‘There was something of the fairground sideshow about this supposedly educational experience.’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 14: Dancing on the Dead
Parish graveyards were full to overflowing in early nineteenth century London. For some canny individuals, this presented a business opportunity.
Enon Chapel was a Baptist Meeting House, opened in the 1820s, in slums north of the Strand. The minister, who leased the building, presided over regular church services, but the chapel was essentially a ‘burial speculation’, utilising a capacious cellar for ‘vaults’. The aim was to pack in as many bodies as possible. Fees were comparatively cheap: a complete funeral package cost between 8 and 15 shillings. The poor suddenly had a more affordable, convenient location to bury their dead. The entrepreneurial pastor, meanwhile, reaped a healthy profit.
During the 1830s, however, questions began to be asked. The small chapel’s vaults seemed remarkably capacious. Rumours abounded that coffins were being broken up and burnt for firewood; that rotting corpses were being flushed down the sewer that ran underneath the building; that building works had enabled the owner to remove wagons full of human remains, topped only with a light covering of earth – anything to make more room. The chapel above, meanwhile, became filled with ‘body bugs’ which nested in the hair and clothing of the living. Worshippers reported foul aromas and a ‘peculiar taste’ during services.
The repulsive details, hinting a dark goings-on in the cellar, would be repeatedly publicised by the burial reformer George Walker. By 1842, the chapel had closed; and a temperance society leased the hall for public lectures and fund-raising dances. Walker railed against the impiety and miasmatic dangers of ‘quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels … danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath’. In 1847, he took the lease himself, promising to remove the corpses in the cellar to a decent cemetery. This might have been a quiet, decorous affair, a generous charitable intervention. Instead, Walker stage-managed a remarkable stunt. The public were invited to come and view the infamous ‘Golgotha’ beneath the dance-hall, an object lesson in the perils of urban burial.
There was something of the fairground sideshow about this supposedly educational experience. A man was placed at the chapel gate, ‘who walked about with skulls in his hand, apparently with the view of increasing the excitement of the persons assembled outside’. Once inside, the public were treated to various revelations, including visiting the neighbouring out-house, where bodies, allegedly, had once been quietly removed from the vaults for the purpose of sale and dissection. Most bizarrely of all, the original proprietor, who had offered so many dubious cheap burials, was the highlight of the tour: ten years deceased, ‘a stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ resembling an Egyptian mummy, propped up for public inspection, recognisable by his ‘screw foot’.
The parish churchwardens, whilst conceding Dr. Walker’s eminent respectability, complained about the propriety of the undertaking, and the size of the mobs that gathered for a viewing. Walker countered that the only money taken – at the end of the visit – was at the discretion of the individual. Any cash would, he claimed, contribute towards a fund for removal of the bodies. After the exhibition had run for several months, Walker would pay £100 of his own money – there is no record whether or not it came from the show’s takings – to transfer the remains for burial in Norwood Cemetery.
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.