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Slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones, and …dancing on the dead. Sometimes the Victorian’s failed, quite spectacularly, to live up to their prim and proper reputation.

Bunhill Fields burial Ground, London.

London’s burial grounds: a mass of putrefaction

GFK_King Death

London in the mid nineteenth century had a problem: a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre with a population pushing at 2.5 million living souls, it also had an ever growing population of the dead. Inner city burial had been carried out in London for centuries -it has been observed that London, even today, is one huge grave, if you only know where to look. But by the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place, the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:

‘[A] mass of putrefaction’ and ‘The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence,’ the author noting that ‘The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’ [1]

It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:

‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent’

So reported the Weekly Despatch in September 1838.

No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor. One scandalous case that provided a catalyst for a change was the infamous Enon Chapel….

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872

Dudley Street Slums, London, 1872. Image source Public domain [?]

Enon Chapel – undercutting the competition

Close to the Strand, on the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. Accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.


Image by Hogarth. Public domain [?]

As many scholars have noted, prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, fear of the resurrection men was strong. Burke and Hare had yet to set up their fearsome murder trade north of the Border, but before them were others, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table. This popular fear may have been one of the factors in Mr Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon was licensed for burials.

GFK Covenantors Prison_gravediggers markBurials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial.[2] At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.

Things went well for Mr Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Even when worshippers retched into their hankerchieves or fell unconscious at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather, they said nothing. It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet.

A Modern Golgotha uncovered


In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear. Oddly enough, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.

In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he discarded the coffins (he and his wife used them for firewood).  This would no doubt have increased the stench exponentially – Julian Litten, in his book The English Way of Death, notes that intramural vault burials usually required a triple encasing for the corpse, in both wood and soldered lead, so as to ensure that the coffin was water-tight and air-tight [3].  Discarding the outer shell of the coffin, Howse disposed of the occupants in deep pits filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.

It was also said that extensive building work, such as at Waterloo Bridge, allowed Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel.[4]

Dancing on the dead


Contemporary image of Enon Chapel’s notorious ‘Dancing on the Dead’. Image Source: Wellcome Images.

When Howse died in 1842, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant, Mr Fitzpatrick, took up residence in 1844. Despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, he was not put off, and simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of  ‘Dancing on the dead’:

‘Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’

Who says teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!

The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:

‘Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”

The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker

George 'Graveyard' Walker

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker. Image source: Wellcome Institute.

Not everyone appreciated this grim humour.  George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner, was Not Amused. And with good reason, he had had the misfortune to have viewed Enon Chapel vault in all its gory glory, first hand. In his book, Gatherings from grave yards, a survey of 47 London burial grounds,  published in 1839, Walker described it thus:

‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’ [5]

As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health.  It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’.

This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.

A Court for King Cholera

Victorian Image showing a slum court, with the living and the dead side by side.

The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and reformer Edwin Chadwick, led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842. The committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action. The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of suburban garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Brookwood. Cemeteries that were designed as much to be enjoyed by visitors, as to bury the dead.

Roll up, Roll up – for the gravest show on earth!

There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian death lover. And the public came in their droves – upwards of 6000 came to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.

A Pyramid of Bones, photograph by John Sullivan.

A Pyramid of Bones. Image source: John Sullivan public domain.

Despite criticism, Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian way, he emphasised that the spectacle was educational (the same argument used by Madame Tussaud to elevate her Chamber of Horrors to a moral level) and he wasn’t precisely selling tickets – but he did accept contributions from visitors. Less educational and more sensational was the highlight of the Enon tour. Visitors came face to shrivelled face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ [6]

A case of poetic justice, the greedy speculator responsible for the desecration of so many of the deceased, found his own final resting place disturbed in the most unseemly way.

Footnote – it’s all in a name

It is interesting to note, as Catherine Arnold does in her fascinating book Necropolis, London and its dead, which I would highly recommend, that if you look beyond the traditional explanation for the name Enon (the place near Salim where John the Baptist baptized converts), a far darker etymology emerges. Arnold points to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary which provides one possible meaning for Enon as ‘Mass of darkness’ – how very, very apt.

Enon Chapel is long since gone, the London School of Economics sits on its site now and the bones of the dead lie in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood.

If you want to find out more about London’s hidden dead, see the excellent and funny You Tube video by Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris at the end of the sources section)

Sources and notes

Images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Arnold, Catharine, Necropolis: London and its dead, 2007 [1] [2] [4]

Cochrane, Alex


Fitzharris, Dr Lindsay


Gibbon, Andrea,


Jackson, Lee

http://blog.yalebooks.com/2014/10/31/dirty-old-london-graveyards/ [6]

Jackson, Lee


Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death, the Common Funeral since 1450’,1992 [3]

Valentine, Carla,


Walker, George Alfred, Gatherings from Grave Yards, Particularly Those of London: with a Concise History of the Modes of Interment Among Different Nations, from the Earliest Periods. And a Detail of Dangerous and Fatal Results Produced by the Unwise and Revolting Custom of Inhuming the Dead in the Midst of the Living,     1839 [5]

Find out where the secret burials of London are with Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris: