The Prince Regent desecrates corpses – 1813

If you want even more proof that the past is a different country where things were done differently, then the story of what happened when the Prince Regent discovered the corpses of Charles I and Henry VIII may help.

On 23 March 1813, the Princes’ mother in law died. Princess Augusta Frederica, the Duchess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was sister of the then incapacitated King George III and mother of Queen Caroline. Augusta had spent most of her life abroad, but was destined to spend eternity in the Royal Vault of St Georges Chapel at Windsor. The vault had been built in 1810, and had up to this time only one occupant, George III’s daughter Amelia, whose death had catapulted the poor king back into madness and given the Prince Regent control of the building budget.

By March 27, Augusta was nearly ready. She was placed in her lead coffin and her elm outer coffin was being prepared. She was ready to resist the putrefactions of eternity. In order to intern her, some building work was done and this discovered a vaulted arch under the chapel, separated from the chapel itself by the width of a single brick. Inside the vault three adult and one child size coffin.

The Prince was obsessed with the Stuarts, and he believed one of the coffins to be the last resting place of Charles I. He was itching to find out. He managed to wait a whole day after the funeral before venturing down there accompanied by   his brother the Duke of Cumberland, Count Munster, the Dean of Windsor, and his physician Sir Henry Halford. The Prince was afraid of the dark; he could only sleep in a lighted room, but he plucked up both his courage and a flaming torch in order to satisfy his curiosity.

The event  was pitched in terms of some important historical enquiry, and to a limited degree, this was true. It was generally believed that Charles I was buried somewhere in the castle vaults; there had been an unsuccessful search in the time of Charles II.  So, the Prince Regent was able to cast himself as a historical researcher, at least at first…..

When the coffin was discovered, it bore the   inscription ‘King Charles 1648’ was a reminder that the counting of the new year did not start on January 1, and perhaps that the mystery had been solved and they could all leave. This was not to be; the Prince wanted to know more. The Prince Regent instructed the royal physician, Sir Henry Halford, to examine the tomb and conduct an autopsy on the body.

Halford. More tact than talent, said his enemies

This could not be achieved without effort. The lead casing had to be opening by, appropriately, a plumber.  It was opened to reveal the head, which was loose from the body, although after the execution  it was supposed to be put back on; it was clear from Sir Henry’s remarks that some form of cement had previously  been applied to hold the head on the body.  The head was lifted up, just as it had been on the execution scaffold 164 years earlier. From a modern perspective, it sounds like something your enemies would do to you, but that was not the case here. It was done with respect, and in a society less squeamish on this issue than ours.

The head was wet, and the moisture allowed observers to see the pores of the king’s skin. When placed first on paper and then on linen, it produced a ‘greenish red tinge’.  The hair was black, but turned out to be a dark brown after cleaning, and the hair at the nape of his neck had been shortened, either to help the axe man or cut off by admirers after death. He had teeth, had been efficiently embalmed and placed in cerecloth that had been sealed well enough to avoid putrefaction.

The nose, cheeks and one ear were gone; this one remaining left eyeball disappeared when the air hit it. Halfords examination of the neck concluded-pointlessly- that he had been killed by a blow from a sharp weapon. The rest of the body was not examined, officially because the severed head was good identification, but perhaps because the rest of the body was not that interesting.

Henry VIII had no body apart from bones and a bare skull with a few traces of red beard. The others were identified as Jane Seymour and a still born child of Queen Anne, but were given little attention. Strictly speaking, this discovery was on a par with the others, but this was not was the Prince was interested in.

Sir Henry took a few souvenirs, including one of the vertebrae that he had examined to come to his less-than-remarkable conclusion. He also took a portion of beard and a tooth. He kept them until his death in 1844, constructing a special display case and passing it around at dinner parties. Halford has been accused of stealing them, mostly by people who resented the mismatch of his rapid preferment and his limited medical knowledge, but it seems that the Prince knew about it. The Prince Regent said that it was not worth re‐opening the coffin, and handing them to Halford said, ‘…these are more in your line than mine, you had better keep them’*

The newspapers were not impressed. This was typical: (Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser – Tuesday 27 April 1813)

It is much to be regretted, we think, that any curiosity should lead to disturb the remains of the dead; and if’ any English Sovereign more than another might have demanded the privilege of reposing in his grave, should have thought the remains of Charles I. 

 The news of these regal desecrations took over a week to reach the newspapers; it had leaked out, and although clearly not ashamed of what they did, they were not seeking publicity either.

Nobody was impressed, but nobody was outraged either. Tampering with the long dead and the direct contact was their remains was not a taboo in the Regency. The main point that was made about it was political. It was a gift for the cartoonists.

This was George Cruikshank;

The commentary is political. The man behind him delivers a warning;

How queer Prince Charly looks without his head, doesn’t he?…and I wonder what we would look like without our head?

Cruikshank was unable to resist a comparison between Henry’s control of his wives, and his masculinity, with the problems George had with Princess Caroline.

Aye there’s great harry, great indeed, for he got rid of many wives while I poor soul, cannot get rid of one..cut of his beard, Doctor, t’ will make me a prime piece of Royal Whiskers

By 1888, attitudes to this sort of thing had changed to something that we recognised more easily. The bits of Charles I were returned to him in a brief but final interment at the insistence of Queen Victoria.

*Quoted in Henry Halford, president of the Royal College of Physicians, with a note on his involvement in the exhumation of King Charles I  John S Morris

I have written two books relevant to this blog.

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain – a social history of the regency.

Charles I ‘s Executioners

An Apology for Justice in the Regency; humiliation of the poor in the newspapers.

What was Leeds cloth merchant Lepton Dobson going to do about it? It wasn’t a serious crime, but he couldn’t just let it go, could he? What would his neighbours think… and he had quite new neighbours, as well, and they needed to be impressed.  It was 1813; he and his brother George had purchased a lovely house and workshop in Park Square, Leeds. It had only been completed a few years early, and it was the address for the up and coming merchant classes who needed to be near the centre of commercial action but away from the rough slums and the rough people.

Park Square, Leeds

Then, late one night, the rough people came to him. Arriving  home one  Saturday night in October 1813, he heard noises in the house. Were these thieves? It was after dark; the crime was more serious in law at night and he could expect violent resistance if he confronted the robbers, with the punishments for the two crimes being so similar in severity that violence was worth the risk. 

The noise was coming from his servant’s room; James Crossland was there with three other men; they were eating his food and drinking his beer, and now that they had heard him, they were hiding. Peter Crossland, clothier (and presumably relative), John Porter, bricklayer and the marvellously named Marmaduke Spencer, cobbler were the guilty parties. They were essentially stealing his property in the same way as any thief, except that they carried it away in their stomach.

Lepton needed to prosecute to save his reputation as a man whose property could not be stolen without consequences. However, he did not prosecute; he did this instead.

Its hard to read, but you can get the gist

‘late servant …secreted in my lodging room…taken into custody…kindly consented to proceed no further against me…’

James Crossland was dragged to the Chief Constable and threatened with prosecution. However, there was a problem. The state did not prosecute for crimes such as this; it would have been a private prosecution that would have cost Lepton Dobson money. The Department of Public Prosecution did not come into existence until 1880; in the regency, and for much latter, such prosecutions were seen as a private, rather than public interest.

First, he sacked James Crossland. This was a given. Servants had a reputation for consorting with criminals and allowing them in the house to steal. This was more or less what had happened here. Mr Dobson made him pay £2 as a charitable donation to the Leeds Infirmary, and thirdly, he had to put a grovelling letter of apology in all of the Leeds newspapers (I have found it in the Leeds Intelligencer and the Leeds Mercury) at his own expense.  An advertisement in a provincial paper at this date would be 5 shillings (25p); none of these men would earn more than £1 a week, at most. It was a severe punishment in itself.

The three uninvited guest had to do the same.

Once again, this was heavy stuff. It was witnessed by the chief constable, and it was clear that prosecution would have followed without a   public apology. All of these men were literate (when similar ‘PARDON ASKED’ advertisements were put in the paper, there would be an ‘x’ and ‘his mark’ against those who could not write). Most men of this class seemed to be illiterate, which poses the question- who was meant to read these apologies?

Dobson and those of his class would have read this – it was on the front page- and it would have been reassuring to Dobson’s family and those who did business with him- but how well would it work  as warning to the lower classes not to eat rich people’s food? On one level it was worth it, as it would not have been done if it wasn’t- but the working classes would have got the message- those who could not read would have heard the gossip from people reading out newspapers in public houses.

Did Dobson do this to save money? That is doubtful; he was a substantial businessman by 1813, he could have afforded it. He did not rush to prosecution, and this was not uncommon in the Regency. There were regular apologies in the Regency newspapers, but the crimes were usually much worse than this- slander, poaching, assaulting women, dangerous driving; the probable truth was that Mr Dobson was actually being harsh rather than generous; he was letting nothing go. There is more evidence of this. In 1817, while the poor of Leeds starved, Mr Dobson signed an open letter proclaiming his loyalty to the constitution and the government; he also put advertisements in the paper asking for information about textiles that had been stolen, which was a capital crime.

1818

The same Mr Dobson, it can be seen, forced a donation to the Leeds Infirmary from James Crossland; Dobson had a history of charity. As he became more famous (He was mayor of Leeds in 1821 and an alderman afterwards) he devoted time and money to the Leeds Infirmary himself.  He could be generous to people were the deserving sick; but not those stealing his bread and beer  

In October 1828, Lepton and his brother George were declared bankrupt; the details were put in the newspaper for all to see.

Please consider my book, which is very much in the spirit of this blog. If you like the blog, you will like the book

More details here (brief) and here ( longer)

The stink of the Georgian graveyard was horrible, but mostly harmless

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The Georgians were obsessed with clean air, which was not surprising as there was so little of it about.

There were bad smells- ‘effluvium’- everywhere. The most offensive were decomposing animals on the street, in the rubbish heaps, or at the slaughterhouse. These hazards to health were well known, and did not only extend to animals; the other health hazard was the decomposition of human remains buried a few feet into the ground in the graveyards of parish churches that could not cope with the explosion of birth in the late eighteenth century, and the concommitment blooming of death a generation later.

This problem was known, but not solved, in the Georgian period. It was the Victorian social reformers that dealt with the problem of the overstuffed graveyard, but the Georgians did go as far as to worry  about it a little.

Experts gave out warnings. Joseph Taylor’s The Danger of Premature Interment (1816) condemned the use of overfull graveyards; but reserved special scorn for the burial of corpses indoors in large, damp, unventilated buildings, where windows were never opened and fires were never lit, that were occupied very rarely during the week, but often full when it was in use – that is, a church. There was nothing sacred about this, he said. No other civilisation – ancient Rome or Greece, modern Jewish or Islamic, did such a dangerous thing. Only the most conscientious cleric would meet the corpse at the lych-gate if it had died of fever. The only thing that prevented  a disease disaster was that the church and cathedral were not heated.

Dr Buchan in his widely read Domestic Medicine condemned large, crowded funerals. Infections, especially fevers, did not die with the patient. If you attended the funeral of somebody who had been lain on a bier from a week in a crowded house, there was a chance that you would die of the same thing they did. The poor and desperate would often be in danger from the recycling of the dead person’s clothes, so it was thought.

The rich and famous had to wait even longer to go to their grave. In 1805, the Duke of Gloucester has been lying in his lead-lined coffin for five days; delayed by the desire for intricate decoration of the outer one. As he was about to be lifted in, the effluvia was obvious, caused by the smallest of cracks in the lead. The ‘two-coffin’ solution  for the rich was designed to solve this problem of offensive decomposition during the long drawn-out ceremonies, and mostly did; however, in the average parish graveyard, it was common for gravediggers to smash through earlier burials, or for the sexton to check the ground beforehand to make sure it was empty. Graveyards were full; but the desire to treat the consequences as a social rather than a religious problem were not present.

Some Georgians were defending unhealthy burial practice until the end. William Reader defending burials in church in 1830, pointed out that a building with secure foundations and large ventilated upper stories could deal with the inconvenience. Lead Coffins for all would solve the problem, he thought, although metal-lined coffins actually slowed down decomposition. The fact that Jews and Muslims did something different was turned on its head- perhaps they were wrong, like they were on other things?.This was Reader’s conclusion;

But the custom renders our solemn assemblies more venerable and awful for when we walk over the dust of our friends or kneel upon the ashes of our relations this …must strike a lively impression of our own mortality and what consideration can he more effectual to make us serious and attentive to our religious duties

Your ancestral dead were performing one last function for you, according to Reader, and perhaps he had a point about the degree of danger. The mould on the walls of an unheated old church probably caused more death and suffering than the bodies buried beneath.

It was horrible, but the threat to health of buried corpses was overestimated. Noxious effusions from the lungs of the living where a much bigger problem, and in many parts of newly industrialising Britain, a row of slums smelly worse than a cemetery. There were occasional horror stories in the newspapers. Sextons were being poisoned when the tapped a vault to release noxious gases, which had to be done in the first months after death to avoid explosions. Cleaners who had found a decomposing body in the bottom of a well and had died breathing in their effluvia; body snatchers who had been directed to the wrong grave and opened up the wrong one; deaths in households were a murdered body had been hidden or a funeral that took too long to organise.

Nothing serious was done about the problem until the 1840s. The Georgians did not have the benefit of the germ theory of disease, and relied in the belief that bad air in itself caused disease. When improvements were made in public health, it was the smell that motivated reformers- ‘All smell is disease’ said Edwin Chadwick, and introduced effective reforms on the basis of a wrong analysis. It was hard to a prove scientifically that ineffective burials caused anything more than inconvenience, and some scientists disagreed with Chadwick; some suggested that liquefying corpses could pollute water courses, but the evidence was not conclusive but was believed. You could not see germs with your eye, but your nose could smell decay, which was fortuitous.

L0025698 G.A. Walker, Lectures on the metropolitan grave-yards.

In 1823, the Enon Chapel (above) was built near the Strand which consisted of a place of worship/ social space above, and palace of burial below, separated by now more than a floorboard. The problem of the Enon Chapel was not solved until the 1840s; for the previous twenty years, large numbers of cheap unregulated burials meant that at least 12,000 corpses were crammed in. Customers who used it as dance hall could taste something nasty on their sandwiches and worshippers took to ‘praising the Lord with a handkerchief pressed to their nostrils’*

*Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight against Filth by Lee Jackson

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_

Further reading – my book available as a book and an e book. This book is different in content to this blog, so you should check it out here. My other books on the English civil war are here.  Please suggest the book to your UK library- not everybody can afford to buy books!

Update 

The book is now good value as an Amazon kindle e book – £4 in the UK and between $3 to $5 in the USA 

 

The Regency And Its Offensive Smells

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The late Georgian period was full of offensive smells that followed your around, and people did not just always ‘put up with it’. They knew, that wherever there was ‘effluvia’ [Effluvium- an unpleasant or harmful odour or discharge], there were dangers; not always danger of death, but of illness and diseases. Before the germ theory of the later part of the century, people believed that bad smells- ‘miasma’- was the major cause of illness, and they were not far wrong despite not fully understanding the science.

Where did effluvia come from? There were two main origins- manufacturing with chemicals and organic decomposition, and one aggravating factor for both; all of the people of Georgian Britain lived much nearer to decomposition that we do today, the poor particularly so.

220px-Nightcart
The Nightman..a euphemism!

Decomposition can be put in two broad categories- dunghills and cesspits. Cesspits were avoided by all, except those who earned a living digging them out. In July 1810, a freakish accident showed the dangers of effluvia. James Brooks and his work mates were digging out a latrine in Woolwich. It belonged to the Master Attendant at the Dockyard; and the work, as always was done at night- it was 11pm. James and his colleagues had literally created their own graves; they had already dug out ten   buckets of hardened     and dried excrement, enough space for James to fall into the hole. A ladder was procured, which only made it possible for his loyal colleagues to climb down and be suffocated by the smell themselves. Hugh Jenkins climbed in and died quickly; Isaac Pitcher followed in order to help, not knowing that Jenkins was dead. In all five men died over a two hour period, two of them more or less instantly and the others within the hour.

The Royal Cornwell Gazette was helpful but fatalistic- What could be done for people like colour grinders, feather dressers, wool-carders, gilders and night men – who were ‘doomed’ to follow such dangerous professions? The answer was a face mask, covered the nose, soaked with potash, or acetate of lead. The newspaper nearly, but not quite intimated that it may have been partly their own fault for not having them.

The Scots Magazine of June 1817 crossed that line. It complained that typhus was spreading in Edinburgh New Town because the poor slum dwellers were dirty and their streets were full of dunghills containing sources of effluvia- rotting vegetable matter, dead animals and excrement that did not make it into a latrine because they did not have one. The magazine knew that dunghills were not the direct cause of the disease, because it also killed people in the ventilated and well aired parts of town as well, but was happy with the idea that the death was caused by the demoralised habits of the poor.

Sewers caused noxious smells, and lack of sewers did the same. In April 1812, a visitor to Cheltenham advised the town to invest in a sewer pipe as the poor were now overcrowded into basement dwellings that filled with excrement during floods. A year earlier, radical reformers led by Sir Frances Burdett met in a London public house were distracted by the putrid smell of a sewer running under the floorboards.

Other forms of decomposition were the filthy clothes of criminals who had spend time in the heat and damp of an English prison, dirty pets that were warmed by a fire, broken teeth and diseased gums causing bad breath. Cheap tallow candles stank; fish and meat at markets, continually damp shoes and boots, and fertilisers left lying around in the middle of towns. In January 1816 a letter to the Kentish Gazette complained that, as well as the usual putrid vegetable matter; people were using sprats as fertiliser, softening them up by just leaving them hanging around in heaps. Would it be too much, pleased the author, just to plough them into the ground?

Another source of effluvia was something else that had been badly dug in the ground- people. The graveyards in towns and cities were filling up as medieval graveyards had to cope with a rising population, and people were buried too shallow and too near together. The age of improvement in this area was about to happen but not yet.

Effluvia were also caused by the lack of ventilation- in ships holds, in busy streets and in people’s houses. It was not just the Victorians who encouraged the poor to make themselves cold; they were exhorted to open all doors and windows, not to sleep in a room with a chimney, and if they had to, not block it. This advice was usually given by somebody who could afford the fuel to warm a house that had been allowed to go cold.
Fuel- coal and gas were a case of effluvia. In 1815 there were complaints from the smell of a gas manufactory owned by Frederick Sparrow and William Knight of Dorset Street, Salisbury Square. Some of the more noxious smells were being directed into the Thames by tube- this fact was offered by the defendants as a good thing, but the locals could still smell and feel the effluvia. It was in turns salty and acidic, assaulting the lungs; it smelled like bilge water and tasted like fat in the mouth. Men would not work- one businessman pointed out that his men refused to work and it ‘was no easy matter to turn a coal-heavers stomach’. The men pleaded guilty, and were given six months to put it right.

Burning coke in a damp English winter produced effluvia. Kitchens in coaching inns and public houses were left open to create a draft to avoid what we might call carbon monoxide poisoning. This was happened at an inn at Belmont, near Hereford in December 1810, when the room was closed for the evening and the coke fire expected to die down. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding meant that another pile of coke was added to fire, which burned all night. Upstairs, a seventeen year old groom and a coachman were sleeping; the young man was found dead the next morning and the older coachman did not revive. He was bled copiously to aid recovery; and, unsurprisingly, it did not work.

slaughter

The Slaughter House- the stink of blood and bone 

Manufacturers using or making raw materials produced effluvia. It could be as simple as cotton dust, or dust from feathers; lead smelting and lime kilns were an appalling toll on the lungs; the smell of a tannery is never forgotten once experienced. Bone crushers and slaughterhouses were in the centre of town. Ironically, soap manufacturers could stink because they burnt coal and melted down fat. Baron Von Donick, making soap in Wapping in 1815 offended the locals by burning rancid meat and diseased animals to get fat, then grinding their bones to make black ash. He promised to do better. Whether he did or not, it is a fair comment that the Regency stank, and many of the people who lived at the time were well aware of it.

 

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_If you got to the end of the blog, please consider my book on Regency Britain. All new material.

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