The digger-uppers

Mystery Object

Here’s a tricky one: it’s been taken apart and laid in pieces on the floor.  But what is it and what was  it used for?

Most people in West Bromwich know of Providence Place, the new office and hotel development next to the old Cronehills colliery site and close to the new Tescos.  But not many people, including many who work there now, know the origin of the name.

In 1810 a Baptist chapel was built on the site, which opened in 1812 and was know as Providence Chapel.  In the early 19th century West Bromwich had no corporation cemetery (it didn’t yet have a corporation!) and so all burials were done in churchyards.  Anglican churches would not normally accept non-conformists, so alongside the chapel a burial ground was established. Although the 19th and early 20th street layout has disappeared, there’s a small quiet green space behind the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on High St,  which is of course the burial ground for this chapel, which was built in 1835 (and demolished and a new chapel built, the one that you can see today, in 1974). The Baptists left Providence Chapel in 1850, but the chapel remained in use, used by a succession of non-conformists and independent churches until the 1940s.  It was demolished in the 1950s.  I’ve never seen any photographs of it.

When development of the area around the old chapel was proposed in the 2010s, research quickly identified the location of the burial ground, and it was agreed that a major archaeological excavation should take place, to identify and remove any human remains that could be disturbed by the proposed building works, as well as to  record the archaeology of the chapel remains (if there were any!).  It was during these excavations that we found the object.  Any ideas yet?

We need to take a quick trip into Birmingham to continue the mystery object story.  Medical schools had been established in Birmingham in the 1760s (only the third place in Britain after Edinburgh and London) and the teaching of anatomy required a regular supply of fresh corpses (remember this is before the era of refrigeration).  The legal supply of corpses for ‘dissection’ was limited to bodies of those executed for capital crimes – and the number of bodies available fell far short of the number required in the anatomy schools.  It didn’t take long for entrepreneurial individuals now normally referred to as ‘body-snatchers’ but in the West Midlands more usually referred to as ‘digger-uppers’) to realise that they could dig up the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them, no questions asked, to the Birmingham anatomy schools.  It became very clear that burials in the Providence Place burial ground had been carried out with a variety of preventative methods being used to make the removal of the body from the grave much more difficult.

The object in question is a mort safe.  This is a generic term for a metal frame or box which was placed over or around a coffin to stop the ‘digger-upper’ digging up the body.  It is the only one we found in the Providence Place burial ground, although there was also a brick-built coffin, a burial under a coffin rather than in it, and frequent occurrences of planks of timber and piles of brushwood being placed in the grave on top of the coffin.  It was also interesting that we discovered a number of coffins filled with waste iron – presumably these corpses had been sold prior to the burial and the iron used to fake the weight of an occupied coffin.

it is in situ.

In all the remains of over 100 people were removed and reburied in Health Lane Cemetery.  We carried out a pathological examination of the body protected by the mort safe, and found it was that of a young woman, perhaps 20 years old, who had suffered from a disfiguring skin disease that resulted in lesions and infections over much of her body.  We know that the anatomists paid a premium for young people’s bodies and for those of people who died from ‘interesting’ illnesses.  We’ve surmised that her family and perhaps the local community clubbed together to buy the mort safe, knowing that her age and illness would have made her a tempting target for the ‘digger-uppers’. 

Body snatching had ceased by the 1830s, as national legislation made available to the medical schools the bodies of all who died in a workhouse or were unable to afford a burial. This was seen even at the time as a massively discriminatory against the poorest and most vulnerable, when taboos about disturbing the dead, and a common religious belief that a physical resurrection at the end of days would be impacted by post-mortem dissection, were very widely held.  But that is another story.

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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