A team of Natural History Museum anthropologists have been digitising and analysing a collection human remains from London in order to learn more about the lives and deaths of people who lived in the capital.
While studying bones from a post-medieval cemetery known as the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, we dug deeper into the history of this cemetery.
One of the museum’s scientists, Rosalind Wallduck, discovered that burial conditions at the Green Ground were notoriously bad. The poor state of this particular cemetery in fact played a role in the introduction of government legislation in the 1850s that led to the eventual closure of almost all inner city burial grounds.
The smells of death
Purchased and walled in as a graveyard in 1638, the Green Ground was used as a burial ground by the Parish of St Clement Dane’s. Located off Portugal Street, the cemetery was overlooked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a number of tenement buildings along Clements Lane. Given the poor nature of sanitation in London during the post-medieval period, as well as high death rates due to increases in population combined with prolific disease, the conditions at the graveyard were unpleasant. The surgeon G.A. Walker described how people living near the Green Ground were often subjected to “breathing in an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead”. It was also claimed that miasmata [unhealthy vapours] from burial grounds were contributing to deaths of these nearby people, as well as increasing the prevalence of infectious diseases.
Deaths were reported after gravediggers inhaled vapours from coffins and there were cases of undertakers contracting Typhus fever and small pox from handling diseased corpses. One eyewitness account in particular caught my eye: when a coffin exploded at the nearby Stepney Churchyard, hundreds of people reputedly flocked to the place to ascertain the cause, but the poisonous nature of the ‘effluvia’ caused a great number to suffer from ‘sudden sickness and fainting’ for a considerable amount of time afterwards!
Overcrowded with corpses
The Green Ground was so overcrowded with bodies that gravediggers would often encounter quite fresh corpses. It was necessary to cut through them to make room for new burials. This was done with pickaxes and often in plain view of local residents. A coffin only a month or so old would be routinely dug up, the wood taken away for burning, and the remains of the late inhabitant of the coffin rendered into small pieces.
At a meeting of a Parliamentary select committee to discuss the state of London’s burial grounds, an assistant gravedigger for the parish described how he saw another chopping off the head of a coffin, but on further inspection he saw that it was the coffin of his own father! Another recounted that while making space for a new coffin, the ground gave way; a corpse turned over and ended up clasping him round the neck!
“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 him by his teeth; one tooth was knocked out and the other was splintered; I knew it was my father’s head…”
According to the sanitarian Edwin Chadwick, the frequent exposure of gravediggers to these horrendous working conditions was said to have resulted in a nervous disposition, requiring the ‘stimulus of spirituous or fermented liquors’ and explaining why they were a ‘drunken set’! But it was also said that the job was better than latrine digging, and at least they were afforded sufficient elbow room in pub!
The rise of body snatching
With advances in medicine during the post medieval period there was a high demand for bodies for dissection, but people were unwilling to donate their bodies as dissection had previously been used as a punishment for executed murderers, leading to the practice being stigmatised. As a consequence newly dead corpses were often stolen from burial grounds by ‘resurrection men’ for sale to medical schools.
The Green Ground was a notorious source of corpses for the body snatchers. A newspaper report from the Times on February 18th 1820 details how a sack of corpses was witnessed being thrown over the wall of the Green Ground, which on closer inspection were taken from graves of three recently deceased elderly people. A warrant was issued to search St Thomas’s hospital, but no trace of the bodies was found. The gravedigger and his assistant were taken into custody for being complicit in the body-snatching, but the case for their conviction rested on the testimony of a supposed disgruntled body snatcher, who they claimed was upset with finding the graves empty on his visit to the burial ground! The gravedigger and his assistant were later discharged.
Closure of the Green Ground
As was the case with other inner London cemeteries, the severe lack of space combined with the suspected health risks didn’t go unnoticed. The Green Ground featured in investigations into the poor state of London’s burial grounds and sanitation reports. Eyewitness accounts at parliamentary committees told of harrowing tales of overcrowding and grave desecration. But it was after the worst cholera epidemic of the century that the government was spurred into action. In the 1850s a series of laws were passed prohibiting the majority of burials in the built-up areas of London. Bodies were relocated to cemeteries outside of the city centre, and the grave yards were built upon or made into public parks.
By Dr Rosalind Wallduck
- The Green Ground
- Burial reform in London
- Horwood’s map of London, 1799 – 1812 (London Topographical Society Edition)
- Bartlett, D. W. 1852. London by Day and Night: Or, Men and Things in the Great Metropolis. New York: Hurst and Co.
- Pinfold J. 1997. The Green Ground. In Howarth, G., & Jupp, P. C. (Eds.), The Changing Face of Death. Macmillan Press: London, 76-89.
- Diprose, J. 1868. Some account of the Parish of Saint Clement Danes, past and present. London: Diprose and Bateman.
- 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.