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.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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