Dealing with London’s dead: the aftermath of the Burial Acts | Human Anthropology

Necropolis station

London terminal of the London Necropolis Railway.

London, a buzzing metropolis, is renowned worldwide for its cultural sights and attractions, iconic buildings and manicured green spaces, cutting-edge construction and development.  But the capital has a hidden secret. In the not-too-distant-past it was once sprawling with unsanitary, overcrowded and overflowing burial grounds and many of London’s dead still lie beneath our feet.

A team of scientists at the Natural History Museum have been digging deeper into life and death in London during the past.

It became clear that the poor conditions of London’s burial grounds were central in the passing legislation prohibiting the majority of burial within inner London.

But the story about what came next is equally fascinating, as London attempted to deal with the closure of its inner city burial grounds.

One of the museum’s scientists, Rosalind Wallduck, explains how these events had long-lasting effects for London’s city-scape and even how burial is practiced today.

A burial crisis

Searching the city for cholera

London Board of Health searching the city for cholera during the 1832 epidemic (Wellcome Library)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London was facing a burial crisis.

Increasing population numbers and high death rates meant that graveyards were very overcrowded.  The effects of this could hardly go unnoticed, with grave disturbance and desecration a common sight.

Initial failures

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome collection).

Edwin Chadwick (Wellcome collection).

Two sanitary reformers, George Alfred Walker and Edwin Chadwick, produced seminal reports on the squalid and unsanitary conditions faced by Londoners due to these overflowing burial grounds. A Select Committee in Parliament was formed to witness testimony by those affected as a result of these crucial reports.

The Government was only eventually spurred into action after Britain suffered from a severe Cholera epidemic in 1848. The first step the Government made towards dealing the burial crisis was in 1849 when the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act was amended.

This enabled the General Board of Health, of which Chadwick was a salaried member, control over the burial grounds of London. Chadwick envisioned the creation of an independent Burial Commission to manage these cemeteries, and laid out plans for closing old burial grounds and creating a series of national cemeteries on the outskirts of the city.

These recommendations formed the basis of An Act to provide for the Interment of the Dead in and near the Metropolis in 1950; but this was repealed. The Board of Legislators were unpopular, there was a lack of financing and many considered the proposed legislative process as too radical and reactionary.

Legislative successes

Sitting of General Board of Health, Whitehall, 1846 (Wellcome Image Collection).

Sitting of General Board of Health, Whitehall, 1846 (Wellcome Image Collection). Copyrighted work available under. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

It wasn’t until three years later that the first successful law was passed in order to deal with the mounting health crisis posed by inner city burial grounds. The first of a series of Burial Acts, the Act to amend the Laws concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (1st July 1982), came into force in 1852. This banned burial within the most built up parts of the city (with some exceptions, such as members of the Royal Family) and consequently the worst offending graveyards began to close.

Relocating the dead

Highgate cemetery

Highgate cemetery, one of the private cemeteries created to alleviate graveyard overcrowding in central London.

Outside of the capital, large privately owned green (or garden) cemeteries, dubbed the magnificent seven, had been established to deal with the growing burial crisis. With the closure of graveyards came the clearance of human remains, and bodies were often exhumed and relocated to the out-of-town graveyards.

Human remains from the notoriously overcrowded Enon Chapel were exhumed (at the expense of reformer George Albert Walker) and buried in a single pit in Norwood Cemetery. During this process, the piling of over 12,000 bodies outside of the Chapel was a well-reported and unpleasant spectacle.

The London Necropolis Railway

Brookwood railway

A section of railway track outside Brookwood cemetery from the London Necropolis Railway.

A railway line, the London Necropolis Railway, was opened in November 1854 to carry corpses and mourners between London and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

As well as taking newly deceased individuals and associated mourners, the railway was also used for the relocation of graves from closed cemeteries.

During construction of Charing Cross railway station in 1862, the burial ground of Cure’s College in Southwark was demolished. The railway line was used to transport the disturbed graves to Brookwood.

The railway line was used for almost next century, until damage in world war two meant that operation ceased.

Cremation

The closure of inner London graveyards catalysed new debates about the proper ways in which to dispose of the dead. Intertwined with this was the continuation of prior concerns about the effects that living close to dead bodies had on the health of the living.

No coffins

Despite fears surrounding disease carrying ‘miasma’ (vapours) from the dead, there were still proponents of a burial method that involved placement of the body within the ground. In a series of letters to The Times (1875) Francis Seymour Haden proposed that ‘earth-to-earth’ burial (i.e. with no coffin) was the correct method. He argued that decaying bodies were in fact essential for producing good soils, and formed a central aspect of a cosmological design. This was publicly backed by Dr Henry Letheby, who also favoured the absence of a coffin, but because it allowed ‘bad substances’ produced by dead bodies to be ‘neutralised’.

Woking Crematorium as shown in an early 20th century post card.

Woking Crematorium, the first custom built cremation in the UK, as shown in an early 20th century post card.

This method was opposed by those who suggested that cremation should be adopted. In 1885 Cremation became legal in Britain and Jeanette Caroline Pickersgill was the first person to be cremated, after legislation was passed, at Woking Crematorium. Sir Henry Thomson publicly rejected Haden’s claims that disease from the dead was not conveyed by earth (the Times on 22nd Dec 1897). It was said that cremation was a better means of disposal, transforming the decaying body from a harmful source of disease into a harmless compound.

A public spat over implications for disease transmission, the cost of funerals, premature burial and even the ability to discover murders by exhumation, were debated out over the succeeding years. But cremation gained in popularity over the following century, and today it is a common method of burial in the UK.

Development and disused burial grounds

Postman's park

Postman’s Park, London; originally a graveyard of St Botolph’s Aldgate.

Not all of the burials in the closed inner-city cemeteries were relocated. Permission was quickly granted for many of the burial grounds to be repurposed and often built upon, but some bodies were simply left in situ as they were buried too deep to be a problem. It is these bodies that are commonly uncovered in modern construction works occurring at deeper depths due to modern engineering.

Disused Burial Grounds Act

Not everyone, however, agreed with developers building on top of graveyards. Isabella Holmes was a key proponent of covering disused graveyards with soil and converting them into public parks. Supporters of such an idea, like Chadwick has done years earlier, claimed that living above cemeteries was bad for public health. Paradoxically they were suggesting that by converting graveyards into public spaces there would in fact be positive health benefits. These arguments were influential, and 1884 the Disused Burial Grounds Act was passed. This made it extremely difficult for property developers to gain permission to build on graveyards and effectively eliminating the competition.

So the next time you walk around London’s parks take a closer look; there is often a grave stone, cenotaph or memorial plaque left in situ; a legacy from the land’s past use.

By Dr Rosalind Wallduck

Read more

  • London human remains collections
  • Post-medieval collections
  • London burials
  • Chadwick, E. 1842. Report to Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department from the Poor Law Commissioners on an inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. London: Clowes and Sons.
  • Chadwick, E. 1843.  Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. A Supplementary on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns Made at the Request of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary. London: Clowes and Sons.
  • Clarke, John M. (2006). The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers. 143 (4th ed.). Usk, Monmouthshire: The Oakwood Press. ISBN978-0-85361-655-9.
  • Haden, F. 1899. Remarks on proper and improper burial, with an examination of the claims made for cremation. The Lancet 153(3952), 1411-1415.
  • Holmes, M. B. 1896. The London Burial Grounds: Notes on their history from the earliest times to the present day. London: Macmillan.
  • Parry, L. A. 1899. The claims of cremation: a reply to Sir Francis Seymour Haden. The Lancet 153(3955), 1661-1662.
  • Walker, G. A. 1847. The second of a series of lectures delivered at the Mechanics’ Institution, Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, Jan. 22, 1847, on the actual condition of the metropolitan grave-yards. London: Longman and Co.
  • Wiggins, D. E. 1991. The Burial Acts: cemetery reform in Great Britain, 1815-1914.Unplulished PhD Dissertation, University of Texas.

Funding

A project to digitise the London human remains collection was made possible thanks to the generosity of The Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust

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