‘The stench from poorly-managed grounds was revolting, and some considered this to be a species of dangerous ‘miasma’, analogous to the stink from cesspools and sewage, believed to be a serious risk to public health.’
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 5: Graveyard Walker
The 1840s saw a growing concern about all things ‘sanitary’, particularly the dangers of cesspools and sewage. There was, however, another deeply worrying type of refuse plaguing the metropolis – decaying human bodies.
The capital’s ancient churchyards and commercial burial grounds were full to the brim with corpses. Great new cemeteries were being built around the periphery of London by private companies – but their constituency was the wealthy middle- and upper-classes, who could afford their expensive plots. The poor, on the other hand, remained in the centre of the metropolis, where space was at a premium.
Conditions in the heart of London were increasingly dire. Coffins were stacked one atop the other in deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Grounds were regularly ‘topped up’ with earth to hide the problem (hence many central London churchyards still remain several feet above pavement level). Putrefying bodies were frequently disinterred by gravediggers to make room for newcomers, leading to macabre scenes:
‘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 it was my father’s head and I told them to stop and they laughed …’
Space was not the only issue. The stench from poorly-managed grounds was revolting, and some considered this to be a species of dangerous ‘miasma’, analogous to the stink from cesspools and sewage, believed to be a serious risk to public health. George Walker, a doctor practising in the slum-ridden district around Drury Lane, resolved to bring the dangers of ‘graveyard gases’ to the notice of the government. He issued numerous pamphlets on the subject; he incited those living in close proximity to noxious churchyards to petition local authorities; and he joined forces with the MP William Mackinnon to lobby for a government inquiry.
Typical of Walker’s tactics was his intervention at Spa Fields, Islington – a private burial ground whose owner, Mr. Bird, was suspected of hasty disinterment of corpses to make room for new customers. Walker issued leaflets throughout Clerkenwell, condemning Bird’s practices and hinting that bodies were being burned in a makeshift crematorium. A former gravedigger, Reuben Room, testified to a variety of gruesome practices (‘I have had as much of 1.5cwt of human flesh on what we term the “beef board” …’); and, after much publicity, the Home Secretary himself was obliged to order a police investigation – all thanks to Walker’s determined agitation.
The government, however, was slow to act; and ultimately settled on an ill-advised plan for nationalising London’s cemeteries, devised by the civil servant Edwin Chadwick. When this failed, new legislation was passed in 1852 which simply allowed the Home Secretary to close mismanaged grounds, and parishes to borrow money to create spacious, affordable garden cemeteries in the suburbs – still very much in use to this day. George Walker, having spent a decade campaigning for burial reform, retired to North Wales. He was remembered in Drury Lane as ‘a great favourite … on account of his kindness to the poor’.
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.