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What were Victorian pauper's graves like?

Updated Monday, 30 November 2015
An account of a tragedy in a London graveyard gives an insight into the way the poor were buried in 19th Century England.

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Friday evening an inquest was held in the committee- room at the workhouse of the parish of St Botolph, Aldgate, on the bodies of Thomas Oakes, the grave-digger belonging to Aldgate Church, and Edward Luddett, a fish-dealer at Billingsgate, who came by their deaths on that forenoon, under the following circumstances:

Mr Edward Cheeper, the master of the workhouse, stated that about 11 o'clock, while passing through Churchpassage, Aldgate, he heard the loud screams of a female in the churchyard, and he instantly hastened to the spot, and looking into a grave, about 20 feet deep, at the north side of the churchyard, he saw the deceased grave-digger, Oakes, lying on his back, apparently dead. A ladder was instantly procured, and the deceased young man, Luddett, who with several others had by this time been attracted to the spot, instantly volunteered to descend to the assistance of Oakes.

On reaching the bottom of the grave witness called out to him to place the ropes under the arms of Oakes, and the instant he stooped down to raise the head of Oakes he appeared as if struck with a cannon ball, and fell back with his head in a different direction to his fellow sufferer, and appeared instantly to expire.

King, the former gravedigger, made two or three ineffectual attempts to descend, but so foul was the air that he was obliged to be drawn up again, and it was full 25 minutes or half-an-hour before the bodies were taken up by means of a hook attached to a rope.

Every possible exertion had been made to recover the bodies, and the conduct of the medical gentleman, Mr Jones, who promptly attended, was beyond all praise.

St Botolphs in the heart of the City of London In modern times, St Botolphs finds itself the subject of a different kind of overcrowding

Mr Davies, a member of the Society of Friends, residing in Churchpassage, corroborated the last witness, and said, that he was on the spot, and that every exertion had been used to get up the bodies.

William Mallin deposed that he and the deceased Luddett, who was a friend of his, were accidentally passing by the churchyard, when they heard that a man was suffocated in a grave, and Luddett volunteered to descend the ladder.

Mrs Mary Fleetwood stated that she was the daughter of Philip, the sexton, and her father not being well on that morning it was the duty of Oakes to ring the chimes at half-past 10 o'clock, and she finding that he had not done so, went to look for him, and ultimately proceeded to the grave, where she saw him lying at the bottom. She instantly gave an alarm, and Mr Cheeper and other persons were soon on the spot.

The grave was what was termed a deep grave and had been opened for about four weeks. The grave was what is called a pauper's grave. Such graves as these were kept open until there 17 or 18 bodies interred in them; there was only the body of a still-born infant in the one in question. It was not the custom to put any earth between the coffins in those graves, except in case where the persons died of contagious diseases and in that case some slaked lime, and a thin layer of earth, were put down to separate them.

The practice of digging deep graves had been adopted by order of the churchwardens five or six years ago. Witness knew of instances wherein the gravediggers could not go down a grave owing to the foulness of the air; but she was not aware that the fact had been made known to the churchwarden.

On such occasions they (the deceased, and his predecessor King) were in the habit of burning straw, and using other means, to dispel the impure, and then going down.

The deceased had been employed as a grave-digger about six months, and was, she should think, 53 years of age.


William Thomas King, the late gravedigger of the parish, said he was passing by the gate when he was told by Mrs Fleetwood what had happened. He offered to go down, but took the precaution to have topes affixed to his person, so that he might be pulled up in case of need.

He was then lowered, so that he could easily get his feet as far as the the bodies of the deceased, but the smell was so offensive, and the so affected him, that he became faint, and he was certain that if he had not been instantly drawn up, he must have shared the fate of the others. He made one or two ineffectual attempts but without being able to succeed.

The witness said that he had dug graves as deep as 58 feet, and had frequently been similarly affected with the foul air within, and his general plan was to throw down some lime and sprinkle water on it, and in half an hour afterwards he used to go down with safety.

Mr Jones, a surgeon of Jury Street stated that, a little before 11 o'clock he proceeded to the churchyard, when he found a young man about to descend into the grave. Having at once discovered that the cause of the death of the unfortunate man was carbonic acid gas, generated from decayed animal, he would not permit the party to go down, as not the slightest hope could be entertained of saving the lives of those who were already at the bottom of the grave.

He (Mr Jones) then sent for two bottles of concentrated solution of chlorate of lime, which he threw into the grave, but even after this he found that the foul air or carbonic gas was not expelled, for on lowering a lighted piece of paper and a candle into the grave, both were extinguished some time before they reached the bottom.

The body of the young man was the first taken up; and though he (Mr Jones) had not the slightest hopes of restoring animation, he used every remedy, but of course without effect.

The case of the other man was beyond all hope.

The witness, on being asked his opinion as to the effect of keeping a grave open for a couple of months, replied that the noxious effluvia emitted from it must be most injurious to health.

Mr Townley, a respectable tradesman residing close to the church, complained of the practice adopted in the churchyard, which he said was most distressing to the sight and injurious to the health of the inhabitants of that crowded neighbourhood, and he hoped something would be done about it.

Mr Tyars, the deputy of the ward, and who is also churchwarden, said that from the observations just offered to the coroner and jury, he felt it to be his duty to reply to them.

He begged, in the first place, to say that about six years ago, when appointed to the office of churchwarden of the parish, he found, in consequence of the practice which existed of digging the graves so shallow some of them not being more than three or four feet from the surface, that the ground was literally full, and there was scarcely a spot to inter bodies, which, at that time, owing to the dreadful malady, the cholera, were unfortunately very numerous.

In this unpleasant dilemma he felt it to be his duty to call a meeting of the inhabitants to decide what was best to be done under the circumstances, and the result was a recommendation to dig deep graves from thenceforth.

He further begged to state, that he had on several occasion sent a presentment, expressed in the strongest language he could use, to the archdeacon of the diocese, or his surrogate, descriptive of the filthy state of the vaults and the burying-ground, but no notice was taken of the evil.

He would appeal to the medical gentleman present (Mr Jones) if burials in a densely populated neighbourhood were not most injurious to health; and, for his own part, he hoped that the time was not distant when such a practice would be discontinued.

Mr Jones confirmed the opinion of Mr Tyars.

The jury here, at the suggestion of Mr Hoard, the foreman, proceeded toi the churchyard to view the grave, which presented a scene most repulsive to the eye, and almost impossible to describe.

It appeared much more narrow at the top than ordinary graves; and this and its extreme depth gave it a most singular appearance. On each side there were coffins heaped up on each other, and shelving out about the middle, so that the space at this place did not appear to be more than 20 inches or two feet. The coffins exhibited proof that they were indiscriminately placed there; one in particular was exuding matter of a most offensive effluvium, and not a particle of earth was there between those and the new grave.

Mr Jones tried several experiments, which proved to demonstration that the grave remained still two thirds full of the noxious vapour.

The jury then retired to the inquest room, and the coroner having summed up the evidence, they returned a verdict of Accidental Death in both cases.

The foreman expressed a hope, in order to allay the strong feeling which the unfortunate affair had created in the neighbourhood, that the grave be at once filled up, and Mr Tyars said he would most readily acquiesce in the wish of the jury.

As reported by The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, 15th September 1838


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