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 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