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.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

10 Fascinating Facts About W.E.B. Du Bois

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next, not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois attended the historically black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn't tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871." During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first major case study of a black community in the United States.

Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the black population. Not only was it the first case study of any black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically based social science. Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if whites would see their black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.” He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.

3. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois's former professor, James, praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement and opposed Booker T. Washington.

During the Reconstruction Era in the South, African Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs. In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”

5. W.E.B. Du Bois's views gained larger support after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 whites stormed through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.

After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence. Coupled with an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas that same year, in 1908 Du Bois proclaimed that if Taft received the Republican nomination blacks should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”

6. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.

Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson's segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of African Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois was a Civil Rights activist on a global scale.

Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.

8. W.E.B. DU BOIS was a victim of McCarthyism.

The FBI started a file on Du Bois—an avowed Socialist—in 1942. In the 1950s—when McCarthyism was at its peak—Du Bois, who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center, and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana but never renounced his United States Citizenship.

The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never rose publicly to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.

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