The Disgusting Victorian Cemetery That Helped Change Burials in London Forever

A drawing of dancing at Enon Chapel from George Walker's "Lectures on the metropolitan grave-yards"
A drawing of dancing at Enon Chapel from George Walker's "Lectures on the metropolitan grave-yards"

Victorian London was a fast-growing, sprawling metropolis. The crowded streets, ramshackle slums, and overflowing sewers meant that just walking through the city could cause sensory overload. With so many people living on top of each other, the city was thronged with bodies jostling for space—and that went for the dead, too.

According to The Lady's Newspaper, by 1849 there were 52,000 deaths each year in London, yet the total space set aside for burial only allowed for 100,000 bodies. Churches and chapels provided small graveyards—often crammed between buildings—for locals, and sometimes offered up their basements as secure burial sites, safe from the ever-present threat of body-snatchers. But it was hardly enough room.

A sanitary reformer named George Walker, nicknamed "Graveyard Walker," made it his mission to combat the cemetery overcrowding. Like others of his era, he was convinced (incorrectly) that the foul miasmas floating up from the ground—clouds of gases from decomposing bodies—were responsible for diseases like malaria and cholera. He referred to London's many burial grounds as "so many centers of foci of infection ... generating constantly the dreadful effluvia of human putrefaction." According to his research, the majority of London’s 182 parochial graveyards were unable to keep to the 136 burials per acre recommended by graveyard reformers. Many reported over 1000 burials per acre, and St John’s in Clerkenwell admitted to an amazing 3073 burials per acre.

To save space, bodies were often piled one on top of the other in vast pits, the wooden coffins tossed aside and burned for firewood. There were so many burials that in many churchyards the ground was raised considerably above street level. Unscrupulous vicars, keen to protect the burial fee each churchyard was permitted to charge for internment, found ever more ingenious ways of cramming yet more bodies into their overflowing burial grounds. And none was more unscrupulous than one of Walker's favorite targets, Baptist minister W. Howse of Enon Chapel near The Strand.

THE BODIES BELOW

Enon Chapel had opened around 1822 with rooms on the top floor for worship and teaching, and a basement assigned to burials. The space allotted for the dead in the basement was a mere 59 by 29 feet (about the size of a volleyball court), and the chapel above was separated from the burial pit by just a thin layer of creaky floorboards. The gaps in between allowed a putrid stench to waft through the chapel; worshippers reported a foul taste in their mouths after attending services, and said that clothes needed to be immediately aired or washed to get rid of the rancid smell. Insects caused a real nuisance, too: Sunday school children reported that “body bugs” blighted the school room, and worshippers complained that creepy-crawlies swarmed their hair and hats. But Howse charged considerably less for a burial space than other nearby parishes, and as a result the local poor overlooked the appalling state of the basement.

Such unsanitary conditions were not uncommon in London at the time, but by 1839, the situation at Enon Chapel had become so extreme something needed to be done. The chapel blamed the open sewers below the basement for the problems. But when representatives for the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers looked underneath the chapel, they discovered hundreds of decomposing corpses piled up, many of which had fallen into the open sewer, creating heaps of bloated, rotten remains.

Despite this gruesome discovery, the burial space wasn't closed; instead, the sewer was vaulted over to prevent the bodies from dropping into the water. Howse continued his unhygienic ways—and came up with even more nefarious methods to dispose of the bodies.

With over 500 bodies a year to bury and limited space to do it, Howse began paying workmen to dump wheelbarrows full of decayed corpses into the River Thames, thus clearing space for new burials. Besides the fact that Londoners used this water for bathing and drinking, there was the horror of the fact that body parts occasionally went astray on their way to the river, with passersby often coming into contact with the grisly detritus. On one occasion, an almost perfectly formed hand was discovered on the street where the chapel was located. It was quickly snatched away by the sexton.

Eventually, Howse just decided to speed up decomposition by pouring quicklime into the burial pit. The quicklime effectively turned the bodies to liquid, which oozed out of the pit and leached into the surrounding ground.

Enon Chapel became notorious as one of the worst of its kind across London, and numerous newspaper editorials bemoaned the unsavory state of burials there and in other church buildings. Some connected it to the cholera epidemics of the time (like the one in 1831-1832 that killed about 31,000 people across Great Britain), since it was believed that the foul gases emanating from decomposing bodies contributed to the spread of disease. Yet many churches continued to allow burials in their basements, provided the dead were interred in lead coffins.

This created a different—yet equally foul—problem. As the bodies decomposed, the coffins filled with gas and liquid, which if left too long had a nasty habit of exploding. To prevent this, the grave diggers needed to “tap” the lead coffins. As one such unfortunate described the practice to The Morning Chronicle in August 1842: “If you tap it underneath, if there is any dead water or ‘soup’ as it is called, it runs into a pail, and then it is taken or thrown into some place or another.”

DANCING ON THE DEAD

In June 1840, as reports on the unhygienic burial of bodies within churches abounded, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Health of Towns called Walker to give evidence. During the hearing, Walker frequently cited Enon Chapel as an example of the worst excesses of inner city London burials. By his account, 12,000 bodies had been crammed in the chapel's basement over 15 years—buried at a rate of about 30 a week. Pointing to the lack of regulation, Walker said, “I am quite amazed that such a place should have been permitted to exist.”

Ultimately, however, it wasn't regulation that ended the scandal at Enon Chapel—it was Howse's death in 1842. The chapel was then closed and changed hands several times before being rebranded as a temperance dance hall, even though the bodies remained buried below. The venue shamelessly played up its ghastly associations: A leaflet advertising the events read “Enon Chapel—Dancing on the Dead—Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings.”

These macabre dances—a Boxing Day gala was especially popular—continued for about four years. Around 1848, Walker managed to buy the former chapel and began exhuming the numerous bodies. He moved them to a new, peaceful resting place at the recently established West Norwood Cemetery, located seven miles from central London.

But the scandal at Enon Chapel wasn't for nothing. Public health campaigners brought the conditions there, and at locations like it, to widespread public attention, using them as evidence to force the British government to act. In 1852, Parliament passed the first in a series of Burial Acts, which prohibited burials (royalty excepted) within the city limits. This ultimately led to the closure of all burial grounds in the City of London—the historic central core of the city.

A distasteful period in London’s history had ended, and with it began a new era of grand Victorian garden cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green in Greater London. Here, burials took place in beautiful landscaped grounds far from the bustling city, where people could bury their loved ones, secure in the knowledge that the dead could rest in peace.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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