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.

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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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Gout-a painful yet fashionable disease in the Regency

Gout is, and was, horrible. It causes sudden, severe and unpredictable pain. It is most famous for attacking the joints- usually the big toe, or fingers, wrists, elbows or knee. But gout is much, much more than that. It was not just an aching big toe, or gouty foot, although Georgian cartoonists used that image as visual shorthand. Other symptoms included;

Chilliness, yawning, stuverings, anxiety, nausea, sickness at stomach, debility, drowsiness, stupor confused head, and these are often followed by full quick hard pulse and burning heat with thirst and aversion to food (1)

Gout could kill, as Lieutenant General Floyd knew; his would have died in agony with his atonic gout affecting the stomach. His last hours would have been acute stomach spasms and uncontrollable diarrhoea. This did not stop the newspaper making a little joke in the announcement above (1818);

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One of the many regency poems about gout makes that clear- here, mercifully, is just two lines of forty (1816) ;

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Gout was so bad that the Georgians wrote doggerel poetry and sent it to the newspapers, who published it. Here is another poem, advertising, Warren’s Jet Blacking for boots:

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It was a favourite of the quack medicine cure-alls, always near the top of a long list of illnesses and conditions that it would cure. It was usually linked with rheumatism, which was correct. Many medicines did not claim to cure it, unlike other conditions; this was because it was clearly a disease that re-occurred. So, whether it was Dr Wilsons’s Gout Tincture, Okey’s Concentrated Essence of Jamaican Ginger or Fenn’s Embrocation, the relief was temporary. One ‘permanent’ cure was -apparently – Bullman’s Imperial Pills, but it would only cure you in Kent where it was sold only in local shops. A cynic would say that it would have gone national if it worked.

Respectable doctors in the Regency knew that lifestyle changes were the key. They had also worked out that it was hereditary, and that could sometimes be initiated by a trauma or break to the limbs. ‘The most undeviating moderation and temperance’ is necessary, according to Dr. Gibbes of Bath in 1812. (2) Yet limiting or avoiding alcohol and rich foods was not a Regency habit .

People moaned about gout, but it was an acceptable ailment in Regency Britain. When the newspapers reported a celebrity absence from an event, they were generically ill or ‘indisposed’, but gout was gout. It was a reason that could be referenced. The best people had it.

The King, through his insanity between 1811-1820, was reported to have gout; when it reappeared it stopped his therapeutic walks at Windsor; the Prince Regent had gout often, firstly in 1811 after an accident to his leg, and later in Brighton in 1816, which kept him indoors, and his friends had to come to him at the Pavilion to grovel and toady. They would have remembered not to notice that his knees were swelled and huge. William Pitt, another six bottle a day man- had the same problem, as did the Prince Regent’s brother and future king, William IV. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon had gout which kept him away from his duties in the 1810s. The King of France had it- ‘Louis the Gouty’, as Byron called him.

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Notice the gouty knees.

Why was gout acceptable? It was regarded as the ailment of the well healed – especially those who had had easy, comfortable lives with lots of expensive spirits and wines, and who did not exercise like younger people would. This was not a new idea. Over two thousand years early, the Greek doctor Hippocrates. He called gout “the unwalkable disease” and “the arthritis of the rich”, and blamed it on too much food, wine and sex, showing that the 18th century stereotype had ancient origins. Poor people could get gout if they could steal high quality alcohol. Medical experts suggested that gout in the poor was restricted to brewer’s assistants, cellermen and bottlers who had access to drink that they could not afford to buy.

For the rich, a little gout was expected in later life. These are from the Annals of Bath (1830) describing the situation a few decades earlier:

A bon vivant of about half a century old who has never yet experienced a determined fit of the gout fancies he has a little of what he calls the flying gout about him and takes it into his head to visit Bath with a full intention to eat his three meals a day and drink his bottle of port in the evening

He then reports top his friends that he does have a touch of ‘flying gout’, in the same way that the 80s executive had to have ‘stress’ to be doing his job. He seems to have taken the waters to cure it and drink a bottle of port to encourage it in order to prove that, by having gout, he had reached a high social level.

References

(1)The Gout Alleviated: Proved by Cases of the Most Painful Fits Being Removed By William Rowley
(2) https://brendascox.wordpress.com/2018/01/18/gout-and-the-waters-of-bath-part-1/

Also – https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2018/01/09/one-of-the-miseries-of-life-gout/

Please consider my two books on the Regency and Victorian period.

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a social history of the Regency. More details about my book on the Regency here. Introduction to the contents by chapter here .

Passengers- a history social history of Britain 1780 to 1840 through a focus on transport and hospitality. More details here

The silent killer of Georgian Britain-damp bed sheets.

passengersIn 1816, the Chester Courant noticed that there was a rage for travelling amongst the rich. It did not know why. It could not understand it. The immediate cause was the end of the war with France, and the consequent fact that the continent was open again. The fact was, reported the news paper, that travelling forces on the rich and lazy many of the habits and necessities of the poor and industrious. The rich grew  coarse, but also a bit brave- after a week they could bear a door being shut loudly, after two weeks they could get onto a stagecoach in the early morning without breakfast. After a month they could shrug off a hair in their soup, and brave a rain shower without repairing to their bed.

One thing that could not be countenanced, either at home or abroad, was damp beds .Foreigners  were well-known for damp sheets. The Germans, it was said, washed their sheets but did not air them, and there was no real point visiting the Rhineland with all your waterproof clothes and your Perrings beaver (a waterproof hat) if sheets were not dry

We do not appreciate how damp the Regency period was- clothes, bed sheets, and churches were damp. Houses were certainly damp- it was only in the 1840s that ordinary houses were being built with a membrane to stop rising damp, and even then it was regarded as a bit of a novelty.

Georgians did mind the damp. It was seen as a silent, unseen killer, especially in the form of damp bed sheets. People today that visit hotels want their sheets to be clean; for many people it is the first thing that they check, as a touchstone of general standards. Travellers in our period wanted the sheets to be dry. In Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1807) damp sheets are the main danger to health of travelling, especially in comparison to the rest of the stay, when the constant changes on temperature were not regarded as very safe.

When a traveller cold and wet arrives at an inn he may, by means of a good fire, warm diluting liquor and a dry bed have the perspiration restored but if he be put into a cold room and laid in a damp bed it will be more obstructed and the worst consequence will ensue. Travellers should avoid inns which are not ted for damp beds as they would a house infected with the plague, as no man however robust is proof against the danger arising from them.

The idea that damp sheets could cause death-even amongst the previously healthy – survived the Georgian (and Victorian) period. The Georgian fear was one of obstructed perspiration, caused by rapid changes in temperature that might be experienced when travelling. This is from Salisbury, in 1810 (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)

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The poor old pork butcher, travelling in the wilds of the West Country, was probably sleeping somewhere pretty horrible. These reports in the newspapers regularly and never disbelieved. Distressingly, it also affected people better than shopkeepers and was particularly effective if you were already unwell. This, from 1819:

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Newspapers in the 1770s often had sleeping in damp sheets as a cause of death. What made damp sheets a silent killer was that you could not really tell they were injurious until you had got into them and fallen asleep. Most travel guides recommended placing a spy glass (later in the Victorian period it was spectacles) into the bed sheets, waiting half an hour, and then checking if there was any condensation on the glass. If there was, it was recommended that you ripped the sheets off and just slept in the blankets, which shows that dirt was less dangerous than damp.

Coal was expensive in many parts of the country, and Buchan’s Domestic Medicine warned traveller to take extra care in the areas of the country where that was the case. The best way to achieve damp sheets was to travel to an Inn and arrive late. Rooms would only be warmed when they were occupied- so, if you arrive late in an Inn, you would need to eat there before going to bed, as your bed would definitely be damp. If there was nobody expected in your room, that the sheets may not have been warmed by the chambermaid using a bed warming pan, filled with coal. This is the situation that is shown in this Rowlandson cartoon of 1790:

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The rich would often take their own linen with them on their travels- not because the sheets that they would encounter on their visits were dirty, but because they were damp. To avoid your own sheets getting damp while travelling, leather sheets were often to be preferred. Hotels would advertise that their rooms were both well ventilated and had clean sheets- this was the great paradox of the late Georgian and Victorian period- the better off and their hundreds of books about health asked for everything to be well ventilated, but this also meant that they were cold.

It wasn’t only inns that were a problem. If you were expecting visitors to your own home, then you would be expected to take precautions about damp. If you were entertaining visiting in a few days time and your sheets were damp, it was prudent to all a servant to sleep in them for a day or two to warm them up, which tells us a lot about attitudes to servants and personal hygiene in the early nineteenth century. The sheets that the visitor used would be dirty because they were not damp, and the servants would have to go back to their own damp bed!

My two books on the late Georgian/ Early Victorian period. 

Dark Days of Georgian Britain – a social history of 1811- 1820 

Passengers – Britain 1790- 1840, with an emphasis on travel, hospitality and transport