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Public Health: Burials

Edwin Chadwick's Report on Interment

from Parliamentary Papers 1843, XII

Mr Leonard, surgeon and medical officer of the parish of St Martin's-in-the-Fields, gives the following instances of the circumstances in which the poorest class of inhabitants die, which may be adduced as exemplifications of the dreadful state of circumstances in which the survivors are placed for the want of adequate accommodation for the remains immediately after death, and previous to the interment:-

There are some houses in my district that have from 45 to 60 persons of all ages under one roof, and in the event of death, the body often occupies the only bed till they raise money to pay for a coffin, which is often several days. ... Of course the tenants are never free from fevers and diarrhoea and the mortality is great. The last class live, for the most part, in lodging houses, where shelter is obtained, with a bed of straw, for 2d to 4d per night, and where this is not obtainable, the arches under the Adelphi afford a shelter. In the lodging-rooms I have seen the beds placed so close together as not to allow room to pass between them, and occupied by both sexes indiscriminately. I have known six people sleep in a room about nine feet square, with only one small window, about 17 inches by 12 inches; and there are some sleeping rooms in this district in which you cannot scarcely see your hand at noonday.

How long is the dead body retained in the room beside the living? - If the person has subscribed to a club, or the friends are in circumstances to afford the expense of the funeral, it takes place, generally, on the following Sunday, if the death has occurred earlier in the week; but if towards the end of the week, then it is sometimes postponed till the Sunday week after, if the weather permit; in one case it was twelve days....

In what condition is the corpse usually, or frequently, retained? - Amongst the Irish, it does not signify of what disease the person may have died, it is retained often for many days, laid out upon the only bed, perhaps.... Thus fevers and other contagious diseases are fearfully propagated. . . and this spring I removed a girl, named Wilson, to the infirmary of the Workhouse, from a room in the same court. I could not remain two minutes in it; the horrible stench arose from a corpse which had died of phthisis twelve days before, and the coffin stood across the foot of the bed, within eighteen inches of it. This was a small room not above ten feet by twelve feet square, and a fire always in it, being (as in most cases of a like kind) the only one for sleeping, living and cooking in.

Engels on burials

In death as in life the poor in England are treated in an utterly shameless manner. Their corpses have no better fate than the carcasses of animals. The pauper burial ground at St. Bride's in London is an open piece of marshland which has been used since Charles II's day and there are heaps of bones all over the place. Every Wednesday the remains of dead paupers are thrown into a hole which is fourteen feet deep. A clergyman gabbles through the burial service and then the grave is filled with loose soil. On the following Wednesday the ground is opened again and this goes on until it is completely full. The whole neighbourhood is infected by the dreadful stench from this burial ground.

In Manchester there is a pauper burial ground in the Old Town on the other side of the Irk. This too is a desolate piece of waste ground. Two years ago a new railway line was built which ran through the burial ground. Had it been a churchyard in which 'respectable' people were interred the middle classes and the clergy would have protested loudly against the desecration of the burial ground. But since it was only a pauper burial ground - the last resting place of 'superfluous' paupers - they did not show the slightest concern. No one bothered to give a decent burial on the other side of the churchyard to the half-decayed corpses which were dug up to let the railway go through. The navvies dug holes where they pleased and great stakes were knocked into fresh graves. Since the men were working in marshy land, water containing putrefying matter from these graves was forced up to the surface and the whole district suffered from the nauseating and dangerous gases which filled the air. I cannot give the more revolting details about the consequences of this callous and disgusting act.

Public Health
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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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