Mortsafes: After The Anatomy Act

On 1 August 1832, Britain passed the Anatomy Act in an attempt to address the shortage of bodies available for medical tuition and to try to stem the exploits of body snatchers and the increasing violation of Britain’s graveyards. 

For nearly 100 years, Britain had been inventing ways to protect their loved ones and, by the early 1800s had perfected these methods, devising a mortsafe or iron cage in which to house their dead, if only for a brief moment. 

Predominantly in use in Scotland, many parish churches and individuals adopted this method in a determined attempt to keep the thieving hands of the body snatcher away from their corpses. 

Kirkton of Durris Mortsafe
Kirkton of Durris Mortsafe | Aberdeenshire | Scotland

The Anatomy Act did not stop body snatching overnight but it did make a lot, if not all, of the body snatching prevention methods utilised by parish churches redundant. Iron cages called mortsafes, frequently found in Scotland’s churchyards, were sold for scrap metal, acquired by farmers as water troughs, or, in later years used as historical relics of the past. 

But if body snatching was so rife in Britain, why aren’t our churches littered with these iron cages, these relics of the past that were designed to be the remedy again the resurrection man.

 I decided to look at the fate of just a few of these mortsafes to see what became of them, to find out if they were lost forever or if they have their own story to tell about their journey after the Anatomy Act.

They were a nervous bunch in Anstruther having a total of eight mortsafes at one time, all of which are now sadly lost.

The Mortsafes Of Anstruther: Fife

They were a nervous bunch in Anstruther having a total of eight mortsafes at one time, all of which are now sadly lost.

In 1869, the Dundee Courier ran a small article regarding East Anstruther Mortsafe Society and its proposal to dissolve; the proceeds and property being split between the members.

After thirty years it was decided that the Society was no longer needed and so the mortsafes that had been shared with the neighbouring parishes and that were now lying rusting in the churchyard were to be disposed of. 

Entry into the society was, like so many mortsafe societies in Scotland, done on a subscription basis. 3d to join and then an annual subscription of 6d.

This would give you full use of the parish mortsafe, should, or rather when, you needed it. 

The safes were sold at a public auction for the sum of £6 and the money, it was decided, was to be used to not only keep the churchyard in order but also to repair the town clock. One can only surmise that this had become a talking point in the parish and since the opportunity arose, well, who were they to grumble

The society actually made on the deal when they sold the mortsafe in 1874. When they were commissioned back in 1839, they paid £4 11s, so it wasn’t all bad.

The Inverurie Mortsafe: Aberdeenshire

Former mortsafe at Inverurie cemetery
Former mortsafe (now lost) | Inverurie | Aberdeenshire

As late as 1913 a meeting was held by the Town Council in regards to the mortsafe at Inverurie Cemetery.

At this date, the mortsafe was still kept outside the churchyard wall, and, in order to protect it and better care for it, it was proposed that it should be moved.

At one time, Inverurie boasted a number of mortsafes such was the threat, perceived or otherwise, from the resurrection men. As this threat diminished, so did the number of mortsafes until by about 1920, there were only two left. 

One of these is the mortsafe mentioned above. It measured 6ft long and was topped with the typical Aberdeenshire granite top, complete with an iron grilled skirt.

Total Measurement: 6ft (1.8m) Width at Head End: 1ft 6″ (0.49m) Width at Shoulders: 1ft 9″ (0.58m) Width at Feet: 1ft 7″ (0.52m) Thickness of Granite Stone: 9 – 10″ (0.23m)

There was also an iron mortsafe but unfortunately, I have found no picture of this mortsafe. It sounds as though it was the type of mortsafe that fitted over the wooden coffin, like those similar in Banchory-Denvenick or at Kirkton in Durris.

What Happened To The Inverurie Mortsafes

This whereabouts of the latter mortsafe is easy.

It ended its life in 1937 when it turned up in a heap of scrap metal bought by a scrap metal merchant at a local auction, although its fate after this, I do not know. It may have been repurposed like the mortsafe at Kirkton of Durris in Aberdeenshire that was used as a water trough for cattle or it may have been melted down for scrap.

 But what of the other mortsafe, the one which was meant to be outside the churchward walls in 1913. This is proving harder to locate.

In 1911, when Ritchie was writing his paper for the Society of Antiquities of Scotland he states that it was just outside the churchyard wall as described above, as indeed it was in 1913. 

However, I can find no further evidence of its whereabouts, for the majority of sources either don’t mention it or refer to the information given by Ritchie in the early 20th century.

Kirton Of Durris: Aberdeenshire

The black painted iron mortsafe is now safely stored in a rundown mausoleum in the parish church, behind some creaky iron gates and safely out of sight. It wasn’t always this way though.

Perhaps the most famous use for this particular mortsafe, if you could call it fame, is that it spent some part of its life as a water trough for cattle.

What Happened to mortsafes after the Anatomy Act
Kirkton on Durris Mortsafe | Wellcome Collection

The picture above is taken from James Ritchie’s survey of body snatching ephemera carried out in 1911.

I’ve referred to this resource below and it truly is a fabulous guide, but some things within it have changed as you would no doubt expect. 

When Ritchie was writing, for example, the Durris mortsafe was still stuck through a dry stone wall on a farm at Crathes, perhaps he never imagined that it would be rescued and moved to a safer place in later years. A footnote to Ritchie’s article does refer to its removal to Durris House, but nothing in relation to its return to the churchyard. 

Total Measurement: 7ft 3″ (2.2m) Width at Head End: 1ft 10″ (0.34m) Width at Shoulders: 2ft 4″ (0.73m) Width at Feet: 1ft 6″ (0.59m) Total weight of Mortsafe 15.5 cwt (0.79 tonnes )

Details of The Kirkton on Durris Mortsafe

The mortsafe at Maryculter also served time as a water trough for cattle, although this one was embedded into the ground rather than being straddled through a wall.

Linlithgow Mortsafe: West Lothian

It’s still there, the mortsafe at Linlithgow. But oh what a sorry state it’s in. To understand how it got into such a state we have to travel back to the summer of 1939.

Linlithgow mortsafe
Linlithgow Mortsafe | West Lothian

The 4th August edition of the Linlithgow Gazette of the same year ran a small piece about vandals that had entered St Michael’s churchyard and had targeted the grave of the Livingstone family, Earls of Linlithgow. 

The mortsafes had been discovered lying broken in pieces in the churchyard, ‘smashed’ no less according to The Scotsman newspaper.

Whether opportunists or specifically targeting the mortsafe, it is not known but the vandals had broken the iron cage designed specifically for protecting the dead. 

The mortsafe itself had been removed from its position over the top to the Livingstone family vault when restoration work was being carried out in 1930 and the churchyard was levelled. 

Since this date, the mortsafe had been on public display bring great interest to visitors with a

… great deal of interest particulalry among American tourists

The Scotsman : Tuesday 11 July 1939

Unfortunately, nothing further is mentioned in the newspapers about the affair but the mortsafe today still shows scars from that fateful evening back in August. 

A shame for a relic that was introduced into the parish in 1819 by the Linlithgow Mortsafe Society and hired out to members once they paid their 5s subscription fee.

Researching Mortsafes: After The Anatomy Act

A lot of the information found for this post has been gathered from extensive research in the British Newspaper Archive.

The majority of mortsafe societies folded around the mid to late 1850s and so searching is really concentrated after this period. Once you find some information, you can often chase the sale of the mortsafe through the newspapers, and bring together some form of a timeline for their demise.

 I’ve just taken a snapshot of the life of a parish mortsafe so to speak.

There were many mortsafes that were sold for scrap metal during this period and especially during the scrap metal drives of WWII that you should be able to find information in the newspapers if you’re interested in tracing the history of a specific relic. 

Perhaps the best resource that we have available for gathering the information for mortsafes in regards to size, weight etc. is from a paper written by James Ritchie for the Society of Antiquities of Scotland in 1911. Although only covering Aberdeenshire, the paper gives such detail that you almost forgive Ritchie for not covering the rest of Scotland.

 The paper can be read freely online here via the Society of Antiquities website. You can also access the supplementary notes Ritchie wrote to accompany the article in 1921 on the TNGen Web Project website which can be accessed here which is a website offering free genealogy resources. 

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