Mortality was high for Victorians, especially for children. Early Victorians believed that allocation to heaven or hell was decided in the hour of death and they idolised the notion of a slow death so that families would be able to crowd around the dying to say goodbye, and to witness religious raptures before death. By the late Victorian period this had changed to the hope for a quick and painless death over a melodramatic affair.
Death was treated differently by the different classes. The Industrial Revolution had improved the mortality rates for the middle and upper classes, and they began to see early death as a tragedy rather than the norm. Their funerals became more elaborate- horses and carriages and a procession of mourners, and mourning practices became more important. Queen Victoria became a trendsetter for the weeping widow all in black after Prince Albert died, which she continued to wear until she died. Funerals and mourning became more ostentatious, large scale funerals and monuments for the wealthy became the way to be. It was a good opportunity to show off wealth.
Richard Barton (1821-1890) had been a great explorer in Arabia and the first European to get into forbidden Muslim cities without being executed. Known as being brilliant but with a “fascination with unusual sexual practices and erotic perversions” his tomb is a full-scale Arab Sheik’s tent with stone flaps of cloth and Arab lamps on the floor. Improved mortality was not the case for the poor, whose death rate remained higher, especially for children, whose lot was made worse by having to go without in order for the family to save for a potential funeral. Funeral Plans came to be, members could save weekly. Families who did not have a plan or the money would have to go to the Poor Union who would arrange a ‘paupers funeral’. The body would be buried in a communal grave without ceremony or headstone. Those who could afford a decent burial and gravestone often did everything possible to protect their loved one from grave robbers looking for valuables or body snatchers. Watchmen kept guard over the grave, spring guns and primitive landmines could be set with at least one body snatcher being killed by it. Iron railing surrounding graves as well as heavy lids and secure fastening were common. In Northumberland and Scotland iron loops known as ‘mort safes’ which were coffin-shaped iron cages which went both above and below ground, where used to prevent coffins being dug up. Digging a coffin up from 6 feet under in the dead of the night was hard work. To make life easier a small hole was dug, the coffin lid broken, and the corpse pulled through the gap, leaving most of the coffin intact.
In the remote villages up north, if the body was to be buried on consecrated ground, it was slung on a packhorse and carried in all weathers along the ‘Corpse Road’ leading to the nearest burial ground. As the journey could take 2-3 days, a dead house could be used for resting. Everyone feared the ‘resurrection men’ or ‘body snatchers’ who were well paid by medical students encouraged by surgeons and anatomists to obtain bodies by any means possible to practice dissection. In the early nineteenth century this was big business, corpses were never defined as legal property and so it was technically not a crime. The bereaved often did shifts to protect the grave after burial and it was not until the 1832 Anatomy Act that allowed donated and unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection, that body snatching began to be not so necessary. Coffin wood was sold to the poor as firewood, street levels were in places 5-6 feet higher because of the corpses buried onto top of each other. Gravediggers sometimes jumped on the coffins to push them further down; the stench of decaying bodies in church vaults could cause members of the congregation to faint; human bones from paupers graves were ground up to be used as fertilizer and the overwhelming number of corpses being buried in London led Parliament to have cemeteries built on the outskirts of town to alleviate the problem, and even further out in the Surrey Hills where bodies could be transported on the Necropolis railway.
One of the creepiest crime waves in the East of London were the body snatchers known as the London Burkers- burking meaning ‘killing someone for their marketable cadaver’. A gang led by John Bishop and Thomas Williams, who began by robbing fresh graves and graduated to murder for an even fresher corpse to sell to the anatomists who had worked with such criminals for almost a century. However, there was some ethic with the medics, who refused to buy the corpse of a 14-year-old boy as the corpse looked suspicious, too fresh and no sign of burial. They were arrested and confessed to spiking the drinks of their intended victims with laudanum and then drowning them in a well to leave the body intact. They admitted to selling between 500-1000 bodies to anatomists at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, St Thomas’ Hospital and King’s College. Around 60 were murder victims, which included pregnant women as they fetched a higher price. They were executed by hanging at Newgate Prison with around 30,000 coming to watch. The bodies were then taken to King’s College for dissection, the remains being put on display for the crowds over the following days. The police even opened up the cottage belonging to Bishop for the public to view and take away a souvenir from the premises by paying an entry fee. The land where the cottage was located was bought in 1869 by philanthropist Angela Burdett-Couts and the Columbia Road Market was established. The pub where they chose their victims is now where the London School of Economics is based. This crime prompted Parliament to pass an act against the selling of bodies by grave robbers, this had not been recognised previously as a crime as a body was not property. It was then arranged that any cadaver not claimed in 48 hours could be lawfully dissected if no objection had been stated by the deceased.
Some welcomed the idea of their insides and remains being on view. The son of Charles Babbage (1791-1871 inventor of the Difference machine) donated his father’s brain as he had requested for it to be taken out and preserved. Half is in the Hunterian Museum; the other half is pickled in a jar on display at the Science Museum. Many brains of great men were kept in the nineteenth century. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) donated his body to the university College in Gower Street. His embalmed body, displayed in the way his will stipulated, represents his motto of t ‘happiness of the greater number’, he probably did not mean this to signify that the students there could play football with his head, which had to be later replaced with a replica. The lack of bodies supplied from public executions was the reason the trade in corpses began. There had been campaigns led by Dickens and William Makepeace Thackery to stop public executions, they had been utterly appalled at the public’s enjoyment of it. There were so many spectators on hanging Monday that sometimes some were crushed to death. The last public execution was in 1868, but capital punishment behind closed doors continued until 1964.
It had been believed that poverty was a moral failure on the part of the poor who were unable to grasp the lessons of the free market; that unemployment was due to being lazy and that only way to make these lazy people work was to make the alternative – the workhouse- as unpleasant and degrading as possible, thus making poorly paid employment a better alternative. Anyone who died in the workhouse ended up on a dissecting table. There were some awful jobs that the poor did to avoid going into the workhouse such as the Pure Finder who collected dog poo for the tanneries; leech collectors who used themselves as human traps; Toshers who sifted through raw sewage to find any valuables despite noxious gases, crumbling tunnels, swarms of rats and tides which could drown them. Teenage girls worked in terrible conditions in match factories, the toxic white phosphorus giving them unbearably painful abscesses in their mouths, facial disfigurement and fatal brain damage, a condition known as ‘phossy jaw”. This horrific disease caused their jaw bones to glow in the dark. Mudlarks, usually children, dredged the banks of the Thames looking for anything they could sell and hoping they would not get stuck in the mud or washed away by the tide; or trawling through the pockets of suicide bodies washed up at Deadman’s Hole beneath Tower Bridge.
Children as young as four where employed as chimney sweeps, a job that caused irreversible lung damage. Rat catchers often caught their prey alive with bare hands and suffered the bites that caused terrible infections, so they could sell them to be used in fighting pits against dogs. Mid-Victorian philanthropists began to change this view, arguing that poverty was a result of disease and that state intervention was needed to improve their prospects. The London Free Hospital was founded by William Marsden, funded by public conscription and donation, but a letter of recommendation was needed for treatment. A ‘Boys Home’ was set up in 1870 in Stepney by local GP Thomas Barnado. He adopted the policy of ‘no destitute child ever refused admission’ in 1871 after a boy had been turned away in 1871 because the dormitory was too full. Dr Barnado had found him frozen to death near the entrance in a barrel. London’s hospitals had their own burial plots, conditions were so grim that patients were expected to pay a fee towards their funeral expenses on admission.
Disease was widespread in the nineteenth century. This was a century of huge social change. In 1800 approx. 80% of the British population lived in the countryside or coastal villages in small communities. By 1900 approx. 80% lived in the industrial towns and cities. The Industrial Revolution bought wealth to some and poverty, squalor and disease to others. Dickens reported that walking through Fen Court that the “rot and mildew and dead citizens formed the uppermost scent”, and he characterised the stench in a slum of St Pancras as “being enough to knock down a bullock”. Cholera made an appearance in 1831 and had four major outbreaks spreading rapidly and indiscriminately during the Victorian period. The physical effects were repulsive, many victims spending their last moments in massive quantities of diarrhoea their bodies a shade of blue. Water born diseases were prolific as the water supply being consumed by Londoners was mixed with the contents of the sewers, slaughterhouses, hospitals, industrial waste, decomposing vegetation and animals. In 1850 journalist Arthur Hassall wrote of the London Water Supply’ “a portion of the inhabitants of the metropolis are made to consume, in some form or another, a portion of their own excrement, and moreover, to pay fo the privilege”. In 1854 a Soho general practitioner, Snow, realised that the cholera outbreak in his parish was due to the water pump, not the commonly believed miasma notion. His clinic and lodgings on Broad Street are now a pub called the “John Snow”. The Metropolitan Board of Works, a government body, was responsible for the reform of sanitation. In 1844 it decreed that all newly built houses had to be connected to public sewers. Two years later the overloaded River Fleet literally exploded showering Holborn and Clerkenwell with sewage. Cesspits in private houses were banned resulting in more than three million Londoners disposing of their excrement through the four hundred drains going into the Thames. There were no longer fish in the river, storms caused jets of raw sewage to flood nearby houses and during the hot summers the river level dropped, and the banks were lined with rotting excrement. Parliament had to close for several weeks because of the Great Stink. Finally, in 1858 they commissioned Joseph Bazalgette to sort out the problem. He was revolutionary and brilliant in his execution of a new sewers, even if it caused a loss of income for the toshers (one of the worst jobs in history) who had made a living searching through the city’s storm drains for
coins, copper or jewellery. They were attacked by groups of rats or could be drowned in sewage if the flood gates opened. Putting up with these appalling conditions they were among the highest paid working-class people.
Bazalgette’s inspectors and cleaners also dealt with the savage pigs who lived in the sewers of Fleet Street and Hampstead. Sanitation became a national issue; personnel hygiene attitudes began to change, and toilets began to be part of ordinary life. Thomas Crapper made a fortune from this growing demand for luxurious and hygienic “sanitary ware”. The virtues of cleanliness and godliness led to many public baths being opened in working-class districts in the late nineteenth century.
Victorians enjoyed looking at victims of mental illness or natural freaks and would pay for the privilege of doing so. In 1845 Parliament passed an Act requiring all local authorities to build asylums for their lunatics and those seen to have deviant behaviour. Those like Bedlam made extra money by charging the public to come and see their inmates. Before 1800 medical supervision was not a legal requirement in an asylum, nor was good care. Acts for a medical presence only began to be passed from the 1820’s. Asylums varied in quality, a few were small and charged a fortune for their inmates to live in relatively comfortable conditions whereas others were hell holes plagued by corruption and cruelty where using whips and chains for therapy was acceptable. The assumption that the mad were like wild beasts requiring brutal taming, stock therapies and drugs prevailed. “Non-restraint” was introduced in the 1830’s, but old habits die hard, and it was not uncommon for an inmate to be strangled to death by one the restraints or die from injuries. In the 1870’s allegations of abuse and death in these institutions came under close scrutiny because of a disturbing number of patients whose post-mortems showed they had broken ribs. Newspapers reported cases of sadistic violence. Some attendants were dismissed for direct maltreatment, but generally it was
difficult to prove. Institutional deaths ‘established a regime of presumed consent to dissection’, only avoided if a formal objection was in place by the patient or a relative. Victorian asylums generally had their own mortuaries, and some had their own burial grounds. They had the right to sell the corpse to an anatomy school if not claimed within 48 hours, as did hospitals and the workhouse.
Madness was a commodious and flexible label used by some husbands to lock away the wives they were tired of. Commercial exploitation of midgets, bearded ladies and the macabre display of skeletal anorexia sufferers made for a day out. An umbrella term for unexplained female behaviour was ‘hysterical’ covering what was considered ‘female perversities and expressions of sociosexual deviance’. Male doctors always found ways to deal with this illness that afflicted women, the most novel was in the practice of Robert Dalrymple whose very successful treatment was achieved by inducing orgasms- this led to the Victorian invention of the vibrator. The film “Hysteria” shows us the success of treating a condition that does not exist and is very entertaining. Many medics, with their often-barbaric practices, were the cause of death for their patients who died from shock, post-operative infections and lack of aftercare. Surgery and spectacle went hand in hand, in 1839 the first anatomically correct model of a man wet on display in London complete with removable buttocks. The boundary between medical learning and sexual pleasure was blurred. A ton of graphically illustrated tracts were found in the basement of a book dealer by the ‘anti-vice’ squad. Those born with deformities such as Lord Byron with his club foot, were often believed to be sexually voracious. Many ‘cures’ were the cause of death. Coffee, tea and tobacco were seen to be a prospective cure and the threat of disease. Tobacco smoke was blown through a specially developed bellows up the anus as a cure for drowning. The contraption was available at various points along the Thames. The nineteenth-century production of cigarettes claimed medicinal properties and a defence against flu and consumption. Syphilis was treated with mercury, sometimes injected into the urethra, taken orally or rubbed on the skin – “A night with Venus could mean a lifetime with Mercury”. Sir Alfred Cooper was a fashionable medic who specialised in venereal disease, which gave him an interesting overview of Victorian aristocrats and their morality. Edward, the Prince of Wales was one his grateful patients who is said to be the reason for the knighthood, he received and with the reward that was given to the doctor he bought himself a flashy horse and carriage that was called the claptrap.
Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was made famous by her campaign to legalise birth control, eugenics and women’s rights. She hoped that the ‘unfit’ working classes would use her techniques, or better still, submit to sterilisation to reduce their births and make more room for the fitter, healthier middle-classes to reproduce.
Opium was processed into a variety of remedies. Dissolved in sherry or brandy it became laudanum; into pills and lozenges it was a cheap pain relief of toothache and a cure for insomnia. Arsenic and cocaine could be bought over the counter in a chemist, narcotic drugs were an established part of Victorian life. Children were given opiates to keep them quiet, it was known that it caused severe illness and death. Intoxicating substances came from all over the globe throughout the Victorian period, people like Thomas De Quincy educated generations of Londoners on getting high with substances obtained from the respectable chemists to the opium dens of Limehouse, described by Oscar Wilde in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” Alcoholism, usually from gin was also a problem. Sketches by Boz (1836) described the drunkenness witnessed in Gin Shops as “painful and repulsive”, “wretched broken-down miserable women, who form no inconsiderable portion of the frequenters of these haunts”. They go on to say that although gin drinking is a great vice in England, wretchedness is greater and until the lot of the half-famished poor is improved, gin shops will only increase as they try to obliviate their miserable lives. Desolate women were burdened with unwanted pregnancies, sometimes through no fault of their own, and there are many cases of new-born babies abandoned to die in the streets or sold into ‘baby-farming’, a common practice in Victorian England for women who would otherwise have to turn to prostitution or starvation. Desperate single mothers whose perceived immorality would mean the loss of their job and refused entry to the workhouse were desperate to get rid of their babies. Some babies were sold on to families who wanted a child, but in 1896 there was the case of nurse Amelia Dyer who was believed to have murdered hundreds of babies in the nineteenth century. She advertised an adoption service for a fee of £10, and for thirty years she murdered babies intended by their parents to be bought up in a happy home. She disposed of the babies in the Thames at Reading, but one was found wrapped in parcel paper with her smudged name and address on it. She was hanged at Newgate Prison and an exhibition of her crimes is hosed at the Thames Valley Police Museum.
Victorians were both religious and superstitious, and many precautions were taken so that the spirit of their deceased could pass on peacefully. Actions such as drawing curtains, stopping clocks at the time of death, covering mirrors with dark cloth, wearing black clothes or ribbons, turning pictures face down, and putting black crepe on doorhandles were some of their traditions. Family and friends of the deceased would look after the body. It was washed and dressed, and a nightcap or bonnet would keep the jaw closed. The body could go on display for two days so a sawdust mattress was used to absorb anything decomposition could discharge, and pungent smells were disguised by placing lavender and herbs around the corpse. During the watch before the funeral ringing a bell would ward off evil spirits. To attend a funeral required a written invitation, usually with a black border and delivered by messenger. The funeral was often held at home, unless the deceased was too prominent that the guests would not all fit in the house, but mourners could come beforehand to the house to pay their respects. Coffins were usually left open unless they were in church. The family would be seated to reflect their relationship to the deceased, seated if possible, in a separate room from the deceased so their guests would not be able to witness their grief. After the service, the family were escorted to be prepared for the procession to the graveyard, the add-ons usually reflecting the family’s wealth. If there were carriages, the first would contain the clergyman and the pallbearers who were usually six friends of the deceased. The next carriage was the hearse, usually black for an adult or white for a child, with glass sides and decorated in gold and silver; maybe extra black horses with black ostrich plumes or velvet coverings for the coffin and flowers. If the deceased had been in the mounted military, his horse would be in the parade after the hearse. Mourners know as Mutes, were employed to follow the coffin looking suitably morose and angelic. This was the job of Oliver in Dickens Oliver Twist when he was sold by the workhouse. It was followed by any number of carriages for relatives, distant relatives and friends. Mourners wore black, the widows keeping this up for a year, others wore black armbands. This was the time for the rise of the funeral director, funerals had been previously arranged between the family and church, but the extra pageantry gave rise to this job. The Victorian funeral was an expensive and major rite of passage. Some people had more money spent on them when they died than when they were alive. Because you could belong to multiple funeral clubs, suspected infanticide was not uncommon and in Manchester there was a saying ‘Aye, aye, that child shall not live; it is for the burial club’. Funeral directors would find out how much money was in the pot of a funeral club and tailor the funeral for the budget. Of the 100 deaths a day in London in the 1840s 250 undertakers competed for the bodies. No wonder undertakers were depicted as sinister characters not much better than the dreaded body snatchers. Dickens shares this dim view in Oliver Twists experience working for an undertaker and of the undertaker in Martin Chuzzlewit who disguises his trade by saying that it binds the broken heart. Undertakers exploited their grieving clients, and through guilt could make them spend more – after all an elaborate send-off was a mark of respect. Burials were done as soon as possible, Saturday was the aristocrat funeral day, and Sunday was for paupers.
There was a Victorian mourning etiquette and expected behaviour which was that after a specified period, depending on your relationship to the deceased, you moved into a different stage of mourning. It involved getting a whole new wardrobe! The first stage for women involved wearing heavy, dark crepe as this reflected the weight of sorrow, and no light. The outfit included a dark veil or bonnet and the overall look was to be dull with no ornaments or detailing. The veil was to be worn over the face if leaving the house and many women suffered from asthma, catarrh and even cataracts because of their exposure to the black dyes. Undergarments were white with black ribbon so that the dye would not stain the skin. The only acceptable jewellery was made of jet, a matte black stone. Men were expected to wear a black mourning suit, unless they were in the military or had to wear a uniform for work, then it was just a black armband. Women were expected to retreat from society for a year and have no visitors, but men had only to mourn their wife for six months, after which they could remarry, and they could still frequent society. Only women moved to the second stage of mourning (3-6 months), they could now remove the veil, and they could wear grey, lavender, mauve or white in the form of a collar or gloves, the main outfit could now be ashy or grey in undertone and the fabric could have some lustre. Other items of jewellery could be combined with the jet and this all symbolised the return of the mourner to a more active life. It was not uncommon to have a piece of the deceased’s hair worn in a locket or woven into jewellery. In the third stage crape was omitted and embroidery and lace could be worn, transition shades returning them gradually into society. Some widows never came out of wearing black, Queen Victoria being one of them. Quakers, on the other hand, discouraged mourning and did not believe in tombstones. In Jewish cemeteries the dead were interred as soon as possible after death in a plain wooden coffin, with no ornamental planting, laying of floral tributes or figurative sculptures, making them plain and austere. Some wealthy Jews such as the Rothschilds broke with this tradition and had large, impressive tombs.
In the 19th century there was segregation of male and female burials and, children usually went in unmarked graves. Funeral services are not held in the synagogue, but in the cemetery. When the graveyards became overcrowded earth was piled onto existing graves for new ones, and bodies were not seen coming out of the ground.
The 1880s Victorian mourning was exploited by merchandise used for capital gain – black crepe made a fortune for Courtaulds who invested his earnings in art and founded the Courtaulds Art Gallery in Somerset House. These large commercial gains have been called ‘the Victorian celebration of death’. Victorians considered a Good Death one where you died peacefully in bed, surrounded by your family who could kiss you goodbye and hear your last words of deep wisdom. A Bad Death was one where you died alone. Death was written about in novels and children’s books, there was an abundance of artwork which clearly distinguished the good death from the bad death. Socially excluded people were guaranteed a bad death, the worst type being suicide. Having violated Christian beliefs, burials of these victims could not take place in consecrated ground and mourning was denied. They were often buried at night at a crossroads on the edge of town to baffle the ghost. A stake was hammered through the heart, anchoring them to the ground so that they could not return to haunt the living. In St John’s Wood in a green opposite Lord’s Cricket ground is where John Mortland was buried in1823 with a stake through his heart after he had killed a poet in Montague Square and then killed himself. An Act was passed in 1823 to bury suicides in unconsecrated ground, only between 9pm – midnight. Suicide was not just illegal, but it had repercussions for the family. It was so dishonourable that like Dante Gabriel Rossetti thought to have destroyed Lizzie Siddal’s suicide note, a non-suicide verdict was often sought.
Victorians embraced newly invented photography, much cheaper than a portrait. Post-mortem photos were often taken, the corpse sometimes placed in a family group portrait, the eyes could be forced open, painted on closed eyelids or added to the developed photo. If it was a child, this might be the only photo ever taken of them. Photos of children with a dead parent or vice versa were common and not seen as macabre, but a way of preserving the memory of a family member. Photo albums of dead relatives and friends became increasingly popular. The Victorian fascination with death encouraged the production of a range of Momento Mori designed to be both a reminder of the deceased and of the owners own eventual demise. Death masks were created and images and symbols that the Victorians were so fond of cropped up in everyday paintings and sculpture. The newly built out of town graveyards became an area for reflection, relaxation and popular weekend excursions for the middle classes.
In 1852 inner-city burial grounds had been closed, and Dickens relished their gothic appeal: “so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who look down into them from their smoky windows”. People began to use them as rubbish tips. In 1843 Edwin Chadwick had suggested these disused burial grounds become parks and in 1869 Bunhill Fields became the first to be used as ‘a public walk’. It had closed in 1832 and great care was taken to raise the tombs, straighten headstones, recutting illegible inscriptions, restoring hundreds of decayed tombs, laying out paths and planting. One of the last surviving inner city burial grounds in London it has that Dickens like feel to it. Dissenter burials her include Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan. Golders Green Crematorium opened at the end of the Victorian period and was the chosen resting stop for atheistic radicals and agnostics, it is today Britain’s busiest crematorium. Those who chose to be burnt rather than buried include Enid Blyton (1897-1968), Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Rudyard Kipling (1865- 1936), Anna Pavlova (1885-1931) who is immortalised in a pudding and Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) whose discovery of penicillin saved more lives than anyone else in the last century.
Featured image by squeezeomatic, licensed under CC BY 2.0