Walking around modern day London it may be hard to believe that the remains of hundreds of thousands of Londoners lie beneath our feet. The city once contained hundreds of graveyards and crypts that were overflowing with the remains of London’s dead.
‘Many times in our walks about London we have noticed the grave-yards attached to the various churches, for in almost every case, they are elevated considerably above the level of the sidewalk, and in some instances, five or six feet above it. The reason was clear enough—it was an accumulation for years of human dust, and that too in the centre of the largest city in the world’. (Bartlett 1852, 95).
Most of these cemeteries were closed in the 1850s when legislation was passed that prohibited the majority of burials within inner London. Subsequently these cemeteries were cleared, built over and made into public spaces. As a consequence, construction workers often come across human remains which once belonged to these lost graveyards. Many of these have been donated to, and are now stored in, the Natural History Museum in London.
While studying these remains, one of the museum’s researchers, Rosalind Wallduck, delved deeper into the history of burial within London. What she discovered was a fascinating insight into life and death in London’s past, embroiled with tales of corruption, shocking burial conditions, and significant social reforms.
Henry VIII: a catalyst for change
The post-medieval period begins with the dramatic events of English Reformation, resulting in deep-rooted and enduring changes to religious and secular life. Catalysed by Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir and annulment from Catherine of Aragon, Henry was excommunicated by the Pope in 1533 and appointed the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This break from Rome came with a marked shift in Christian beliefs away from Catholicism, changes which were also reflected in burial practices.
During the medieval period most people were buried without coffins. After a number of years had passed the grave could be reopened and any remaining bones removed to a charnel and the ground reused. The shift towards protestant beliefs meant that purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of the saints were instead replaced by an insistence that the living could no longer work on behalf of the dead. A new emphasis was therefore placed on the importance of the body after life. There was an increase in the memorialisation of the dead, with the use of grave stones, monuments and coffins. It somewhat ironic that despite the concern for an intact body, there was in fact more grave disturbance, truncation and desecration in this period than ever before.
The business of death
The population of London increased at an alarming rate during the post-medieval period. In just fifty years alone, between 1801 and 1851 it more than doubled. With increased death rates, burial grounds became increasingly crowded. Garden cemeteries and parish burial grounds for the poor were established and some enterprising Londoners used overcrowding as a business opportunity, forming a number of private graveyards. In order to turn a profit, bodies were often packed into private burial grounds, and to fit even more bodies in there were some cases of clandestine body removal.
At the vault of Enon Chapel in Clement’s Lane, a corrupt minister, having taken payment for burial, orchestrated cart loads of human remains being taken away and thrown into the Thames the other side of Waterloo Bridge. He was found out when a wagon dropped human remains during one of these episodes, and a skull was picked up by a passer-by! The minister then resorted to quicklime to dispose of corpses and burned the coffins. This continued until the minister’s death in 1842, at which point the chapel was made into a dance hall. It was later purchased by the surgeon George Alfred Walker who relocated the bodies to Norwood cemetery.
GA Walker was not only a surgeon; he was a fervent opponent to the practice of burying people within towns. He wrote about the horrendous burial conditions of these overflowing cemeteries, with tales of grave desecration, body snatching (for sale as medical cadavers) and ill effects on the health of those who lived nearby. He believed that the smell, known as ‘miasma’, from the shallowly buried bodies was poisoning the living. The sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick also reported that the poor conditions of graveyards were a serious concern for matters of public health. Gravediggers and undertakers were also documented as contracting Typhus fever and small pox from handling diseased corpses.
Additionally, the risks of keeping bodies within houses prior to burial was highlighted, particularly among the poorer classes who were forced to keep bodies of the dead in the same rooms they lived in due to lack of space and lack of funds. This was often for extended periods of time before burial could be afforded and the body carried out.
Despite Chadwick and Walker’s concerns about the health risks posed by inner city graveyards, there was no immediate action taken by the government to stop burial within towns. But these concerns were a sign of worse to come. In 1848 Britain faced the worst cholera outbreak of the 19th century. At the end of the epidemic over 60,000 people had died in Britain.
The government could no longer ignore the health risks posed by the overcrowded and overflowing burial grounds. A series of laws known as the Burial Acts were passed in the 1850s prohibiting majority of burials within central London. The first year after the 1852 Burial Act went into effect, a total of 163 consecrated and 50 un-consecrated grounds were closed. Permission was granted for burial grounds to be repurposed, and often built upon, and bodies were relocated to larger graveyards outside of the city.
London’s burial grounds transformed from places of squalor, overflowing with body parts and sodden with decaying substances, into the buildings and parks we see today. The next time you walk around London’s streets take a closer look; there are often small reminders of bodies that once were buried. There could be a grave stone or cenotaph left in situ, a memorial plaque, or even simply just the presence of green space preserved among the buzzing metropolis.
By Dr Rosalind Wallduck
- Bartlett, D. W. 1852. London By Day and Night: Or, Men and Things in the Great Metropolis. New York: Hurst and Co.
- 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.
- Thorsheim, P. 2011. The corpse in the garden: burial, health, and the environment in nineteenth-century London. Environmental History 16(1), 38-68.
- Walker, G. A. 1839. Gatherings from Grave Yards: Particularly Those of London: with a Concise History of the Modes of Interment Among Different Nations, from the Earliest Periods. And a Detail of Dangerous and Fatal Results Produced by the Unwise and Revolting Custom of Inhuming the Dead in the Midst of the Living. London: Messrs. Longman and Co.
- 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. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Texas.
- Horrors of London Burying-Grounds, The Tablet, November, 1842
A project to digitise the London human remains collection was made possible thanks to the generosity of The Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust