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Sarah Wrench grave

The grave of Sarah Wrench

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.

Prydain Film Productions


As regular readers will know, I’ve been running my own publishing imprint, Prydain Press, for a few years now. So I’m delighted to announce today that I’m branching out into movies. Prydain Film Productions officially launches this month, with financial backing from a range of sources including one of the major streaming services.

To give you a taste of what’s in the pipeline, here are some of the story concepts currently in development:

The Haworth Honeys
A story loosely based on the lives of the Brontë sisters. Three Yorkshire sisters, Charlie, Emmy, and Annie, decide to follow their dreams by forming a band. To avoid the disapproval of their strict clergyman father, their jealous brother, and their censorious neighbours in the village of Haworth, the young women rehearse in secret and adopt male disguises when performing in public. But once the group land a spot on a major television talent show, the sisters have no option but to reveal their true identities. The boy band is at last a girl band!

The Haworth Honeys is an inspiring, heartwarming tale of young women overcoming the many obstacles in their path on the way to global stardom, fuelled by self-belief, grit, talent, and cosmetic surgery.

Lady Chatterjee’s Lover
A story set during the twilight of the British Raj. Lady Chandrani Chatterjee is the beautiful but frustrated wife of a high-caste campaigner for Indian independence. Her husband is paralysed from the waist down after being injured in a violent confrontation with the Indian police. She begins a secret affair with Thakur, the gardener on her husband’s estate.

Lady Chatterjee’s Lover is the first erotic-romance movie in the Bollywood style, as well as a searing indictment of British imperialism and the Indian caste system. It will be shot on location at a well-known English country estate (negotiations with the National Trust are underway), and several leading Indian actors have already expressed a keen interest in the starring roles.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Temple of British (un)Worthies
A mash-up of Shakespeare and social justice themes. One midsummer night, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, come to Stowe Gardens to visit the famous Temple of British Worthies. An argument breaks out between them, as to whether the people represented by the statuary really are all that worthy. To settle the matter, they bring the statues to life. Milton, Lock, Shakespeare, Newton, and the rest are then instructed to justify their lives, thoughts, actions, privileges, micro-aggressions, and heteronormativity before a citizen’s jury, composed of Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed, and five randomly selected students from the University of Warwick.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Temple of British (un)Worthies confronts some of the key issues of our time with a heady mix of fantasy, justified anger, nuanced sensitivity, and critical thinking.

The Nutwood Chainsaw Massacre
A fresh, modern, edgy, subversive, challenging re-boot of the Rupert Bear universe. Rupert Bear. The Professor experiments with genetic engineering, breeding a new race of servant bears using DNA taken from Rupert. Bill Badger founds a new religion, based on a Book of Badger supposedly found hidden in a deserted sett. And Rupert Bear learns that Nutwood’s ancient woodland is to be felled to make way for a new high-speed rail route. Rupert enlists the help of Raggety and the other twig creatures to combat the tree fellers but soon finds he has unleashed dark, pagan forces.

The hitherto idyllic world of Nutwood is shattered, with the clash between biotechnology, religion, and nature playing out against a backdrop of climate change and environmental destruction. The Nutwood Chainsaw Massacre promises to be a milestone in the folk-horror genre.

No production dates have been agreed for these projects as yet. In the meantime, watch this space for further updates.

Smithfield Market

Farewell, Smithfield Market

There has been a meat market at Smithfield for at least 800 years and probably closer to a thousand. Until 1852, it was a livestock market too, and the animals were slaughtered and butchered in the same location. In his novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens gave a vivid description of the hellish conditions:

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

(Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens)

As London’s population grew and the demand for meat increased, so too did Smithfield’s insanitary conditions. Each week, thousands of animals were driven through the narrow, congested streets of central London. Each year, the noise, smell, and filth of the slaughter yards became more intolerable. After several decades of campaigns and debates, an 1852 Act of Parliament enabled the move of the livestock market to Copenhagen Street in islington. A further Act of 1860 led to the construction of the market buildings seen today, designed by Horace Jones.

Since the mid-twentieth century, London’s great markets have left the city centre, one by one. Covent Garden went to Nine Elms in 1974, Billingsgate to Poplar in 1982, and Spitalfields to Leyton in 1990. Smithfield has hung on, but now its days are numbered. The City of London Corporation plans to move it, along with Billingsgate and Spitalfields, to a new site at Dagenham Dock. The market building will become the new home for the Museum of London.

Visit the old Smithfield Market while you can, though it means an early start (I got there at 4.40 one Friday morning). It is not as boisterous as it once was, and the basement pub where you could get an early morning pint closed a decade ago, but even so, it retains the atmosphere of a much older London.

Caesar on the beach

There is a weather-beaten, lichen-stained monument by the beach at Walmer in Kent, which is easy to miss if you’re out for a seaside stroll. The carved head is a representation of Julius Caesar and the monument signifies that Walmer beach is the landing site of the Romans’ first expedition to Britain.

In August of 55BC, Caesar, having subdued the Gauls for the moment and always on the lookout for new opportunities for fame and glory, decided to make an excursion across the channel. His intention was reconnaissance rather than conquest. Britain may have been a semi-mythical land to most Romans, but it had strong trade links and tribal alliances with the Gauls. Caesar, always a risk taker but nobody’s fool, sent Commius, a Gaulish chieftain, across the Channel to drum up support for the expedition ahead of the crossing.

Commius was unsuccessful, and perhaps duplicitous. When Caesar, accompanied by two legions of 12,000 men in eighty ships, made the crossing in late August, the reception committee was far from friendly. To make matters worse, his ships could not anchor close to the shore. This meant his army would have to wade through deep water to reach the beach, where the hostile Britons stood, ready for a fight. In Caesar’s own account:

And then, while our troops still hung back, chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, the eagle-bearer of the Tenth Legion, after a prayer to heaven to bless the legion by his act, cried: “Leap down, soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy; it shall be told that I at any rate did my duty to my country and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he cast himself forth from the ship, and began to bear the eagle against the enemy. Then our troops exhorted one another not to allow so dire a disgrace, and leapt down from the ship with one accord. And when the troops on the nearest ships saw them, they likewise followed on, and drew near to the enemy.


The Romans fought their way to dry land, where, with their superior organization, they routed the Britons. And for just over a week, Caesar and his men successfully defended this beachhead. There were more skirmishes, but the Britons avoided any kind of pitched battle where the Roman fighting machine would crush them. During this week, Caesar met with some local chieftains, signing peace treaties and taking hostages.

Caesar viewed this first expedition as preparation for the conquest of Britain, just as he had conquered Gaul. He returned the following year with a larger force and fought his way through Kent and up to the Thames. But he could never launch the full scale invasion and conquest he coveted. Those laurels went to the Emperor Claudius a century later. Soon after Caesar’s second expedition, the Gauls revolted, and his British ambitions were put aside forever.

But did that first landing really happen at Walmer? The claim derives from a reading of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, in which he describes this British campaign, and there is no archaeological evidence to support it. In 2017, a team from the University of Leicester uncovered a site further up the Kent coast at Pegwell Bay and asserted, based on their findings, that this is the true landing location. It seems that Walmer’s monument to Caesar may eventually have to be moved.

[The excerpt from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico is from the 1917 Loeb Classical Library translation by HJ Edwards, available on-line here. Illustration of the ‘Standard Bearer of the Tenth Legion’ by James William Edmund Doyle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]