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Evidence of body-snatching unearthed in West Bromwich

By dan shaw  |  Posted: January 24, 2013

Archaeologist David Doyle surveys the rare mortsafe, thought to be the only example in the Midlands

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FOLLOWING on from last week’s story on how the trustees of Swan Bank Wesleyan Methodist Church in Bilston gave their caretaker a gun in order to guard the burial ground from bodysnatchers, we have further details of grave-robbing in the Black Country, with new evidence of the 19th century “resurrection men” at work in West Bromwich having recently come to light.

Archaeologists studying the site of the former Providence Baptist Chapel and graveyard in Sandwell Road, West Bromwich found a “mortsafe”, a metal contraption placed around a coffin to stop grave-robbers stealing a body. It is thought to be the only example of a mortsafe recorded in the Midlands.

Empty coffins and one filled with scrap metal were also discovered, presumably victims of the body-snatchers.

The mortsafe has been conserved and is now in the collection of Sandwell Museums, and museum staff are planning an exhibition of the finds.

The site of the chapel and burial ground was excavated by Headland Archaeology in 2011 while work on the A41 underpass and Providence Place was going on nearby.

Grave robbery was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries when the corpses were sold for dissection in medical schools. Bodies were needed by doctors and students to learn about anatomy, and the gruesome trade in cadavers led the so-called “resurrection men” to target graveyards. West Bromwich would have been a prime target for the grave-robbers supplying the anatomy and medical schools that were being set up in Birmingham in the late 1700s.

The chapel was built in 1810 but had fallen out of use by the early 20th century. It was converted to a cinema, opening as the Sandwell Cinema in 1922, but it closed only a few years later and it remained derelict until it was demolished in the mid 1950s. A petrol station and the former Sandwell Road depot were later built on the site.

As well as the mortsafe, the archaeologist discovered three coffins buried with large planks of wood on top of them, evidence of attempts to deter the body-snatchers, and one doubledecker brick coffin, where the body at the top concealed a false bottom to the coffin and a hidden burial beneath.

Following the excavation, the remains from the 148 graves were removed and given a Baptist burial in Heath Lane cemetery.

Frank Caldwell, Sandwell Museums Manager, said, “The osteologists at Headland Archaeology were able to carry out quite a bit of analysis on some of the skeletons. They taught us a great deal about the residents of West Bromwich in the early 19th century, just as the industrial revolution was encouraging immigration into the towns from the countryside.

“Many of the skeletons showed excessive wear around the ankles, even some of the young people. We think they were working treadle-powered lathes and this was causing some repetitive strain injuries.

“Also, it’s interesting to see the amount of tooth decay in the later burials, compared to the earlier ones; evidence for the ‘modern’ sugar and processed food diet. The older skeletons’ teeth show a lot of wear but not so much decay.

“The body protected by the mortsafe belonged to a young woman who we found suffered from a disfiguring skin and bone disease, which meant that her remains would have fetched a premium for the body-snatchers. That would be why her body was protected in the mortsafe; her family were concerned that it would be stolen.

“The simplest method of protecting the graves was to employ a guard. However, it appears from records in other towns that the money paid for a fresh body, over £25, when a daily wage in a factory might be no more than 20-30p, that these guards were often bribed to turn a blind eye.

“We were not able to put names to any of the skeletons as the name plates from all the coffins would have been made out of cheap, thin tinplate and had all corroded to dust.

“One intriguing find was a musket ball in one of the coffins; we presume it contributed to that person’s death but research has not helped us identify any shootings in West Bromwich at this period. Some secrets are literally taken to the grave!”

Body-snatching was an acute problem in the early 1800s as the demands of anatomists far outstripped the legitimate supply of bodies – those of executed criminals. The Anatomy Act of 1832 gave doctors greater access to cadavers by allowing them to dissect any unclaimed bodies from prisons or workhouses and by also letting people donate bodies to medical science, thereby putting an end to what had been a lucrative but illicit trade.

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