Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Burial Battleground

by | June 14, 2012 | 10 comments

Things had come to a crisis in Victorian London.  What to do with all the bodies?

It had always been known that the occupation of grave digging held peculiar risks.  Generally an unhealthy lot, those performing the task faced increasing risk of accidently striking a coffin already buried while making room for a new one.  The gas released was so terribly noxious men had been known to fall dead on the spot as if they had been shot.  One Valentine Haycock was asked about his experience in these matters:

“When you have been digging yourself, have you felt yourself affected immediately?—Yes, I have been obliged to get up in the best way that I could, and I have been in such a tremble that I did not know whether I was going to die myself or not; I have gone indoors, and have sat a little time to recover myself.”

Things were getting worse.  Grave diggers were not the only ones who were struck down “beneath the breath of the dread king of terrors.”  Churchyards, historically the only places where one could be buried in London, were beginning to reek.  Clergymen were resigning their offices to seek work in country parishes, even at lower wages.  Doctors were advising their patients to “remove from the neighborhood of such places.”  Cholera and fevers among the living were most prevalent where the dead congregated the most.

One story recounts an entire congregation becoming violently ill after taking communion in the church.  It was thought the wine, which had been on the altar the entire service, had been poisoned.  A later experiment revealed the culprit.  A chalice of wine was placed on the altar overnight.  The next morning it was filled with insects which investigators traced in a ray of sunlight to a burial vault which contained the corpulent body of a recently buried lady.

It seemed the authorities were paralyzed about what to do.  Some blamed burial vaults in the churches, such as in the afore-mentioned example.

“I may observe that, among persons who are ill-informed on the subject, there exist erroneous notions as to the preservation of bodies (in burial vaults).  They are supposed, from the complete closure of their coffins, to remain unchanged for ages, like the embalmed bodies of Egypt and Peru…Nothing can be less correct than this supposition.” — Dr. John Simon, City Medical Reports (1849)

Others blamed overcrowding in the churchyards.  St. Giles’, for example contained over 48,000 bodies in less than two acres.

“A London churchyard is very like a London omnibus. It can be made to carry any number. If there is no room inside – no matter, there is always plenty of accommodation outside. The same with a London churchyard – number is the last consideration. There are three things, in fact, which are never by any accident full. These are: The Pit of a Theatre, an Omnibus, and a London Churchyard. The latter combines the expansiveness of the two former, with the voluminousness of the Carpet Bag.” — Punch, 1849

Finally, an act was passed that established new, private cemeteries outside London, later to be called the Magnificent Seven:


  1. Nancy

    One book on the subject is Necropolis London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold 2008.
    They would sometimes go through and empty the graves and put the bones in a charnel house. people were buried in the walls and under the floors of the church. I don’t think all were in coffins as they all had to be in shrouds and coffins were expensive.

  2. Angelyn

    That book sounds wonderful. I used a variety of contemporary sources for this post, but there’s a cool modern book out called Weird England I love to refer to for interesting facts.

    Thanks for commenting, Nancy!

    • Angelyn

      Yes–that is ringing a bell with me, too. Kind of along the same lines as the Asphidity bag people would wear in the early 1900s to ward off the flu during influenza epidemics.

  3. Ella Quinn

    Very interesting. When I was little, it was considered bad luck to breathe while passing a cemetery. I wonder if it came from that.

  4. Ally Broadfield

    This got me thinking about my tour of Westminster Abbey where, of course, many, many people are buried.

    • Angelyn

      Wonderful closet of history. Nineteenth century chronicles of excavations in the Abbey crypt document poor Mary Queen of Scots huge coffin surrounded by many tiny ones–dead children of Queen Anne.

  5. Barbara Scott

    A strange and thoroughly en-gross-ing subject. Are you researching this for a WIP?

    • Angelyn

      I wish I could say this was for a WIP. Actually, it’s just morbid obsession. Thanks for stopping by, Barbara.

  6. Marin

    Such an interesting, if occasionally gross, post! I admit it’s not really anything I ever thought about–somehow I guess I always thought that once the bodies were buried, they wouldn’t stink. Thanks for enlightening me. 🙂

    • Angelyn

      Your comment brings up an interesting point. In the early nineteenth century, there was a lot of fascination with the East. People, especially the wealthy, became obsessed with pyramids and monumental tombs. The rush for this fashion led to a lot of stink. Dr. Simon alludes to this miscomprehension. The Egyptian avenue, pictured above, was originally conceived to allow folks to be buried in sarcophagi, like the ancient Pharoahs. The trouble began when some of the sealed coffins blew up from the buildup of noxious gases confined within the lead seals.



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