In my last post on Cemetery Records I mentioned a talk that I have given quite a lot over the years, What to do with the body – A Victorian Solution. I promised I would turn it into a blog post and true to my word I have. The story centres around an ordinary labourer in Victorian London whose actions to preserve the peace of the grave where his son was buried had a major impact on legislation. This legislation closed the overcrowded graveyards in English cities and forced burials to be located in large cemeteries outside of the city confines.
What to do with the body – A Victorian Solution.
Any connoisseur of crime fiction will tell you that the major problem for the main character is what to do with the body. In the major cities of England during the Victorian period the authorities had very much the same problems. The churchyards were overcrowded even before the population of England’s cities started to grow dramatically. It was an open secret that those living near to such burial grounds were more likely to succumb to disease and that out of their windows they saw sights that offended the morals and senses of any decent human being. But this was mainly ignored as the poor had no option but to bury their loved ones in paupers grave and the rich could make other arrangements.
I want to introduce to you a friend of mine …. Reuben Room. Reuben was born in 1807 in Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire. In the 1841 census the village had 1,800 inhabitants and was a quiet rural community. However by the time he was 26 years old he was living in London where he married Isabella Gatty in 1835. It would seem that by the 1851 census Isabella had died and Reuben had remarried. He remained in London for the rest of his life, he was a widower living in St Leonard’s, Shoreditch workhouse in the 1871 census and he died in 1874. Sadly we don’t know where he was buried.
Spa Fields Burial Ground
This is where Reuben worked as a grave digger between 1837 – 1845 it was popular with non-conformists and also with those with little money to bury their dead. It had at one time been a Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel & Burial Ground and by 1845 was owned by, possible, a Mr Green who Reuben worked for. The people who lived in the streets surrounding Spa Field Burial Ground in Exmouth Road had complained for some time about the stench and the illness that they were subjected to. They blamed this on the practices that they witnessed daily at the burial grounds. Because they were poor they were ignored and nothing was done. No-one lived in the houses bordering the burial ground for very long if they could afford to move elsewhere. It became well-known in the area that it was a very unhealthy & unsavory area to live in.
Reuben and Isabella had a son, Charles, who died in May 1841 aged 4 years old and this child was buried in the Spa Fields burial ground where his father worked. However by 1845 working at Spa Fields had taken a toll on Reuben and he was dismissed, possibly for being drunk whilst working. After his dismissal Reuben attempted to dig up the coffin of his child as he knew that once he was no longer working there he could not defend his child’s body from the practices that were undertaken to ensure that there was always “room for one more”.
Police were called, Constables Webb & Martin attended and they tried to stop Reuben from disinterring his child and from there on the scandal broke. Reuben took the Constables to an outhouse where they saw coffin lids and sides being burnt human flesh was attached to some boards and he explained how bodies were disturbed and compressed sometimes within hours of being buried.
Here we have a table of the cost of burial in Spa Fields Burial ground in 1840. It can be seen that it was a lucrative business and if the owners could “always find a space” profits would rise every year.
To cut a long story short, Reuben’s action caused an official inquiry to be set up to which he gave evidence. There are a number of very graphic newspaper reports on the Spa Fields scandal and the subsequent telling comment from Reuben which was published in the London Standard of 5 March 1845 was that he and his fellow grave-digger had kept a tally of bodies buried in 1 year and they had come to 2,017 corpses plus still-borns in an area of less than 2 acres which was already fully used. It is no wonder that Reuben wanted to take his son’s coffin away from Spa Fields.
Let us back-track a few decades to set the scene for Reuben’s moment in the limelight of Victorian London. There were 118 Churches in the City & County of London in the Victorian period plus 140 Churches in Middlesex. This total of 258 does not include numerous Non-Conformist chapels and meeting houses. A rapidly rising population produced rapidly filling churchyards. London’s population was 865,00 in 1801 and by the 1851 census this had risen to 2.3 million.
There had been an Act of Parliament passed in 1832 which allowed profit making cemeteries to be established, but these cemeteries initially were aimed at the middle and upper classes. The problem of the poor dead continued. Local authorities and workhouses coffers did not run to interring their paupers in the likes of Highgate or Kensal Green cemeteries. So burial grounds such as Spa Fields continued their grim trade.
The outcome of the investigation into the mal-practises undertaken in London was an Act of Parliament in 1853 which declared that “burials in any city or town, or within any other limits, or in any burial grounds or places of burial, should be wholly discontinued”.
The 1832 Act was seized upon by Victorian entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to established large cemeteries within easy distance of the centre of London. They commissioned well known architects such as Pugin to design Cemetery Chapels as well as popular landscape gardeners to establish plantings which would make the cemeteries attractive places to bury loved ones, but also to be places to visit and take the air!
Of course the cemetery owners also wanted to make a handsome profit for themselves and their share holders so the fees were not cheap and the advertising was aimed at the aspiring middle classes and the rich. In the same year as the act the first of what was to become known much later as the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries opened.
The Magnificent Seven aren’t the only large cemeteries that were established during this time period, but are the ones that were the most fashionable and that have attracted the most historic attention.
The Magnificent Seven
- Kensal Green
- West Norwood
- Abney Park
- Tower Hamlets
KENSAL GREEN CEMETERY
Kensal Green Cemetery was the first of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries to be established. It is located in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea and was founded in 1833 on 72 acres of land by a barrister George Frederick Carden. There were 39 acres for Church of England burials and 15 acres for dissenters. It is also known as All Saints, Kensal Green. It is still a working cemetery and is owned and run by the General Cemetery Company. In the old part of the cemetery there are 250,000 burials in 65,000 graves, this gives you an idea of the extent of the need for large cemeteries.
“For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen;
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”
The cemetery was given a tremendous boost when Prince Augustus Frederick, son of George III, arranged to be buried at Kensal Green because he wished his 2nd wife Lady Cecilia Buggins, (who he married in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act) to be buried next to him. This would not have been possible if he had been buried as tradition decreed at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Augustus died in 1843 and his tomb is in prime position in the main avenue of the cemetery. Augustus’s internment meant that Kensal Green became the fashionable place to be buried and this reputation was cemented when his sister Princess Sophia was also buried here in 1848.
The Anglican Chapel was designed by John Griffiths in Greek revival style and has extensive catacombs which can be visited on Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery open days. There is also a non-conformist chapel. Interestingly there used to be a deep ditch between the C of E graves and the non-conformists to make sure no one was in any doubt as to where one area ended and the other began ! The monuments are art works in themselves and many of them are heritage listed.
The “Friends of Kensal Green” organisation have an excellent website .
Kensal Green Records
So where can you find the registers? The burial registers for the period 1833 – 1872 are on Ancestry.co.uk. Plot & burial registers 1830 – 1930 are held at the London Metropolitan Archives and may be included in the Ancestry/LMA agreement and become available at a later date. DeceasedOnline have digital scans of the original burial reference books from 1833 to 2010, details indicating those buried in each grave and digital scans of the original cremation registers up to 1993, and computerised records thereafter. They also have maps of the cemetery which indicate the section in which each grave is located.
West Norwood cemetery is situated in Lambeth, central London. It is run by Lambeth Council. Established in 1837 it comprises 40 acres with 42,000 graves, it is said that here can be found the finest collection of monuments in London. There is a Greek Orthodox section, important to know if you have Greek ancestry as the families represented in this cemetery come from a wide area, not just Lambeth. Lambeth Council compulsorily purchased the cemetery in 1965 due to it’s neglect by the owners, it was effectively abandoned. The council decided to end all rights of existing plot holders making no attempt to trace and contact families. The council officers involved in the management of the cemetery relied on various pieces of cemetery legislation, reliance that was entirely misplaced. In addition, statutory requirements inherent in these self-same pieces of legislation were not followed. The tidying up of the cemetery involved the destruction of some 10,000 monuments some of which were of national historic significance. Once an area was flattened the council proceeded to re-sell the plots to unsuspecting families.
Local residents appalled by the councils actions formed The Friends of West Norwood and after a long battle and with the support of the Church of England the council was taken before the Consistory Court. In 1993 they were found to have acted illegally, must desist and must compensate the owners of those plots which had been re-sold. The outcome of this is a bonus for genealogists … the Resold Grave Database. Not a complete listing of all graves at West Norwood, only those re-sold. Descendants of those whose graves have been re-sold can apply for compensation by the council.
West Norwood has much to interest the genealogist who has ancestors buried there. The Wheeler monument in particular is a genealogist delight with six people commenerated. There are also extensive catacombs which can be visited on designated open days.
West Norwood Records
Situated in North London Highgate is probably the best known of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries. The west cemetery, which is the oldest is run completely by Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who restrict entry only by guided tours. Unless you are a plot owner you will be required to pay for a tour to access the west cemetery. The east cemetery is freely open and is a working cemetery, it has some interesting tombs such as that of Karl Marx.
Opened in 1839 it comprises 37 acres holding 53,000 grave with 170,000 occupants. One of the most notable areas of the cemetery is the Egyptian Avenue which boasts 16 vaults either side of the tunnel entrance, each vault holds 12 coffins. Some of the doors to the vaults have a curious spy hole set into the doorway at eye height. My son who came with me on one of the guided tours some years ago tried to see inside, but naturally it was too dark to make anything out. The purpose of the spy holes remains a mystery.
Highgate Cemetery Records
Deceasedonline has the records May 1839 to August 2010 available or an application can be made to the friends of the cemetery organisation. Be aware that the friends charge £40 for a search, making Deceasedonline a much cheaper option.
Abney Park is a non conformist cemetery situated in South Newington, North London and is run by the Abney Park Trust. Established in 1840 the cemetery contains 196, 843 burials, it is also home to an un-exploded WW2 bomb which is known to be somewhere in the cemetery, however no-one has found it ….. yet ! The cemetery is a wild life sanctuary and is used by local residents as a recreation area. The volunteers keep pathways clear so it is an easy cemetery to walk round as long as you don’t want to dive into the undergrowth hunting for your ancestors. I am told that with prior arrangement a path will be cleared so that individual graves can be visited.
There are many interesting graves and tombs, the founder of the Salvation Army William Branwell Booth and his family are buried here as is Frank Bostock, a menagerist who died in 1912 and has a rather sleepy looking lion to mark the spot.
Abney Park Cemetery Records
There is a privately run website, not maintained by the Abney Park Trust, which offers a searchable database. Abney Park Database. The records are held at Hackney Archives.
Nunhead cemetery is also known as All Saints cemetery and is in Southwark, South London. It is maintained by Southwark Council and the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. Established in 1840 it covers 52 acres. Nunhead is probably the least famous of the Magnificent Seven and in the past one of the most neglected, however the friends are doing a great job of bringing order and beauty back to this lovely cemetery.
Nunhead Cemetery Records
Ancestry has the burial registers for the time period 1840 -1869, the originals which span a much greater time are at Camberwell New Cemetery Offices. The Friends website has an online Monumental Inscription Database which is not 100% complete, but is being added to continually.
Brompton cemetery is also known as the West of London & Westminster Cemetery, goodness knows why some of these cemeteries have more than one name, is it to confuse genealogists?! Situated in South West London it is the only cemetery of the seven run by the Royal Parks and is therefore beautifully maintained. The cemetery opened in 1840 and covers 39 acres with over 200,000 burials. An amusing part of its history is that Beatrix Potter named many of her characters after names on Brompton tombstones as she used to walk here regularly when she lived nearby. Mr. Nutkins, Mr. McGregor, Jeremiah Fisher, Tommy Brock and Peter Rabbett are all to be found here.
There are extensive catacombs here with space for thousands, they were seen as a practical burial solution, however the public did not agree and only 500 spaces are occupied. Apparently you can still buy a space on a shelf if you wish. There is a Friends website which gives a good history and information
Brompton Cemetery Records
DeceasedOnline has Brompton burial & grave registers online 1840 – 1997. The originals are at National Archives, Kew.
TOWER HAMLETS CEMETERY
Tower Hamlets cemetery is also know by two other names Bow Cemetery and The City of London & Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Located in East London t was established in 1841, covers 27 acres and has many common graves due to it been situated in a very poor area of London. The cemetery is closed for burials, but ownership is still with the local council. It is run as a nature reserve and is cared for by 1,500 volunteers. There were Anglican & Dissenters Chapels onsite, but sadly these were demolished by Greater London Council in 1967, as happened at Lambeth the Greater London Council started to clear the cemetery some years ago, but the local population protested and the cemetery was handed over to Tower Hamlet Borough Council. There is a Friends organisation.
Tower Hamlet Records
DeceasedOnline has some records – 1939 to 1964. The records of plots that were cleared. Find My Past has transcripts 1841 – 1852 within it’s City of London database. Oddly Ancestry doesn’t have the records which are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Ancestry has a contract with the LMA to digitise it ‘s records so they might come online there in the future.
So What Happened to those responsible for Spa Field Burial ground?
You may well expect that the owners and managers were charged for any number of offences, but no …… they did a plea bargain and it was agreed that an overseer of the burial ground (a Mr Bramwell) was to be appointed and provided they did not revert back to their former practices then the charges against them would be dropped. In 1846 Mr Bramwell banned burials in most of the burial ground for 10 years and effectively the ground was closed. So our friend Reuben Room did protect his child’s grave which remains in the Spa Fields Burial Ground.
I suspect that most of the people who visit Spa Fields today to enjoy the roses,bring their children to play on the swings and slides are unaware that just a few feet under the grass lie the remains of thousands of Londoners including little Charles Room whose father loved him so much that he set off a train of events that altered the law and the landscape of London. Opposite the burial ground is the London Metropolitan Archives where I know several of the archivists are aware of the story of Spa Fields. Ironically the records aren’t kept at the LMA archives, but at the National Archives, Kew. The registers are available online at DeceasedOnline.
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