Everyone likes a Christmas party don’t they? Well except me but that’s because I’m a misery guts and couldn’t think of anything worse than, except for a New Years Eve party of course.
You might think that having parties at overcrowded and somewhat dodgy venues are a modern phenomena but you might be surprised to know that despite their reputation to be prim and proper, the Victorians would sometimes have massive fails. If you’d like to know how how slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones leads to dancing on the dead then you’ve come to the right place.
London in the mid nineteenth century had various unique problems caused by the success of burgeoning industrial and commercial centre. Recent posts have already dealt with pollution, hidden rivers that became sewers, farting lamps and events such as The Great Stink In the 1820s there was a population of around 2.5 million living souls and likely as many if not more dead.
Inner city burial had been carried out in London for close to 2,000 years and it can easily be argued that even today London, is one massive burial site. By the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place was just off The Strand and known as the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:
‘[A] mass of putrefaction. The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence, the living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’
It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:
‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent.’
The Weekly Despatch in September 1838 reported ‘No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor.’
The consequences, wherever demand exceeded supply, were decidedly unpleasant. Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst the tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood. Clergymen and sextons turned a blind eye to the worst practices because burial fees formed a large proportion of their income. Macabre scenes awaited those who pried too closely into the gravedigger’s work:
Sextons would periodically tap coffins to release the build-up of corpse gas. Sometimes it could be so bad that gravediggers could die from the disturbance of the gas. Indeed graves were not aerated then occasionally this could result in explosions. There is a case of such an explosion happening in the vaults of St James’s, Piccadilly, which burned for days.
The ‘Green Ground’ was devoid of trees because the soil was ‘saturated, absolutely saturated with human putrescence.’ The walls dripped with reeking fluids and the smell was so bad no neighbours could open their windows. For the poor the grim internment of the dead was in many ways merely an extension of their living conditions but perhaps nowhere was more terrible or indeed the catalyst for change then the infamous Enon Chapel.
On the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. near The Strand and accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W. Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.
Whilst in 1822 Burke and Hare had yet to set up their now famous, fearsome and murderous trade in Edinburgh, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table was an established and at times lucrative profession. It was perhaps the fear of falling victim to this that may have been one of the factors in Mr. Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon Chapel. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr. Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon Chapel was licensed for burials.
Burials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial. At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.
Things went well for Mr. Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Being built over an open sewer meant that the chapel could never have been the most inviting of places and from the start worshippers retched into their handkerchieves or collapsed and fainted at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather. Bizarrely nobody thought it so odd or unbearable that they bothered to contact the authorities.
It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet with up thousands of bodies buried in and about the tiny crypt.
In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear.
Strangely to us perhaps and doubly so knowing the swift and severe justice that so many crimes brought in Victorian Britain, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.
In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he removed the bodies from the coffins which he and his wife would use for firewood and obviously did nothing to help the smell and disease. The enterprising if rather immoral Mr. Howse dug deep bits and disposed of the occupants as best as he could in these deep pits filled which were filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.
It was also said that extensive building work around London at locations such as Waterloo Bridge allowed Mr. Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel. It makes you wonder how many of the Victorian buildings in London are the remains of these poor dead souls.
Mr. Howse died in 1842 and no doubt to the relief of almost everyone involved, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant was a fellow by the name of Mr. Fitzpatrick, who took up residence in 1844. Obviously made of tough stuff, despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, Mr. Fitzpatrick was not put off, and he simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of ‘Dancing on the dead!’
Admission was Threepence and no lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings. It just goes to show that you can never say that teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!
The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:
“Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”
The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or they possessed a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and if things could go downhill from here then that is thanks to George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner. George was as Queen Victoria say, Not Amused as you can see from his report having viewed not just Enon Chapel but 47 other London burial grounds. His findings were published in 1839, Walker described it thus:
‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’
As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health. It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’. If you’re knowledge of English isn’t quite up to the task, I’m sure you can get the idea of what he was meaning.
This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.
If you want to know what this miasma was like then helpfully George Walker goes on to explain all and it ranged from general ill health such as pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting to sudden death caused by workers who suffocated by the release of “cadaverous vapours”.
The overall argument in Gatherings was that concentrated graveyard gases caused instant death in man and beast; foul-smelling grounds, constantly releasing more diffused miasma, did not produce sudden death – but they debilitated those living nearby, according to their level of exposure and individual resistance
The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and various social reformers led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842.
This committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action.
The Mackinnon inquiry of 1842 covered similar ground to Walker’s reports. Among other things, the select committee confirmed the reality of Walker’s accounts of gross and gruesome scenes in churchyards and vaults:
“I have seen them play at what is called skittles; put up bones and take skulls and knocked them down; stick up bones in the ground and throw a skull at them as you would a skittle-ball”.
The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of the Magnificent 7 cemeteries which are still well-renowned today such as Highgate and Brompton which were then on the fringes of London and designed to be enjoyed by visitors as much as they were for the burying of the dead.
There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel and if you think George Walker might not have had a bad bone in his body (I sneaked that one in) then you’d be wrong. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian who loved a bit of the macabre. George knew his stuff and the public came in force with upwards of 6000 punters paying to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.
Of course despite his generally good intentions, there was criticism of his morbid ways of doing things but Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian manner by emphasising that the spectacle was educational in a similar way that others such as Madame Tussaud had sought to elevate dubious work.
Perhaps somewhat fittingly and no doubt the highlight of the whole tour of Enon Chapel was the fact that visitors would come face to emaciated face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr. Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ .
It would be interesting to know what Mr. Howse would make of this ghastly poetic justice.
‘Sadly’ but not surprisingly Enon Chapel was long ago cleared and when the London School of Economics building was put up in the 1960’s on the surrounding site, countless human remains were found (even after the Victorian reburial effort) and their bones reburied with as much grace as could be afforded them given the circumstances in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood in South London.
If you enjoyed this, you might like to see my post on Crossbones Cemetery.