The Sweet Stink of the Georgian Dead

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


Please consider my two books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here

Radical Victorians includes a chapter on cremation, and deals with eighteen other advanced thinkers of the Victorian era. More details here  

Voices of the Georgian Age- out early 2023. Amazon link here 



Attitudes to suicide in the Regency? It depended!


image001Castlereagh…’I have done with  away with myself’

The traditional view of suicide – ‘felo de se’ (“felon of the self”) meant person killing themselves would forfeit their property and lose the right to be buried in consecrated ground. A busy crossroads, where traffic might drown out the activities of restless souls, was preferred. Often a stake would be put through the heart, which was as messy as it sounds.
Georgian inquests were quite ready to give a verdict of felo de se. However, on occasions there would be a judgement of lunacy instead, when derangement, over a long period of time, could be proved with examples. This would avoid the humiliating penalties.

The following cases were adjudged criminal acts in 1810. Esther Chapman of Chatteris took arsenic; she lingered for twenty-four hours. An unnamed servant of Mr G. Uppleby took laudanum and expired after eight hours. She had been distressed by rumours about her reputation. In May, a soldier who had recently deserted went to the White Hart public house near Clare Market and partly cut his head off with a penknife. Jan Fesh, another soldier proved that he was not insane by loading his musket with metal buttons from his tunic and using a string attached to the trigger to allow him to put the weapon into his mouth.

John Thornton, 70, hanged himself using his garters in his room in October. He was declared perfectly sane as he had spent the day concluding some financial affairs and locking up his money securely. However, in the act of being so efficient with his cash, he denied it to his relatives.

The law did not regard all such deaths as a punishable offence. They were able to accept that individuals were not in their right mind. Another woman in 1810, this time from Portsmouth, killed herself with laudanum. However, she was known to have had periods of melancholia and had tried to poison herself on other occasions – she was granted a verdict of lunacy. It seemed to some critics of the law that one successful suicide made you a criminal, but a couple of failures followed by a success made you insane.

Melancholia was an accepted mitigation, as was immaturity .Children were rarely adjudged as suicide. In 1816 a 12-year-old girl from Smithfield tied lead weights to her feet and hanged herself after a disagreement with parents – it was a ‘rash act’ and a ‘melancholy incident’, but not felo de se, despite the planning. William Dumbell, a labourer, had twelve pots of beer and then hanged himself in a privy in Newhaven. He had been ‘melancholy’. On the other end of the social spectrum, Edward Hussey, a Sussex magistrate blew out his brains with a blunderbuss with exactly the same reason given. All were adjudged as being the result of lunacy.

On 12 August 1822, Viscount Castlereagh, committed suicide by cutting his carotid artery with a penknife, having had all of the other sharp objects removed by his wife. He believed that he was being persecuted. A few days before his death, Castlereagh’s behaviour made the king lose sleep. The famously unemotional Foreign Secretary was weeping, kissing the king’s hand, accusing himself of crimes, including being blackmailed for homosexuality. The King commented to Lord Liverpool ‘either I am mad or Lord Castlereagh is mad’. Lord Liverpool agreed: ‘There is greater danger in these cases for strong minds than weak ones’.

It was thought that members of the establishment, by definition deep thinkers with great responsibilities, were more prone to suicide than the lower orders. Castlereagh was declared insane and buried with honour in Westminster Abbey to the sound of boos and hisses from the lower orders, and to the glee of the radical press.
Many saw this act as clearly premeditated – Castlereagh’s last words were: ‘I have done for myself. I have opened my neck’. Cobbet was clear that there was no chance of such an important person being buried in such a humiliating way. Byron, who produced a poem inviting people to urinate on the dead man’s grave, commented sarcastically that poor people ‘slashed their throat’, but you had to be a member of the ruling classes to ‘cut your carotid artery’:

Less than a year after Castlereagh’s suicide, Abel Griffiths, a 22-year-old student, was convicted of murdering his father Thomas, and then ‘hurling himself into eternity’. Thomas’s servant, William Wade (‘a man of colour’) reported that Abel had tried to see his father a number of times, and that he was under orders to keep the son away from him. They only met because Abel arrived first and waited for his father to return. When they met, there was a brief conversation which seemed to be about money. Thomas Griffiths was a plantation owner in Barbados who had financed his son’s law education, but it was surmised by the inquest that this subsidy was being ended.

Those who knew Abel provided evidence of his escalating derangement. He had been taking mercury for an unknown, but probably socially embarrassing, illness and had been unpredictable and irritable. Witnesses attested to his unpredictable behaviour and deep derangement over the last few months of his life. The eventual verdict of felo de se astounded the audience in the court, and Griffiths was then prepared for a humiliating burial.

Crowds gathered outside the father’s house on the Wednesday evening of the internment. Abel’s friends were also there, still indignant, but the rain prevented the movement of the body. It was moved to St George’s workhouse around 10 pm and the crowd followed. At 1.30 am Abel was carried from the front door by four men. He was wearing no more than stocking socks wrapped in a blood soaked sheet. He was then wrapped in matting with a rope to secure it and dropped, rather than placed, into a hole about 5ft deep. No stake was pushed into his heart; the 200 strong crowd would have rioted.

A few days later, persons unknown dug up the corpse at 5 am and hired a hackney carriage to transport it, which they abandoned at the end of the journey. The coach driver went to Bow Street with the body, and after a few days of wrangling about Abel’s next place of burial, he ended up back at St George’s workhouse and was finally laid to rest in their burial ground.

Incidents like these strengthened was feeling that this was inhumane, unnecessarily disruptive to society, and reeked of superstition rather than Christianity. The law to abolish this practice had just started its passage through parliament; but it was the grotesque difference between the treatment of Castlereagh and Griffiths that gave the bill impetus.

In 1823 it was made illegal to issue a warrant for burial of a felo-de-se in a public highway. The suicide was to be interred in consecrated ground. This change was not an acceptance of suicide. It was a practical move to protect the integrity of the law; the former punishment for felo de se was now regarded as so unacceptable that juries were regularly reaching verdicts of insanity instead. Punishment was still harsh. A suicide was still buried without Christian rites between the hours of 9 pm and midnight; but attitudes were changing.

This is a modified, shorter version of a chapter in my book about the realities of late Georgian Britain.
More details here.

Publisher’s page here 


The Slaughterhouse in Georgian Britain


If you visited a butcher in Regency Britain and you were poor, you may have been offered some ‘slaughterhouse pork’. This name might not have bothered you; all animals were killed in a slaughterhouse, and it sounded like a statement of the obvious. It wasn’t.

For a start, the pig would have come from a knackers’ yard- a place for killing horses that were no longer of any use. There, pigs, and ducks and chickens would have been feed on the flesh, blood and organs that would have lain around the knacker’s yard. They were in the slaughter house not to be slaughtered, but to be fed. This was not a niche market- up to 5000 pigs per from horse offal were sold in London per week, many becoming sausages for consumption by the poor. It was also called “knackers’ pork” or “dust hill pork”, but it was an expression that the industry only used amongst themselves.

A horse slaughterer’s yard was not necessarily a place for killing horses either. Like every business, it was dependent on supply and demand, and if trade was not brisk the horses would be kept alive until needed. They would not be fed; sometimes the horses would be hired out by the knackers to squeeze an extra week’s work out of them. They were sold to a dust cart or Hackney Cab owner; the latter would only use it at night in case their gentlemen passengers’ objected. Those in the yard would to left to rot, slowly starving to death. If the eventually aim was death anyway, this did not matter. The famous prison reformer John Howard was also concerned about slaughterhouses; he would never part with any of his horses after they had outlived their usefulness- he organised their killing himself.

There were few rules about slaughterhouses; they were mostly small scale private businesses. There was a Horse Slaughterers Act in 1786, but that was more concerned with stopping stolen horses being fenced through knackers’ yards. When there were prosecutions, it would be as a public nuisance, not in the name of humanitarianism. Most of slaughterhouses were in the centre of towns; today we think we can imagine the smells of an insanitary town because we experience them ourselves now and then, but we know little about the putrid smell of dead and starving animals in a morass of excrement , rotting body parts and pungent horse skins.

In 1826, the Parish of St Pancras prosecuted a slaughter house in Maiden Lane, Highgate, but it was for stench rather than cruelty. When investigating the foul smells, they found starving houses eating each other. This description comes from the Voice of Humanity (1827);

Before we arrived In the first we entered we saw the usual living skeleton appearance of the poor horses in the yard some in the worst stage of glanders, some suffering acute pain from diseases or injuries some from famine… attempting to eat the filth of the place, some dying from disease and some among them lying dead whose sufferings were just terminated by death Several bull dogs There were a considerable number of pigs and ducks designed for the London market who were revelling in the luxury of the refuse of the slaughterhouse and combining the putrid flesh of the diseased and glandered horses with their own systems with all possible avidity

Glanders is horrible. Untreated, it kills slowly and painfully, and can spread to other animals and humans. Symptoms include, fever, ulcers and the release of an infectious nasal discharge, followed by septicaemia. It is not a disease designed to enhance the food chain.

The treatment of lambs and calves was anything, even worse. Calves were hanged from the ceiling, alive, until the butcher chose to kill them; animals were skinned before they were dead. Iron hooks were ripped into their faces to better collect the blood. All animals were stored by being thrown into dung and carcass filled cellars, where they broke their jaw or legs as they were thrown in.

Best practice was found in the Jewish slaughterhouses. Animals were killed immediately, with a single razor sharp knife (a foot long for a sheep) which cut all arteries quickly, with death from the rapid loss of blood. The Voice of Humanity went on to make a kind of joke- ‘there would be nothing unchristian in appointing inspectors to regulate the slaughterhouses’.

The Voice of Humanity, published regularly after 1830, was a breakthrough in the treatment of animals, largely because of what it did not say. It did not abhor cruelty for religious reasons, or want to ban the cruel animal sports of the poor to improve their morals. It was purely a matter of avoiding unnecessary cruelty and it also applied to animals that were not used for recreational purposes. Indeed their magazine compared the death in a hunt favourably to that in a slaughter house; death took hours and not days, and the meat could actually be eaten.

The French did all of this much better- something that the average Briton did not want to hear. The Voice of Humanity noted an abattoir ( to use the new fangled term) in Montmartre  which was  large, clean, used  water  diverted from local rivers to carry away the stench.  The whole operation was inspected by the police. In Briton there was no police to inspect anything, and slaughterhouses had the right to continue their cruelty any way they wanted because they were private property- like the animals they mistreated.  However, this does not seem to be the whole story; poor practices in France seemed to continue as well, as can be seen in this blog*, which also explains more about the conditions of animal slaughter houses in general.



My four books on Georgian and Victorian Britain

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain is a social history of the period 1815 to 1819 with an emphasis on the poor .

Passengers is a social history of the wider period 1780 to 1840, focussed on the stagecoach and the inn but covering lots of other issues, like the treatment of horses.

Radical Victorians explores the lives of social reformers of the era who were not much appreciated in their time.

Voices of the Georgian Age is the story of a 100 years of history through the letters, diaries and journals of those people who lived through it. Amazon link here   


Dying with “perfect resignation” in the Regency


When famous deists  and atheists died in the past, the vultures would circle in the hope of seeing an undignified death. This would prove to their satisfaction that the prospect of death could not be countenanced with the consolation of Christianity.
Jesuits claimed that Voltaire died fearfully; Dr Johnson went to visit the atheist David Hume with the incorrect belief that an atheist could not die without falling apart at the prospect of his imminent extinction. When Thomas Paine, a radical and deist who rejected formal religion and its constructs, was regaled by Christians during his last days. When, a few days before he died, a member of the New Jerusalemites knocked on his door and told Paine that the sect has rediscovered the keys to the true faith that had been lost for 4000 years, Paine replied that “they must be very rusty”.
Regency Obituary pages are formulaic, but the choice of formula tells you a great deal. When people died in great pain and suffering, there is a real hierarchy of phrase. In nearly every case, there is ” resignation” and on occasions there is “perfect resignation”. There difference is unclear; it may just be the ability to pay for an extra word. “Composure” is much more common than “calmness”-perhaps the former contains more acceptance, and implies preparing for death. These words were very powerful- even Thomas Paine uses them. His own last will and testament says that he dies “in perfect and resignation to the will of my creator God”
There are few references to heaven or immortality in Regency obituaries-perhaps this was too obvious or a little presumptuous? Many people declared their obedience to the will of the Creator- especially if they had suffered before their death. It was not death that they resigned themselves to, but suffering as God’s will. Mrs Pascoe (wife of Mr Pascoe, Surgeon) died in Tregoney, Cornwall aged 59 of a “protracted and severe affliction”. She was happy to attribute this to divine will without bitterness. “Throughout the whole time she evinced perfect composure and resignation. It was also made clear that during this time she maintained “benevolence”.
Six other people’s deaths are recorded in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the same day. Thomas Parry was 102 and rose early until the day of his death. He was a poor labourer who would not have made it into the paper if he had died at 51. Eleanor Litcher was 76- a devoted servant. James Pinney and Thomas Hornblower’s death was regretted by the friends. There were trophies for all in this case.
Sometimes you needed a lot of patient resignation. Mrs Amos of Deal has been suffering with an affliction- not named- for 7 years before her calm death aged 73. Perfect resignation seemed to be more about the quality of life rather than the age of death.
Sir William Rule died with perfect resignation in December 1815- as he was our first man, we have his full name. About 50% of women mentioned in Regency obituaries are given a first name. He was a former surveyor of the British Navy and there is no mention of the cause of death, or that it was long and lingering. That is the only one I can find
Elizabeth Carrick of Bristol died with resignation and fortitude, as “befitted her worth and unaffected piety”- she was modest in her acceptance of her painful illness. Although acceptance of the divine will was not mentioned in this case, it is clear that it was not considered appropriate to try to fight the illness- perhaps the exact opposite of our attitude today. Sarah Dew died in the same newspaper after a long illness also.
Not everybody died with perfect resignation if they died of something horrible. In Hull, December 1816, Mrs Nesfeld of Scarborough died aged 26 without resignation and William Tootal of Wakefield aged 28 died “with”

Sometimes illnesses are often described as “hopeless”, presumably to emphasize the degree of achievement in dying well. This is Mrs Bulwer of Norfolk had 21 lines in the Norfolk Chronicle in 1810. It is not clear at what point that she discovered Christian patience, but we can be charitable and assume it was at the beginning. Here are some of her virtues;


Most prolonged illnesses seemed to be measured in months or years. But Sarah Yeatman of Bristol had been ill for only six days before she died in July 1812, and she did it with perfect resignation. Most of those who died with perfect resignation were relatively old for their time; there are fewer young people who died with resignation, but are some, Mary Colmar of Hotwells was 15 and died a lingering death, and she managed resignation, but there was no suggestion that this was enhanced because of her age. Causes of death never seem to be mentioned
Dying vicars had a higher bar. They had to continue their role as examples to others even to the death-bed. Henry Crowe, Rector of Wolferton, Norfolk (and two other parishes; clearly he was less accomplished in the greed department) died “the death of the righteous”- this was clearly a set of things that he did, a process, not merely a righteous person dying. Another rector in Norfolk was said to have “taught his parishioners how to die”

Perfect resignation was not about death; it was about accepting fate, even when they involved immense suffering before death. The other group of people who were said to “evince perfect resignation” were criminals about to be executed. Indeed this was a more widespread use of the expression than in obituaries. Criminals had not suffered pain or illness, so it was not that experience they resigned themselves to; it was the will of God.

More about perfect resignation amongst those about to be hanged here

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Three minute book review here

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