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 

 

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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