‘As one contemporary put it, ‘People like to be buried in company, and in good company’.’
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 22: The English Père Lachaise
The problem of London’s overcrowded, foul-smelling parish churchyards was a worrying question long before the ‘sanitary movement’ of the 1840s. The likes of Enon Chapel offered a low-budget solution, but other entrepreneurs were thinking on a grander scale.
George Carden became interested in burial after visiting Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Opened in 1804, the site had 110 acres of ornamental gardens, generously planted with shrubs and flowers, replete with artistically designed tombs and classical monuments, ‘all neat, decent and appropriate to the scene’. Carden returned to London and contemplated starting a similar venture in the capital. After two unsuccessful attempts – during the stock market boom of 1825 – Carden tried again in 1831. He help found the General Cemetery Company, whose mission was to build an ‘English Père Lachaise’. The sanitary aspects of the scheme – with cholera fast approaching the capital – were talked up. What could be more sensible than removing burials from miasmatic churchyards to a cleanly ‘extra-mural’ cemetery, i.e. out-of-town, beyond the ‘city walls’? And, of course, the ravages of the much-feared cholera epidemic – however distasteful the thought – might bring in a considerable number of customers.
The GCC prospered and The Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, opened in 1833 (now generally referred to as ‘Kensal Green Cemetery’). In later years, Carden would portray his efforts as a direct response to the capital’s public health crisis; but, in truth, he was a businessman, not a philanthropist. Indeed, one year after Kensal Green had opened, marginalised by the GCC board of directors, Carden tried, in vain, to set up a rival enterprise to undermine Kensal Green’s prospects – ‘The Great Western Cemetery Company’ (which, if built, would have covered much of modern Holland Park).
Kensal Green, moreover, could never really answer the public health question. It had a specific constituency. Its expensive plots were designed to hold the middle- and upper-classes. Indeed, it is significant that the cemetery only truly began to prosper when the Duke of Sussex was buried there in 1843. Cemetery burial offered not only salubrity but a certain social exclusivity, away from the riff-raff. One’s choice of burial site reflected social and religious scruples. As one contemporary put it, ‘People like to be buried in company, and in good company.’ Kensal Green removed the corpse of the respectable tradesman and prosperous City clerk from the squalor of central London; the working man was left behind, amidst the stink and decay.
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.