The Disgusting Victorian Cemetery That Helped Change Burials in London Forever

A drawing of dancing at Enon Chapel from George Walker's "Lectures on the metropolitan grave-yards"
A drawing of dancing at Enon Chapel from George Walker's "Lectures on the metropolitan grave-yards"

Victorian London was a fast-growing, sprawling metropolis. The crowded streets, ramshackle slums, and overflowing sewers meant that just walking through the city could cause sensory overload. With so many people living on top of each other, the city was thronged with bodies jostling for space—and that went for the dead, too.

According to The Lady's Newspaper, by 1849 there were 52,000 deaths each year in London, yet the total space set aside for burial only allowed for 100,000 bodies. Churches and chapels provided small graveyards—often crammed between buildings—for locals, and sometimes offered up their basements as secure burial sites, safe from the ever-present threat of body-snatchers. But it was hardly enough room.

A sanitary reformer named George Walker, nicknamed "Graveyard Walker," made it his mission to combat the cemetery overcrowding. Like others of his era, he was convinced (incorrectly) that the foul miasmas floating up from the ground—clouds of gases from decomposing bodies—were responsible for diseases like malaria and cholera. He referred to London's many burial grounds as "so many centers of foci of infection ... generating constantly the dreadful effluvia of human putrefaction." According to his research, the majority of London’s 182 parochial graveyards were unable to keep to the 136 burials per acre recommended by graveyard reformers. Many reported over 1000 burials per acre, and St John’s in Clerkenwell admitted to an amazing 3073 burials per acre.

To save space, bodies were often piled one on top of the other in vast pits, the wooden coffins tossed aside and burned for firewood. There were so many burials that in many churchyards the ground was raised considerably above street level. Unscrupulous vicars, keen to protect the burial fee each churchyard was permitted to charge for internment, found ever more ingenious ways of cramming yet more bodies into their overflowing burial grounds. And none was more unscrupulous than one of Walker's favorite targets, Baptist minister W. Howse of Enon Chapel near The Strand.

THE BODIES BELOW

Enon Chapel had opened around 1822 with rooms on the top floor for worship and teaching, and a basement assigned to burials. The space allotted for the dead in the basement was a mere 59 by 29 feet (about the size of a volleyball court), and the chapel above was separated from the burial pit by just a thin layer of creaky floorboards. The gaps in between allowed a putrid stench to waft through the chapel; worshippers reported a foul taste in their mouths after attending services, and said that clothes needed to be immediately aired or washed to get rid of the rancid smell. Insects caused a real nuisance, too: Sunday school children reported that “body bugs” blighted the school room, and worshippers complained that creepy-crawlies swarmed their hair and hats. But Howse charged considerably less for a burial space than other nearby parishes, and as a result the local poor overlooked the appalling state of the basement.

Such unsanitary conditions were not uncommon in London at the time, but by 1839, the situation at Enon Chapel had become so extreme something needed to be done. The chapel blamed the open sewers below the basement for the problems. But when representatives for the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers looked underneath the chapel, they discovered hundreds of decomposing corpses piled up, many of which had fallen into the open sewer, creating heaps of bloated, rotten remains.

Despite this gruesome discovery, the burial space wasn't closed; instead, the sewer was vaulted over to prevent the bodies from dropping into the water. Howse continued his unhygienic ways—and came up with even more nefarious methods to dispose of the bodies.

With over 500 bodies a year to bury and limited space to do it, Howse began paying workmen to dump wheelbarrows full of decayed corpses into the River Thames, thus clearing space for new burials. Besides the fact that Londoners used this water for bathing and drinking, there was the horror of the fact that body parts occasionally went astray on their way to the river, with passersby often coming into contact with the grisly detritus. On one occasion, an almost perfectly formed hand was discovered on the street where the chapel was located. It was quickly snatched away by the sexton.

Eventually, Howse just decided to speed up decomposition by pouring quicklime into the burial pit. The quicklime effectively turned the bodies to liquid, which oozed out of the pit and leached into the surrounding ground.

Enon Chapel became notorious as one of the worst of its kind across London, and numerous newspaper editorials bemoaned the unsavory state of burials there and in other church buildings. Some connected it to the cholera epidemics of the time (like the one in 1831-1832 that killed about 31,000 people across Great Britain), since it was believed that the foul gases emanating from decomposing bodies contributed to the spread of disease. Yet many churches continued to allow burials in their basements, provided the dead were interred in lead coffins.

This created a different—yet equally foul—problem. As the bodies decomposed, the coffins filled with gas and liquid, which if left too long had a nasty habit of exploding. To prevent this, the grave diggers needed to “tap” the lead coffins. As one such unfortunate described the practice to The Morning Chronicle in August 1842: “If you tap it underneath, if there is any dead water or ‘soup’ as it is called, it runs into a pail, and then it is taken or thrown into some place or another.”

DANCING ON THE DEAD

In June 1840, as reports on the unhygienic burial of bodies within churches abounded, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Health of Towns called Walker to give evidence. During the hearing, Walker frequently cited Enon Chapel as an example of the worst excesses of inner city London burials. By his account, 12,000 bodies had been crammed in the chapel's basement over 15 years—buried at a rate of about 30 a week. Pointing to the lack of regulation, Walker said, “I am quite amazed that such a place should have been permitted to exist.”

Ultimately, however, it wasn't regulation that ended the scandal at Enon Chapel—it was Howse's death in 1842. The chapel was then closed and changed hands several times before being rebranded as a temperance dance hall, even though the bodies remained buried below. The venue shamelessly played up its ghastly associations: A leaflet advertising the events read “Enon Chapel—Dancing on the Dead—Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings.”

These macabre dances—a Boxing Day gala was especially popular—continued for about four years. Around 1848, Walker managed to buy the former chapel and began exhuming the numerous bodies. He moved them to a new, peaceful resting place at the recently established West Norwood Cemetery, located seven miles from central London.

But the scandal at Enon Chapel wasn't for nothing. Public health campaigners brought the conditions there, and at locations like it, to widespread public attention, using them as evidence to force the British government to act. In 1852, Parliament passed the first in a series of Burial Acts, which prohibited burials (royalty excepted) within the city limits. This ultimately led to the closure of all burial grounds in the City of London—the historic central core of the city.

A distasteful period in London’s history had ended, and with it began a new era of grand Victorian garden cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green in Greater London. Here, burials took place in beautiful landscaped grounds far from the bustling city, where people could bury their loved ones, secure in the knowledge that the dead could rest in peace.

10 Surprising Facts About Ernest Hemingway

Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway was a titan of 20th-century literature, converting his lived experiences in multiple wars into rich, stirring tales like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The avid sportsman also called upon his love for the outdoors to craft bittersweet metaphorical works like Big Two-Hearted River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea. Here are 10 facts about the writer known as Papa, who was born on July 21, 1899.

1. Ernest Hemingway earned the Italian Silver Medal of Valor and a Bronze Star.

Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, and on July 8, 1918, he was badly wounded by mortar fire—yet he managed to help Italian soldiers reach safety. The action earned him an Italian Silver Medal of Valor. That honor was paralleled almost 30 years later when the U.S. awarded him a Bronze Star for courage displayed while covering the European theater in World War II as a journalist. His articles appeared in Collier’s and other magazines.

2. Ernest Hemingway was also accused—and cleared—of war crimes.

Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, when Hemingway, a civilian, was not allowed to disembark on Omaha Beach, he led a band of Resistance fighters in the French town of Rambouillet on a mission to gather intelligence. The problem was, war correspondents aren't supposed to lead armed troops, according to the Geneva Convention. The Inspector General of the Third Army charged Hemingway with several serious offenses, including removing patches from his clothing that identified him as a journalist, stockpiling weapons in his hotel room, and commanding a faction of Resistance operatives. Eventually, he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Hemingway always maintained that he’d done nothing but act as an advisor. He wrote to The New York Times in 1951, stating he “had a certain amount of knowledge about guerilla warfare and irregular tactics as well as a grounding in more formal war, and I was willing and happy to work for or be of use to anybody who would give me anything to do within my capabilities.”

3. Gertrude Stein was godmother to Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack.

Renowned American modernist writer Gertude Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and hosted regular salons that were attended by luminaries and artists of the time. They included Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a young Ernest Hemingway. Stein became godmother to Hemingway’s first son, Jack, in 1923.

4. Ernest Hemingway was allegedly a KGB spy—but he wasn't very good at it.

When Collier's sent the legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to China for a story in 1941, Hemingway, her husband, accompanied her and filed dispatches for PM. Documentation from the Stalin-era KGB (revealed in a 2009 book) shows that Hemingway was possibly recruited as a willing, clandestine source just prior to the trip and was given the codename “Argo.” The documents also show that he didn’t deliver any useful political intel, wasn’t trained for espionage, and only stayed on their list of active sources until the end of the decade.

5. Ernest Hemingway checked out F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis in the men's room.

Hemingway chronicled his life in Paris in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast, and revealed one notorious encounter with the Great Gatsby author in the book. Fitzgerald remarked that his wife Zelda has mocked his manhood by claiming he wouldn't be able to satisfy a lover. Hemingway suggested he investigate for himself. He took Fitzgerald to the bathroom at Michaud's, a popular restaurant in Paris, to examine his penis. Hemingway ultimately told his friend that his physical endowment was of a totally normal size and suggested he check out some nude statues at the Louvre for confirmation.

6. One of Ernest Hemingway's best works came about from him leaving some luggage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Speaking of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote it later in life (it was published posthumously) after a 1956 stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris wherein he was reminded that he’d left a steamer trunk (made for him by Louis Vuitton) in the hotel’s basement in 1930. When he opened it, he rediscovered personal letters, menus, outdoor gear, and two stacks of notebooks that became the basis for the memoir of his youth in Paris's café culture.

7. The famous "Baby Shoes" story is most likely a myth.

Oddly enough, a story many people associate with Hemingway probably has nothing to do with him. The legend goes that one night, while drinking, Hemingway bet some friends that he could write a six-word short story. Incredulous, they all put money on the table, and on a napkin Hemingway wrote the words “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” He won the bet. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it ever happened. Some newspapers had printed versions of the six-word plotline in the 1910s without crediting Hemingway, and there's no record of his link to the phrase until 1991 (in a book about the publishing business), three decades after Hemingway’s death.

8. Ernest Hemingway almost died in back-to-back plane crashes.

In 1954, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Time and Life correspondent Mary Welsh, were vacationing in Belgian Congo when their sightseeing charter flight clipped a utility pole and crashed. When attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe the following day, they boarded another plane, which exploded upon takeoff, leaving Hemingway with burns, a concussion, and his brain leaking cerebral fluid. When they finally got to Entebbe (by truck), they found journalists had already reported their deaths, so Hemingway got to read his own obituaries.

9. Ernest Hemingway dedicated a book to each of his four wives.

Each time he got divorced, Hemingway was married again within the year—but he always left something behind in print. The dedication for The Sun Also Rises went to his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson; Death in the Afternoon was dedicated to second wife Pauline Pfeiffer; For Whom the Bell Tolls was for third wife Martha Gellhorn; and Across the River and Into the Trees went “To Mary with Love.”

10. Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West features a urinal from his favorite bar.

Hemingway wrote several iconic works, including To Have and Have Not, at his house in Key West, Florida. It’s also where he converted a urinal from a local bar into a fountain. Local haunt Sloppy Joe’s was a favorite watering hole of the irascible author, so when the place went under renovation, Hemingway took one of the urinals as a memento, quipping that he’d already poured enough money into it to make it his.

Richard Nixon Had a Speech Prepared In the Event That Apollo 11's Mission Failed

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

In July 1969, the world watched as the crew of Apollo 11 successfully entered lunar orbit, landed, then blasted off and returned to Earth. At each step of the way there were dangers and NASA had backup plans in case something went terribly wrong—though there wasn't much NASA could do from 384,403 kilometers away. In 1999, William Safire discussed the speech he wrote for President Richard Nixon just in case the mission failed. From Safire's article:

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to 'the deepest of the deep,' concluding with the Lord's Prayer." A draft Presidential speech was included.

Here's a scan of the speech:

And here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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