On the 29th December I arrived in London a little early for my tour that day so spent an hour or two exploring and sight-seeing myself , at least what passes for sight-seeing if you are a bit of a history nerd.
Whilst deep beneath the beautiful St Bride’s Church, I came across one of these intriguing devices that I had read about but never seen before,
The photo shows an actual iron coffin with a special device installed to help protect the body of the person interred from body-snatchers. Given that medicine and science was soaring ahead of religious laws in the early 19th century and that the only bodies that could be legally used for direction and the like were those who were hanged, there was a dire shortage of bodies.
Those bodies there were could be sold for £8 which was a fortune back in those days and so the best brains in the land were amongst those to come up with devices to deter thefts. My post Dancing On The Dead is just one that highlights the often murky underworld of death in Victorian London. These particular coffins weren’t just made of iron but had a type of spring loaded clips which made it more secure.
Of course as with everything in life and death, when a solution appears, it normally opens up another can of worms and that is exactly what happened here.
in 1820 at nearby St. Andrews of Holborn, a body was removed from its iron coffin and buried straight into the ground. This sparked off a legal protest and the judgement decided that burial in any coffin could not be refused but because the coffin was made of iron, it would take much much longer to degrade and so it was liable for much greater burial fees! How typically capitalist London!
No doubt these exorbitant fees combined with the soon to be revised laws about medical research on bodies meant that iron coffins didn’t become established for very long.