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 

 

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;

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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
https://about1816.wordpress.com/2017/08/21/a-regency-guide-to-your-behaviour-when-being-hanged-1818/

My new book. This contains different material to the blog.

 

Three minute book review here

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Dark-Days-of-Georgian-Britain-Hardback/p/14191

http://www.socialbookco.com/book/9781526702548/dark-days-of-georgian-britain

In the United States

https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Days-Georgian-Britain-Rethinking/dp/1526702541

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