View Full Version : A horrible history

06-08-13, 19:31
Had a fruitless morning at the London Metropolitan Archives. On the plus side, wondered down to the Guildhall Library, then spent a pleasant afternoon wondering around the city checking out all those church names that come up so much on GF discussion threads!

At the entrance to Spa Fields Park near the LMA, a sign caught my eye:

Bone House and Graveyard
...during 50 years, 80,000 internments took place, many more than the 2,722 originally provided for. Each night coffins and bodies were exhumed and burnt in the Bone House to make room for fresh burials. Local residents, who got ill from the fumes, suspected that Mr Bird, the manager, and Steven Bishop, the watchman of the burying ground, were burning bodies after having buried them.

The site of the Spa Fields Chapel was originally a tea room called The Pantheon, which was converted into a Methodist chapel in 1779 by The Countess of Huntingdon.

Soon after Spa Fields Chapel was opened, some speculators leased from the Marquis of Northampton the two acres of the former tea house's garden and converted it into a general burying-ground.

The new cemetery, embedded among houses, was intended to bring in a pretty penny, as it was calculated to have room for 2,722 adults, but it soon began to fill at the rate of 1,500 bodies annually, there being sometimes thirty-six burials a day. It's popularity was in part due to the fact the charges at the new burying ground undercut that of the parish churches.

In May 1802, the gravedigger, Joseph Naples, was indicted at Clerkenwell sessions for body snatching. Unfortunately for him, he met up with a Bow Street runner one evening, who became suspicious of the large load on Naples's shoulders. When challenged, Naples ran off. The load turned out to be the recently buried bodies of a woman and child.

It emerged that Naples had been involved in supplying the local hospitals with up to three bodies a day during the winter season, using a basket the hospitals had helpfully provided. He would also supply just the head of anyone who had died of something particularly interesting. He once offered the local undertaker a range of shrouds, caps, pillows etc., which he claimed were little worse for wear. The undertaker, refused to buy them. When Naples’s privy was drained, it was found to be full of shrouds.

Over 50 years, it was computed that 80,000 interments had taken place in this pestilential graveyard.

In 1842, some terrible disclosures began to ooze out, proving the shameless greediness of the human ghouls who farmed the Spa Fields burial-ground.

It was found that it was now the nightly custom to exhume bodies and burn the coffins, to make room for fresh arrivals. To make the new grave seven or eight bodies were actually chopped up, and corpses recently interred were frequently dragged up by ropes, so that the coffin might be removed and split up for struts to prop up the new-made graves. Bodies were sometimes destroyed after only two days' burial.

A grave-digger who, being discharged, insisted on removing the body of his child, which had been recently interred, declared that he and his mates had buried as many as forty-five bodies in one day, besides still-borns. In one year they had had 2,017 funerals, and the stones of families who had purchased graves in perpetuity were frequently displaced and destroyed.

The inhabitants of the neighbourhood then petitioned Parliament, complaining of the infectious smells from the burial ground, and of the shameful scandal generally.

'The lessees of the ground,' says a historian of Clerkenwell, 'sought to allay the general excitement by repudiating the charges brought against their underlings, but there was no mitigation of the evil complained of - nightly burnings still took place.'

On the night of the 14 December 1843, an alarm was raised that the Bone House of Spa Fields ground was on fire. An engine-keeper stated he saw in the grate a rib bone and other bones, partly burnt, and a quantity of coffin-wood in different stages of decay.

By the exertions of Mr G A Walker, MD, of the Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns, seconded by several of the principal inhabitants, this disgraceful state of things was brought again under the attention of the magistrates, and the lessees, managers, and others were summoned to appear at the Clerkenwell Police Court, when other revolting statements were made and confirmed. At length these disgusting and loathsome practices were suppressed by law.

In the 50 pages of Burial Ground Incendiarism. The Last Fire at the Bone-House at the Spa-Fields Golgotha (1846), Walker described the burning of coffins and body parts, the gruesome charges of witnesses to the recycling that allowed 1,500 bodies a year to go into an area of 2 acres for 50 years.

When the burying ground was bought by London County Council in 1885, there was not a single headstone left.

06-08-13, 20:39
Oh yes. Some of best mate's rellies were buried there.

We used to sit in the gardens enjoying our lunch many times before we realised.

Olde Crone
06-08-13, 22:41
Well thankyou for that charming bedtime tale, Shona, I was just off to my bed but think I might stay up a bit now!


Chris in Sussex
07-08-13, 07:02
If anyone is interested in the history of London burials then I thoroughly recommend

'Necropolis London and its dead' by Catherine Arnold.

Maybe not one for bedtime reading though:)


07-08-13, 13:43
"Necropolis" is a great read. Also, if you want to continue in grim vein, there's "The Italian Boy" by Sarah Wise which is about bodysnatching in London in the 1830s, but gives a broad social history of the times too.