Victorian burials, a grave and unhealthy issue

Victorian burials may conjure up images of widows in black, and brooches containing hair. They were also a major public health concern…

In a previous post on the ‘connection’ between temperance and drains, I touched on the 1849 inquiry into the state of sanitation in Carlisle. (The temperance discussion was a tangential one, during the inquiry).

To recap: Robert Rawlinson had been appointed by the General Board of Health to conduct the inquiry. Which was lengthy and attended by local doctors and some of Carlisle’s prominent citizens.

The report is an interesting insight into living conditions in the mid-1900s. It’s also very long, and covers a lot of topics, so I’m splitting it into further posts.

Bring out your dead

As the population of cities and manufacturing towns grew in the 19th century, so did the problem of burials. 

As mentioned in my book, Port Carlisle – a history built on hope the population of Carlisle in 1821 was 21,000. By 1851 (two years after the inquiry), it had risen roughly 50 per cent to 30,000.

That led to ‘Dickensian’ living conditions we can imagine today: slums, over-crowding, etc. But also led to ‘over-crowding’ in churchyards. A subject that arose during the inquiry.

There were six burial grounds in Carlisle at the time. Saint Mary’s had seen 2,576 burials since 1828; St Cuthbert’s 2,9378; Trinity Church 4,245; the Catholic chapel 376, and; the Friends’ Meeting House 38.

Whitewash and the benefits of soap

Dr Barnes presented reports from the House of Recovery he thought were relevant. (The House of Recovery was a fever hospital, set up 30 years before).

Dr Barnes said the management committee had always impressed on the authorities, magistrates, landlords and tenants the importance of keeping the town clean.

Measures they’d taken, such as providing tenants with lime and whitewash brushes (and those in poverty with soap to wash their clothes) had mitigated the ‘violence of epidemics’.

However, until the town was effectively sewered and had better burial provisions, the evil of epidemics could never be removed.

Victorian burials: this bit’s not for the squeamish

Victorian burials

Dr Barnes said the churchyards were so crowded as to be above the level of the streets/floors of adjoining houses, and many people had complained to him about the offensive smell. This had to be injurious to health, as well as a nuisance.

The mayor, Joseph Rome, said as an undertaker, he had experience of seeing graves opened and bodies being just a short depth from the surface. It was a distressing – and disgusting sight – when graves were re-opened after just a few years.

The inspector said this would feature prominently in his report. Choosing sites for cemeteries had led to ‘unseemly contests’ in London, and was not something any authority would find easy to solve. 

Dr Henry Lonsdale also spoke about selecting a site for a cemetery. The cost, for loved ones, of transporting the departed to a cemetery was a big issue. So was the likely cost of a sewerage system.

The speakers

Joseph Rome was mayor of Carlisle in the civic year 1849-50. In September 1850, a special dinner was arranged in his honour by ‘the Albert Club,’ at which more than 60 gentlemen of all political persuasions gathered to show “their respect for him personally, and their approbation of the independence, straigthforwardness, and impartiality with which he has so far discharged his official duties.”

A ‘public meeting of the working classes’ decided to arrange a further dinner in Joseph Rome’s honour a month or so later.

He was a draper, elected to the council in 1839. Undertaking must have been a sideline, but not one he advertised in the local papers.

Henry Lonsdale I covered in the ‘temperance and drains’ post. 

Dr Thomas Barnes was born in Wigton around 1794 and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. I may well come back to him in a further post.

  • In part 3 on the 1849 inquiry, I will look at Cumbrian lodging houses and the spread of disease.
  • Part 4 will look at ash pits and middens.