The grave of Sarah Wrench

Sarah Wrench grave

Here’s an oddity, a grave secured by a mortsafe in the burial ground of the church of St Edmund, King and Martyr, in East Mersea. The iron plaque states, ‘Sarah Wrench died 6th May 1848 aged 15 years and 5 months’. A mortsafe is a device invented in the early nineteenth century, designed to prevent so-called resurrectionists from disinterring freshly buried corpses and selling them to anatomists. Mortsafes were especially common in and around the big Scottish cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, all of which had medical schools. Scotland at the time had a grand tradition of grave-robbing, the most notorious practitioners being Burke and Hare. But there isn’t another mortsafe on Mersea Island, a place as close to the middle of nowhere as anywhere in England. What is it doing there?

According to the Visit Mersea Island website (‘The authoritative guide to Mersea Island’), local legend had it that Sarah Wrench was a witch and that the mortsafe was intended, not to keep the resurrectionists out, but to keep her in, i.e. to prevent her returning to the world of the living.

St Edmund King and Martyr Church

But ‘Sarah Wrench was Not a Witch’ say the churchwardens, Tony Clifton and Janis Meanley, in an article published in Mersea Life in 2017. According to Clifton and Meanley, ‘Local folklore has it that Sarah became pregnant whilst living with her family in Peldon and was sent to her grandparents at East Mersea Hall to conceal her condition from the village. She is believed to have died in childbirth’.

Local legend or local folklore: take your pick. But Mersea Island is still an odd place to find a mortsafe.