passed over by Atkinson, who is junior to him in the Service, and is going to make an application to return home on account of his health, to which I suppose I shall be compelled to give my assent. The other day he sent a regular reprimand to Sir James McGrigor for overlooking his individual merits, and promoting a junior Officer over his head, which he sent to me for transmission home. I, of course, returned it to him with a message that, however much he fancied Sir James deserved censure for the promotion he had made, I was not the channel through which such a communication should pass, but that if I could forward his views in getting an exchange, or even promotion, it would afford me much pleasure. It was rather a knowing dodge of the canny Scot, as all Sir James's anger would have fallen on me, and very properly, for transmitting such a document; but I have been severely bitten once by one of his countrymen for my good nature, and I will forgive the next who persuades me to commit myself again for his advantage.”[13]

On 21st May 1850 he was promoted to Surgeon of the First Class and served as hospital staff in Glasgow and Chatham, Kent.

Crimean War

On 28th March 1854, Dr John Forrest was promoted to Deputy-Inspector of Army Hospitals and was ordered on 13th April 1854 to be in medical charge of the 3rd division of the Eastern army in Galipoli and Bulgaria, and accompanied the expedition to the Crimea in September 1854. In December 1854, he was posted to Scutari hospital, assuming the office of Principal Medical Officer. One of the junior doctors in his division, George Lawson, had a high opinion of Dr Forrest:

“It requires a man of good capabilities to take charge. Had he been there before there would never have been a complaint against the place ... He has kindly promised to have me removed there, but this I am obliged to keep to myself, as it requires some management to be sent down. I shall first get sent down to Scutari with wounded and sick, and he will detain me there and give me, I have asked of him, one of the surgical wards.”[14]

Unfortunately the conditions at Scutari Hospital (where Florence Nightingale had been posted) were too harsh for Dr Forrest and he resigned two weeks later following inflammation of the liver. His letter to Sir John Hall stated:

“I am sorry I find I must divert to England for a change in climate as I am quite unfit to carry on duty here. Lawson and others seem to think there is serious disease of the kidney going on and I daresay they are right.”[15]

Following his recovery, John was present at the affair of Bulganac, capture of Balaklava, battles of the Alma and Inkerman, and siege of Sebastopol. He was noticed in Lord Raglan’s despatch after Inkerman, “for his able exertions, as deserving to be most honourably mentioned” and was rewarded with the medal with three clasps, and on 5th Feb 1856 made an Ordinary Member of the Military Division of the Third Class (Companion of the Order of the Bath).

Later Career

He became Inspector-General of Army Hospitals on 31st May 1858 and on 2nd Mar 1858 received the fourth-class order of the Medjuidie.

He was stationed at Malta until Dec 1861 having been promoted in 16th Nov 1859 to Honorary Physician to the Queen

Career Timeline

Date Position Attached Awards
10th November 1825 Hospital-Assistant to the Forces[16]
9th February 1826 Assistant Surgeon[16] 20th Regiment of Foot[17]

23rd Regiment of Foot[18]

8th West India Regiment of Foot[19]

Hospital Staff[20]

2nd July 1841 Surgeon[16] 75th Regiment of Foot[21]

Hospital Staff[22]

91st Regiment of Foot[23]

21st May 1850 Surgeon Major[16] Hospital Staff[24]
28th March 1854 Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals[16] 3rd Division of Eastern Army South African Medal

Crimea Medal with clasps Alma, Inkermann and Sebastopol[25]

Turkish Crimean Medal

Companion of the Order of the Bath[26]

4th Class Order of the Medjidie[27]

31st December 1858 Inspector-General of Hospitals[16] Honorary Physician to Her Majesty[28]
31st December 1861 Placed on Half-Pay[16]


In St Ninians, Stirlingshire, John married on 7th March 1839, firstly, Ann MCLACHLAN[29] daughter of Captain Donald MCLACHLAN and (unknown) CAMPBELL.

In April 1839[30], Captain Donald McLachlan accompanied by his family and John and Ann Forrest left Stirling in the barque Ariadne and journeyed to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa where John and Ann disembarked. Donald and family continued to Australia reaching Port Phillip towards the end of 1839[31].

In South Africa, Ann had two children:

i. Mary Anne FORREST, born 1840 in Cape Town, South Africa[32][33].
ii. John FORREST, born on 2nd February 1841 in Cape Town, South Africa[34].

Unfortunately, Ann died on 1st August 1842[35] and was buried at St George’s Anglican Church, Cape Town on 2nd Aug 1842[36].

In Gibraltar, he married secondly on 12th August 1858, Emma JENKIN, daughter of George H. JENKIN[37]

He died at 10 Queens Parade in Bath, Somerset, on 10th December 1865[38], leaving £8,000 to his daughter Mary Anne, £5,000 to his second wife Emma, and the remaining £5,000 of his estate to his son John.[39][40].


  1. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. While in the 1700s, hundreds had been executed for trivial crimes, by the 19th century only approximately 50 people were being hanged each year. With the expansion of the medical schools and private anatomical schools, as many as 500 cadavers were needed. This led to body-snatching to fill the shortfall. Stealing a corpse was a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with fine and imprisonment, rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to turn a blind eye to what they considered a necessary evil.
  2. One method body-snatchers used was to dig at the head end of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin they broke it open, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would leave them open to a felony charge.


  1. Old Parochial Register, Births, Stirling, OPR Ref. 490/0030 0336
  2. Precognition against James Shiels, Daniel Mitchell, James McNab, John Forrest for the crime of violation of sepulchres, 1823, National Archives Scotland Ref. AD14/23/61
  3. Trial papers relating to Daniel Mitchell, James McNab, John Forrest for the crime of violation of sepulchres at Church yard, Stirling, 19 Apr 1823, National Archives Scotland Ref. JC26/1823/15
  4. Cases decided in the Court of Session – Patrick Shaw & Alex Dunlop (Vol II 12th Nov 1822 – 11th Mar 1824) No.99 p103
  5. Riot in Stirling - Broadside (1823)
  6. Old Faces, Old Places and Old Stories of Stirling - William Drysdale (1898) p254
  7. The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany – Archibald Constable and Company (July-December 1824, Vol XV) p244
  8. Registrum Magni Sigilli (Paper Register), 17 Jun 1820-26 Sep 1825, National Archives Scotland Ref. C3/25/00191R&V
  9. Book of Adjournal, 27 Jan 1823-12 Jul 1824, National Archives Scotland Ref. JC4/14/00405/L&00406/R
  10. British Medical Journal – Obituaries (23rd Sep 1865) p323
  11. UK Medical Register 1859 p105
  12. Dissertatio medica inauguralis, quaedam de gangraena complectens
  13. The Life and Letters of Sir John Hall – S.M. Mitra (1911) p104
  14. The Crimean Doctors – John A Shepherd (1911) p361
  15. The Crimean Doctors – John A Shepherd (1911) p352
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 16.6 Colonel H.G. Hart, The New Annual Army List, and Militia List (1864),554
  17. London Gazette, No.18221 (18th February 1826), 362
  18. London Gazette, No.18615 (29th September 1829), 1789
  19. Edinburgh Gazette, No.4007 (18th October 1831), 279
  20. London Gazette, No.18957 (20th July 1832), 1674
  21. London Gazette, No.19995 (2nd July 1841), 1721
  22. London Gazette, No.20099 (13th May 1842), 1297
  23. London Gazette, No.20729 (30th April 1847), 1585
  24. London Gazette, No.21097 (21st May 1850), 1452
  25. Association Medical Journal (1st June 1855)
  26. London Gazette, No.21846 (5th February 1856), 427
  27. London Gazette, No.22107 (2nd March 1858), 1251-1253
  28. Edinburgh Gazette, No.6937 (19th August 1859), 1143
  29. Old Parochial Register, Marriages, St Ninians, OPR Ref. 488/0060 0300
  30. Notes and Queries (Volume CLXXI 12th September 1936) p192
  31. The Argus - Melbourne, Victoria (26th November 1937) p16
  32. Public Record Office, England Census, PRO Ref. RG11/2440/27/13 (age transposed with Husband’s)
  33. Public Record Office, England Census, PRO Ref. RG12/1937/145/19
  34. Gravestone of John and Eveline Forrest, Lacey Green
  35. The Cape of Good Hope Government Gazette, Deaths Section 5th Aug 1842
  36. Burial Register of St George’s Anglican Church, Cape Town
  37. General Register Office, Army Returns, Marriages, Gibraltar, 1850-1859 p1129
  38. General Register Office, Deaths, Bath, GRO Ref. 1865/Q3/5C/431
  39. Last Will and Testament of Dr John Forrest (1865) Ref SC70/6/4 non-Scottish Court
  40. Inventory of Dr John Forrest (1865) Ref SC70/1/127 Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories