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 


You’re rich in the Regency and your dog is missing. What happens next?

By James Hobson

Twitter @about 1816

Regency newspapers regularly carried advertisements for ‘lost’ items of property- clothes, banknotes, watches, horses and poneys (as they used to spell it), legal documents and dogs. In the case of dogs, ‘lost’ was often a euphemism. They had had been kidnapped, or found in the street and kept by somebody who would not wish to hand it over without a reward. The distinction between a reward for a finder and a ransom for a thief was not always clear.

These were not working dogs- the occasional advertisement for strayed foxhounds was probably genuine. There were the only two types of canine that had a resale value- the working animals of farmers and the landed gentry, and the pets of the metropolitan rich. Both were advertised in the newspaper. Lost dog advertisements- for spaniels, pointers, poodles ,greyhounds, setters and pugs appeared mostly in the London newspapers from people living in Portman Place, Manchester Square, and Parliament Street and less often for the rich families in the provinces.

This example, from the up- market Morning Post of January 1810 was from Old Bond Street.


Some typical characteristics include the use of the word ‘lost’. Most of them used this word only; some opted for ‘lost or strayed’ and a few went for a direct ‘ lost or stolen’, but the latter were different in tone and tended to come from different kind of people. Given the draconian punishment for theft, many advertisers avoided the word if they wanted to get the dog back.

Another common feature was the use of an intermediary to collect the dog. It may be that the Bond Street gentleman did not want to see the person, but it also made it easier to hand it over the beloved pet without too many awkward questions. Less typical here is the vague nature of the reward; most lost dog advertisements offer a half a guinea- which would feed a modest family for a week. Another difference is that Doll has the owner’s name and address on her collar, which would make it easy for the pet to be returned even without an advertisement in the paper. What the advertisement is actually saying is that ‘a wealthy person has lost his dog-whether you stole it or found it, it’s your lucky day’

It was assumed that dogs that ended up by accident in the hands of poor would not be handed over voluntarily. This example is from 1810;


Rattle had ended up ‘in the arms of a man in a smock-frock’. A terrible fate for the dog of the Reverend Cotton, who, though he did not know it at the time, was to become a major establishment figure in the established Church in Ireland. He had clearly had the dog during his time at Christ Church College, Oxford, according to the collar. By offering the chance to pass the dog to him personally, he was absolving the rustic peasant of any blame; but he was still offered the chance to hand it over to a landlord in a pub.

Most of the advertisers knew that they were in negotiation with the people who had their dog. Some common phrases include – ‘Not to be repeated’- meaning that there would be no better offer, and the more strident ‘any person detaining him, after this notice, will be prosecuted as the law directs’. This comment would be largely seen as an empty threat; the owners would have to locate the thief themselves, pay for the prosecution privately .Some ask for intelligence about the location of the dog- invitation to inform on the thief.

The lost spaniel (below)  with no name is an interesting example of a more robust approach. Mr Scott is as interested in justice as he is in the return of the dog, as the reward for information about the thief is five times higher than the reward for the dog.


This type of advertisement was relatively uncommon but appeared occasionally. Mr Scott is probably a member of his local Society for the Apprehension of Felons, groups of farmers or businessman who protected their property by offering rewards for informers as a replacement for a lamentable bad law enforcement system, especially outside of London. It did not normally cover pets.
This one is similar. Mr Hunnings had the weight of the Boston Association for the Prosecution of Felons behind him;


The next advertisement says explicitly what many advertisements merely hinted at- that if a gentleman had his dog, it would be handed back gratis; but a poor person would require payment.


The owner clearly loved his dog, but was still prepared to sack his servant if he was not returned. As did  the owners of Rufus, Ponto, Poodle (who was a poodle), Tippoo, Buzz, Truro (owned by an unimaginative Cornishmen). Captain, Fanny, Rag, Turpin (who was lost when he chased a coach) Rover, Prince, Nero, Jupe, Basto (who went missing/ was stolen from the Castle Inn Warminster) Lion (owned by the Bishop of Winchester) Rough, David, Brush and Sancho.
And then there was Pug the pug, with an excessive reward, the same as the Bishop of Winchester offered for the return of Lion the Newfoundland dog, and echoing down the centuries the cries and lamentations of the dog’s owner.


   My books- Passengers and  Dark Days of Georgian Britain.    Hardback, Kindle and Kobo  available.  

A nice cup of tea in the Regency? Not always!

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Tea drinking was universal in Regency Britain. It had reached the poor and could not be dislodged as part of their diet. William Cobbett hated it because of the waste of the working man’s time, the profits it brought to the East India Company, and the replacement of tea for beer. (‘I am for MALT’!) Most of the ruling class had given up weaning the poor away from tea drinking. The Scotsman made this wry comment in 1818; ‘tea is indispensable. Almost every person, notwithstanding the present high prices, is more or less indebted to this Chinese shrub for his daily meals’

The Scotsman was right about the price. The Tory government had abolished Income Tax in 1816 and relied on taxes on consumption, so tea was taxed heavily. It was all China tea, imported by the East India Company and sold as a monopoly from their warehouses with a 96% ad valorem duty which doubled the price as it arrived into Britain. Proper quality tea, with import duties added, would be about seven or eight shillings a pound in Regency Britain and less than half that in France or Belgium. There was extensive smuggling. Smuggled tea from France and Belgium would be half that price and the smuggling industry was so large and popular that it could not be stopped.

Even the smuggled price would be too high for the poor, so a market developed in adulterated tea, which could be hawked from town to town or sold to unscrupulous tea dealers or grocers. It seems that tea that had paid duty was just as likely as smuggled tea to be adulterated, as both were aiming for a lower price that the poor could afford.

How did you adulterate tea? Adulteration was achieved by replacing tea leaves with something cheaper, from the untaxed hedge rows of Britain rather than China. It was an industry almost as big as the drink itself. Tea was sold as crushed leaves and the skill if the adulterator was to replace tea leaves with cheaper ones that looked and smelt like tea. If the resulting brew tasted like tea, then that was a bonus. The poor were not judges of good tea. Most of their consumption was Bohea tea, the lowest grade made from the last crop of the year. So sometimes, adulteration was achieved by mixing leaves with Bohea, but often there was no tea in the mixture at all.

Common leaves were ash, elder, and senna. Senna leaves smelt like tea when boiling water was put on them. None of these were deleterious in themselves, except the most common of the adulterants, sloe (blackthorn) leaves, and these were poisonous. The Norfolk Chronicle gave its readers this advice in 1818, when Regency Britain was in a poison tea panic.

The practice of adulterating Tea by the admixture of the Sloe Leaf, (which being allied to the Laurel, of poisonous quality; is by means new); but as it is to feared that the late detections and punishments will not altogether prevent a repetition of the crime, it may useful describe two leaves, which fortunately have little resemblance to each other. The sides of the tea-leaf have large jags, teeth, or serrations; the leaf itself is long and narrow, and the end or extremity is pointed. The Sloe-leaf is short’ ..and is broad or rounded.— By wetting and spreading out the leaves, any one will easily distinguish the great difference between them.

Producing imitation and adulterated tea was a skilled and labour intensive job, but it was worth it. The high price of the tea that made the complicated and dangerous process worthwhile, as the artificial high price caused by taxation also increased the price they could charge for the forgery. Adulterators were prosecuted (in a haphazard fashion) by the Customs and Excise. Although the protection of health was mentioned in the relevant Act of Parliament (1777), it was largely a revenue protection exercise. The premise- that forged products robbed the Exchequer of money as their sale diminished the consumption of taxed products- seems a bit shaky.Gaol or transportation was not a punishment for those who were caught- the crime was monetary, so the punishment was pecuniary. Some Regency commentators were calling for the use of public whipping or the pillory, but this was never an option.

The prosecution of Whitechapel men Procter and Malins shows the operation in action. First, the production of ‘black tea’. It was essentially a dying process.


Logwood was a South American plant and was normally used a dye for textiles. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the incident is that Malins ‘did not know’ whether the ingredient was injurious. This was because he did not care.

‘Green tea’ was created in an even more questionable process. Hedge row leaves were boiled and the water removed by pressing. The leaves were them warmed on a copper plate over a fire and often curled by hand to make them look like tea leaves. Then they were mixed with a dye called Dutch Pink, which was cut from a solid block and mixed in. Dutch Pink was an artist’s material used in painting on walls and making wallpaper and was added to the tea mixture with a pallet knife. The next ingredient was the highly toxic verdigris, which in reaction to the copper produced a greenish tinge to the leaves and was a danger to life. The forgers called this ‘adding the bloom’!.The court was shocked when this admission was made; but it was common knowledge. The two men received a fine of £100, the maximum possible.

There was a moral panic in 1818. The East India Company formed a committee to investigate the problem. Long and Company started to sell East India tea direct from the warehouse in sealed metal canisters. The forgers copied the canisters and put their own product in. High class teas dealers swore an affidavit to the Lord Mayor and put the details in the newspapers. The London Genuine Tea company was formed in 1818 and was immediately opposed by some dealers who did not want the size of the problem advertised. The Genuine Tea Company gave this new group the title the ‘ Anti-Genuine Tea Committee’ and had one killer argument. In the last quarter, 300,000 lbs of low grade Bohea tea was bought in London, but nobody seemed to admit to sell it. Where was it? Was it being mixed with other leaves?

The panic spread to Parliament. In 1818, a Parliamentary Committee was reassured by two major London tea dealers that the problem was exaggerated. Good quality tea was very common in London, said one of them, a Mr Twining. However, this was not where the poor bought their ‘tea’.


Please consider my social history books on the Georgians and Victorians

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– A history of the reform movement in Victorian Britain, with pen portraits of both famous and obscure reformers. More details here

Voices of the Georgian Age– details here (Amazon link)

All my radical Britain books here


Poor Women Giving Birth in the Regency- home or hospital?

Where did the Georgian Poor Give Birth?

On one level, the answer to this question is easy; they gave birth in their own home. Unusually for the period, the same is true of the rich, who had great advantages over the common people; but these advantages did not take away the fear of childbirth. Both rich and poor were at the mercy of the germy, unwashed hands of those taking part, but the poor had other problems as well.
The dirt and squalor of their overcrowded homes was a problem, but the most pressing immediate issue was their inability to find, or afford, a reliable midwife. The next stage of the problem appeared if the childbirth was not straightforward, when the poor would not have the networks or money to find somebody with more medical training  who could help.

No help could be expected from the state, so the very poor had two choices the ‘lying in’ hospital- there were a dozen of them on London by 1800 and one in all major provincial towns- or a ‘lying in’ charity which helped the poor to have home births.

The major British Charity for the latter was the ‘Lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’. It was formed in 1757 as a response to the perceived problems of the Lying In Hospitals. Georgian charities had long, cumbersome and descriptive names, which announced what they did, and, more importantly, made it clear what they did not do, e.g the Female Friendly Society and Asylum for the relief of poor infirm and aged Widows and single Women Of good character have seen better days’ or The Mother & Infants Friend Society for relief of Married Women during Confinement if resident within one mile and a half of St Swithin’s Church.

‘The lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’ did an excellent job. By 1818 the charity had helped to deliver nearly 250,000 babies since its inception. It undoubtedly did good things- provided clean linen and straw and the help of a midwife for regular births, and constant on call ‘man midwives’ for more complicated cases. It also trained and vetted midwifes and raised the general standard of the profession. The mid-wives worked on reduced pay for two years and if morally and mediccally sound , received the recommendation of the society and support in their career. The Society continued to work with London’s poor mothers  under different names, until the arrival of the National Health Service in 1948. They were, undoubtedly a good thing.

untitledIt was the appointment of God, in consequence of the first transgression, that is ‘in Sorrow women should bring forth children’ (1772, but reprinted regularly in the Regency) 

However, it was a charity run by the principles of the time, some of which don’t look quite as philanthropic 200 years later. The first, ubiquitous rule was that you had to deserve charity; you were not entitled to it. You had to be selected to be helped, and be respectable, married and poor (for the right reasons). After the successful birth of a child, you were obliged to go to your normal place of worship to thank God (You were disbarred from future help if you did not) and appear in front of the society to thank them as well (although they were often ready to receive the occasional well spoken comment and criticism). Gratitude was required all round; to God and your betters, and there is still Bristol Charity called the Grateful Society, which provided home births and apprenticeships in the eighteenth century and still does charitable work today.

image001It was funded by dinners, galas and sermons where the rich ate well and flaunted their conscience; this did not stop it being a good thing. Its Patron was the Prince Regent, who for most of his reign condescended to contribute £30 a year or so from his taxpayer-funded civil list, and in 1817, its vice-presidents included the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time at a former Mayor of London. Patrons and Presidents would pay an additional subscription of about 10 guineas and gain the right to nominate ten worth individuals per year. The Duke of Wellington was a supporter ‘All London is the Charity’s hospital and every street a ward’.


The Society’s main principle was the undesirability of the ‘Lying In’ Hospital. Firstly, there was the separation of husband and wife- an emotional affair, made worse by the jeopardy that the women was about to encounter. Hospitals were a dangerous place to be pregnant, and thei staff  knew as little about preventing disease as anybody else. There was less segregation of the poor and the sick, and two women in a bed was not unknown. The Society also pointed out that there was no greater, humiliating indication of your poverty  than admission to such a hospital. All this was true and sincerely believed; but they had other, less modern sounding motives.

It was meant to be cheap charity. In 1778, it was calculated that a birth in a hospital was nearly ten times more expensive that a home birth , and was thought by many  that  the poor simply did not deserve this level of expenditure. When questioned about their apparent meanness, the society rightly pointed out that there were so many needy that it was the only way to help was to do it cheaply- better a little help to all, than completely neglecting all.

 Part of the expense of the hospitals was the standard of the food, which would have been higher than the households of the poor themselves. It was morally wrong and impracticable to allow the poor to get used to such food-sometimes three meals a day* Instead, the Society gave mothers  medicine and payments in kind in their own home so money did not have to be diverted into areas that would reduce their ability to afford their normal diet. Laying in hospitals confined the mother for nearly a month,  while straightforward home births could be done in half of this time- so, the hospitals robbed the family of the women’s labour and moral influence, and disrupted the male breadwinner’s work patterns. Some of the society’s literature went as far as suggest that men could not cope on their own with children and housework, and shouldn’t be expected too!

*More on the Lying In Hospitals here

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