Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mersea and a mystery

Current work: Medical and nonfic
Listening to: Kathryn Williams, The Quickening (new album - is excellent)
Reading: Tess Gerritsen, The Bone Garden (enjoying very much and is highly appropriate, given what I was looking for at Mersea…)


Mersea Island is the most easterly inhabited island in Britain. It’s been colonised since at least Roman times (a Roman mosaic floor has been discovered here, and there are lots of Roman bricks in the church of St Peter in West Mersea). The Danes had an encampment here (probably near the church at East Mersea) and some interesting burials have been found here, such as the ‘wheel’ tomb in West Mersea and the Roman barrow. Not to mention the fact that under the present-day causeway are piles that have been dated to the 7th century – making it the earliest dated causeway in Britain. (It's also meant to be haunted by a centurion.)


What was I after? There are no remains of the priory at West Mersea. But in East Mersea churchyard there’s something unusual.


There’s a legend that because this grave is on the north side of the church, the poor 15-year-old buried here in the mid-19th century was a witch, and this is a cage to keep her in her grave. It’s actually far more likely that she had an illegitimate child (hence the burial site), and this is actually a mortsafe – this protects the grave from being dug up by ‘resurrection men’ (who procured corpses for anatomy practice at medical schools, at a time when you could only dissect corpses of convicted murderers. Mortsafes are found more in places such as Edinburgh (mainly becayse of Burke and Hare’s notorious actions) and they weren’t really necessary after the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed (meaning that other corpses could be dissected, with permission from the family or the workhouse). And it’s slightly odd that Sarah Wrench’s grave is the only one with a mortsafe. But… interesting.


Plan for today: guitar, visit Dad, crack on with book(s).

12 comments:

Caroline Storer said...

That caused a shiver down my spine! But very interesting none the less. Caroline.

Brigitte said...

Mortsafe, eh?
Have never heard of that and I have to go and investigate.
Thanks for sharing and for feeding my braincells.

Have a lovely week.
Brigitte

ninaharrington said...

I am with Brigitte - a new factoid for me too!
Have a good one and hope the weather improves for you.
Nina.

Kate Hardy said...

Caroline - mm, I have a penchant for spooky stories. (And, yes, this is something to do with my Regency doctor... I haven't given up on that, but I need to approach it from a different angle!)

Kate Hardy said...

Brigitte - look up Burke and Hare and the Resurrection Men. (There's also a v good bio of Astley Cooper called "Digging up the dead" by Druin Birch, which touches on it.)

It's fascinating stuff.

You have a lovely week, too!

Kate Hardy said...

Nina - for some reason I expected you to know about this stuff already! It's a real lightbulb factoid, isn't it?

Have a good one. And it's not snowing (yet) today, thank goodness.

Lacey Devlin said...

It have me that prickly feeling too! I had no idea what a mortsafe was before today. You make me smarter. So strange that it's the only one though...

Nicola Cornick said...

Another fascinating historical post, Kate! I'm totally hooked on all your history factoids! I haven't seen a mortsafe before although I'd read about the resurrection men when I was researching Lord of Scandal and they had a walk on part in the story. Very spooky idea to keep the witch in her grave...

Olivia Ryan said...

Ooh, very interesting! How come I don't know all these stories about Essex places?! (maybe I should read more books about Essex - that might help!).

Kate Hardy said...

Lacey - that's what's intriguing me. There's just one. The date's odd, too. (There's probably a really rational explanation that's been lost in the records somewhere. But it's definite fodder for novelists.)

The more well-documented ones are in Edinburgh and London.

Kate Hardy said...

Nicola - I remember that walk-on part. (I was planning a bigger one for my Regency Doctor book, but as yet my editor is immovable. And I can't remember if she made me take out the ref in my July book or not, now!)

Kate Hardy said...

Olivia - there's, ahem, one coming out in July... ;)