Grisly Secrets Of Dealing With Victorian London’s Dead

Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866.
Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866.

As well as sewerage, another “waste removal” problem plagued London in the 19th century: the disposal of the dead. There was little dispute about the means. Burial was the norm; cremation a peculiar foreign custom. The difficulty lay in finding room for an ever-increasing number of corpses. The capital’s burgeoning population, upon their decease, were filling up its small churchyards, burial grounds and vaults.

The consequences, wherever demand exceeded supply, were decidedly unpleasant. Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst the tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood. Clergymen and sextons turned a blind eye to the worst practices because burial fees formed a large proportion of their income. Macabre scenes awaited those who pried too closely into the gravedigger’s work:

[infobox]I saw them chopping the head of his coffin away; I should not have known it if I had not seen the head with the teeth; I knew him by his teeth; one tooth was knocked out and the other was splintered; I knew it was my father’s head, and I told them to stop, and they laughed …[/infobox]

Clearance of long-buried bones had always taken place; but the growing demand for burials in crowded grounds meant the work became ever more grisly.

Moreover, by the 1840s London’s overcrowded churchyards (and the older, small commercial grounds in the centre of the capital) were not only seen as posing a logistical challenge, but damned as a source of “miasma”. Sanitary reformers quite mistakenly believed that the stench from poorly interred decaying bodies was poisoning the metropolis. The practice of urban burial was touted as a profound menace to public health.

One answer to London’s overcrowded churchyards was the new ‘garden cemeteries’ such as Kensal Green, opened in 1832.
One answer to London’s overcrowded churchyards was the new ‘garden cemeteries’ such as Kensal Green, opened in 1832.

For the middle- and upper-classes, one answer was to remove their dead to commercial “garden cemeteries”, spacious parks built in the semi-rural suburbs, such as Kensal Green (opened in 1832) and Highgate (1839). Such places, however, were well beyond the means of the urban poor.

George Alfred Walker – who would acquire the nickname “Graveyard Walker” – a surgeon who took up practice in the slums of Drury Lane in the mid-1830s – determined to address the “miasma” question.

Walker believed that foul-smelling burial grounds produced much ill health in the neighbouring population. He did not deny the influence of sewers, poorly ventilated housing, and the like – but he was certain that graveyard miasma was an important, much neglected predisposing cause of disease. In 1839 he began a long campaign to end “intramural interment”, commencing with a pamphlet entitled Gatherings from Graveyards.

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker.
George ‘Graveyard’ Walker.

The key to the problem was gas emanating from rotting corpses. The existence of such gases was undisputed – sextons and undertakers were often called up to “tap” coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force. Walker dutifully recorded the effects of leaking miasma on the constitution of gravediggers, ranging from general ill health (“pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting”) to sudden death. Gas could, indeed, prove fatal: graveyard workers who broke into bloated coffins were occasionally suffocated by the release of “cadaverous vapours”.

The overall argument in Gatherings was that concentrated graveyard gases caused instant death in man and beast; foul-smelling grounds, constantly releasing more diffused miasma, did not produce sudden death – but they debilitated those living nearby, according to their level of exposure and individual resistance.

Walker was a skilful propagandist, adept at utilising grisly detail to grab the attention of the reader. His favourite example of malpractice was Enon Chapel, situated in slums north of the Strand.

This dubious place of worship, established in the 1820s largely as a burial speculation, contained a modest cellar in which the deceased were laid to rest in their thousands (ie. corpses were regularly surreptitiously cleared away). Mangled coffins in the chapel vaults produced unclassifiable “body bugs”, which sprang from the corpses and lurked in hair and clothing. Worshippers reported foul aromas and “a peculiar taste” during services, praising the Lord with a handkerchief pressed to their nostrils. Some redundant remains were dumped in a sewer that ran directly under the building.

Walker recounted such cases before Robert Slaney’s Health of Towns committee in 1840. He then met the Bishop of London (“no satisfactory conclusions could be arrived at”). He petitioned the home secretary, denouncing graveyards as “laboratories of malaria … so many centres of infection, constantly giving off noxious effluvia”. It was, he claimed, only the differences in locality, atmosphere and individual constitution that rendered such gases a “slow or energetic poison”.

Enon Chapel, in the slums north of the Strand, was an infamous example of malpractice.
Enon Chapel, in the slums north of the Strand, was an infamous example of malpractice.

The MP William Mackinnon, who had listened to Walker’s evidence at the Slaney inquiry, presented the petition and successfully moved for a select committee on the subject. Thanks to Walker’s agitation, the burial problem would receive detailed parliamentary scrutiny.

The Mackinnon inquiry of 1842 covered similar ground to Walker’s reports. Among other things, the select committee confirmed the reality of Walker’s accounts of gross and gruesome scenes in churchyards and vaults:

[infobox]I have seen them play at what is called skittles; put up bones and take skulls and knocked them down; stick up bones in the ground and throw a skull at them as you would a skittle-ball.[/infobox]
William Mackinnon
William Mackinnon

The medical evidence, however, was not emphatic. James Copeland, censor of the Royal College of Physicians, stated that burial grounds were probably the most important factor in generating ill health among the poor, but focused on the effect of liquefying, decomposing bodies on local wells and water supply. George Collier, another doctor, affirmed that graveyard miasma would “depress, impair and enervate the human frame”, and was a predisposing cause of fever of the “low typhoid kind”. The committee chairman agreed – that there was a link between miasma and fever – but would only go so far as to say: “I should presume that over-crowded burying-grounds would supply such effluvia most abundantly.”

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The connection, in other words, seemed likely but not definite. Others noted alternative explanations for the prevalence of fever in the slums – the stench from sewers and the general dirt. A doctor at King’s College Hospital, located next to a notoriously ill-managed burial ground, said that his patients suffered “no inconvenience”.

Despite these equivocal findings, the select committee ultimately endorsed Walker’s miasmatic claims. Distrust of stench won the day – for there was no doubting the awful aroma that arose from certain grounds. As one gravedigger eloquently declaimed: “I [have] emptied a cesspool, and the smell of it was rose-water compared with the smell of these graves.”

Mackinnon recommended immediate action: the prohibition of urban burial, with legislation requiring parishes (or unions of parishes, as under the Poor Law) to build their own large cemeteries at a safe distance from the centre of the metropolis. If necessary, he would bring forward his own bill in parliament, recommending a penny rate to pay for new cemeteries, and a central board of health to oversee parish arrangements.

Mackinnon would doggedly raise the need for legislation over the next few parliamentary sessions, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Walker, meanwhile, although he had hoped for more from the government, refused to be downcast. He was a remarkably determined individual and continued his campaign in letters, pamphlets, petitions and lectures. His technique was repetition, constantly assailing the public with ever more gruesome facts, recycling tales of graveyard degradations, seeking out new examples. He formed a Society for the Abolition of Burial in Towns, modelled on the Health of Towns Association, which attracted a small but dedicated membership.

Public health campaigner Edwin Chadwick leads a meeting of the General Board of Health in Whitehall.
Public health campaigner Edwin Chadwick leads a meeting of the General Board of Health in Whitehall.

By the late 1840s, it was generally accepted that urban graveyards were a danger to human health. There was a growing orthodoxy about miasma; and Walker himself had done much to convince the public. Punch magazine would personify graveyard miasma, in doggerel, as ‘The Vampyre (NO SUPERSTITION)’, (‘To work vengeance and woe is his mission of dread. Upon those mid the living who bury their dead’).

It was the resurgence of cholera in the capital that finally persuaded ministers that action was needed. The interment question passed into the hands of another long-time public health campaigner, Edwin Chadwick. Parochial authorities in Lambeth, fearing imminent government intervention, slashed their burial fees – the ‘1st class ground’ reduced from 27s to 16s, the “2nd class” from 16s to 6s – a rather grim clearance sale.

Sir Edwin Chadwick.
Sir Edwin Chadwick.

The resultant 1850 Metropolitan Interments Act was Chadwick’s attempt to bring in his earlier plan for “national cemeteries”. It remained a remarkably radical scheme, but the public’s enthusiasm for the sanitary cause, and the threat of cholera, persuaded the Whig government of the day to hastily accept what the previous administration had so emphatically rejected.

The stated intent of the legislation was to close church vaults, churchyards and burial grounds within the metropolis. One or more large public cemeteries would be established in their place, situated beyond the built-up city and managed by a central commission. The ground would be divided into consecrated and non-consecrated, with one chapel for the established Church, another for Dissenters – just like at Kensal Green.

The price of funerals would be regulated on a sliding scale, suitable for the different social classes and the clergy compensated for the loss of burial fees, based on their income over the previous three years. Likewise, owners of closed burial grounds and cemeteries would be awarded appropriate compensation. This included Kensal Green and other new ‘garden cemeteries’ – none of them anywhere near full – which Chadwick might easily have proposed to nationalise. Instead, he preferred to buy them out, close them and start from scratch.

Chadwick’s most novel proposal – attempting to address the complaint that the poor would struggle to afford travel to distant cemeteries – was to suggest that the “chief metropolitan cemetery should be in some eligible situation accessible by water-carriage”. The suggestion that new cemeteries might be located alongside railway lines – conveying coffins and mourners by rail – had long been mooted as a solution to the expense of travel, although some considered the idea lacked dignity.

Chadwick, whilst not ruling out contracting with railway companies, believed that steam-boat funeral barges would resolve the issue in a stately fashion. He was perhaps inspired by Kensal Green’s never-realised plans for a water-gate by the Regent’s Canal. Walker rejoiced – this was the scheme he had long supported as the solution to the burial problem. But it would prove completely unworkable.

Augustus Pugin’s satirical sketch mocks the clashing architectural styles of London’s mid-19th century commercial cemeteries.
Augustus Pugin’s satirical sketch mocks the clashing architectural styles of London’s mid-19th century commercial cemeteries.

The great problem with Chadwick’s plan for nationalisation was the level of compensation that would have been required to buy out existing commercial interests. Ultimately, the Treasury refused to back the scheme and new, simpler legislation was drafted in 1852. Parishes were empowered to take out 20-year government loans to build garden cemeteries around the outskirts of London – or rent space in existing suburban grounds. Meanwhile, foul burial places in the centre of the metropolis – whether parish or private – could be closed by order of the secretary of state.

The government was keen to show that the new legislation was practical and effective. Within the first year of the Metropolitan Interments Act’s operation, the home secretary, Lord Palmerston, had issued closure notices to nearly 200 sites. This produced harsh words from the Bishop of London, who noted that 36 out of 43 available grounds had been closed in the East End, creating intense pressure on the remaining sites, while parochial cemeteries were still under construction:

[infobox]… the corpses of children were frequently carried to the places of sepulture in cabs, and that it was no uncommon sight to see a string of such vehicles, filled with dead bodies, waiting at the gate of an unconsecrated burial-ground, until they could be admitted. He need not say that on such occasions the solemn services of the Church were performed in a slovenly, irregular and indecent manner …[/infobox]
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London’s Cemetery Station handled funeral traffic for the giant Necropolis cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.
London’s Cemetery Station handled funeral traffic for the giant Necropolis cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.

The owners of private grounds closed by the government were not inclined to go quietly; they were, after all, losing the entirety of their business. A certain Mr Jones, proprietor of the New Bunhill Fields in Upper Street, Islington, proclaimed (quite falsely) that Palmerston’s notice had instructed him not only to close but to clear the ground. He began to disinter bodies, perhaps hoping to build on the site. The children in a nearby school were treated to the sight of broken coffins, bones and “slimy matter, alive with maggots”.

In 1856, Jones was found to be taking down tombstones and monuments, “selling them for what they would fetch”. The instructions from the Home Office were that the site should be covered with two feet of earth, sown with grass and intercut with asphalt paths, to create pleasant walks for the public. Instead, by 1858, the walls had been demolished, brickwork removed, and the ground given over to a local scavenger, to use as a rubbish dump. The local sanitary inspector noted, “It was about 60 yards square, and there were from 6,000 to 10,000 loads of rubbish on it.”

Abandoned burial grounds, like any empty plot in the metropolis, were liable to become dumps – whether for household rubbish or, in the worst districts, “ankle deep … with excrement, thrown out from the houses” – and other sites would meet the same fate.

Fortunately, while the owners of speculations lived down to their rather grubby reputation, London’s vestries defied Walker’s low expectations. St Pancras, a large and prosperous parish, bought Horse Shoe Farm in Finchley in 1853 – two miles from its northern boundary – and opened it as the first large-scale parish cemetery in June 1854. The cemetery itself was very much in the garden style, “visited by large numbers of persons, as it is laid out like a splendid park, and its walks afford the advantages of a perfect promenade”.

Fees in new parish cemeteries varied from district to district, but a common grave at the City of London Cemetery at Little Ilford cost only 8s 6d when the cemetery opened (albeit with “1st class” graves going for 17s 6d). This was no trifling expense – and there were travel costs – but the price was comparable with what might have been paid at small commercial grounds in the East End. Those vestries unwilling to or incapable of making their own separate arrangements to build a new cemetery could either amalgamate into unions, buy space in the joint-stock-company cemeteries or cut deals with their neighbours. St Mary Islington, for example, home to Jones’s rubbish dump, bought some of the St Pancras cemetery for its own use.

Within the space of a few years, large parochial cemeteries, nestling on the edge of the city, were an accepted part of the London landscape. They were spacious, well ventilated, and proper regulations ensured that graves were deep and well maintained: any threat from miasma was neutralised.

George Alfred Walker surveyed the scene, then quietly withdrew from the public eye. He would eventually retire to North Wales, where he died in 1884. An anonymous 1890s’ memoirist, recalling Walker and his “doctor’s shop” on the corner of Drury Lane and Blackmore Street, would describe him as “a great favourite in the neighbourhood … on account of his kindness to the poor”.

Striking Victorian statuary is crumbling away, replaced by plain tombstones and grass lawns.
Striking Victorian statuary is crumbling away, replaced by plain tombstones and grass lawns.

By the 1860s, garden cemeteries surrounded the metropolis on all sides, both commercial and parochial. Many of the old, disused private burial grounds would also eventually become garden cemeteries, of a sort. During the 1880s and 1890s, local authorities, the LCC and the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association began to clean up and reopen old burial sites. Their tombstones cleared to one side, they were remade as public parks, small breathing-spaces for Londoners.

In some cases, decay would follow. Famous garden cemeteries, like Highgate, built as a sanitary commercial alternative to foul local burial grounds in the 1830s, filled up, failed to pay dividends to shareholders, and fell into disrepair during the 20th century, suffering from theft, vandalism and general indifference. Some of their grand chapels were demolished; others now stand forlorn and ruined amid the tombs, ghostly hollow shells. The managed decay of the likes of Highgate Cemetery bears little relation to the pristine plans of its progenitors. The forest that has swallowed Abney Park mocks the original design for an arboretum, where every plant was carefully labelled to elevate the public taste.

Indeed, the notion of the cemetery as “a great theatre for public taste” – a phrase used by John Bowring MP in the Mackinnon inquiry – has fallen completely out of fashion. Victorian statuary crumbles away. Plain tombstones and grass lawns are now the unchallenged norm; minimalism is the key. The greatest change in the post-Victoria era, of course, has been not aesthetic, but the gradual acceptance of cremation (first proposed by a few radical thinkers in the late 19th century).

Yet, despite the ravages of time, changing customs, vicissitudes of fashion, the Victorian garden cemetery still survives in its various forms, one of the great legacies of the 19th century.

This abridged extract is taken from Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, by Lee Jackson. The book considers the challenges posed by waste and pollution in 19th-century London and, in particular, why the Victorians left their capital notoriously filthy.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.


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