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Traffic in corpses and the commodification of burial in Georgian London

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2014

JEREMY BOULTON
Affiliation:
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Newcastle University.

Abstract

This article argues, using evidence from Georgian London, that historical demographers need to revisit the effects of two inter-related phenomena: the effects of burial fees on interment practices and the ebb and flow of a very considerable ‘traffic in corpses’. By the eighteenth century burial space in London was at a premium and there was an active market in the provision of suitable, and affordable, burial grounds. This article is based on the sextons' books of the Westminster parish of St Martin in the Fields. These books are very unusual in recording exported ‘certificate’ and ‘arrears’ burials. The ‘traffic in corpses’ revealed by this source is analysed in some detail and burial fees turn out to be of great importance in understanding local fluctuations in interment practices. A neighbouring parish, St Anne, Soho, was acting as a veritable ‘clandestine burial centre’ which interred non-parishioners for profit on a huge scale for most of the eighteenth century. The ‘commodification’ of burial, driven partly by considerations of cost, thus had a major impact on interment practices in the eighteenth-century metropolis. A key finding is that, due to this postmortem flow of corpses, the total number of recorded burials in any one parish may not necessarily have been driven by fluctuations in local mortality rates.

Trafic de cadavres à londres et marchandisation de sépulture à l’époque georgienne

S'appuyant sur des archives Londoniennes de l’époque Georgienne, l'auteur soutient que les historiens démographes doivent revoir les effets de deux phénomènes qui sont interdépendants: le coût des frais d'inhumation qui conditionne les pratiques de mise en terre des défunts et la fluctuation du « trafic de cadavres », ce dernier étant très important. A Londres, au 18e siècle, tout espace pouvant accueillir une tombe valait de l'or, et il y existait donc un marché actif, dans le cadre duquel des lieux de sépulture convenables étaient proposés à des prix pouvant trouver preneur. Cet article repose sur les registres des fossoyeurs de la paroisse de St Martin in the Fields, Westminster. Ces livres sont très rares en ce qu'y sont enregistrés des enterrements «certifiés» exportés et des sépultures « retardées ». Le « trafic de cadavres » révélé par cette source est analysé en détail et le montant des frais funéraires apparaît d'une grande importance si l'on veut comprendre les fluctuations locales dans les pratiques d'inhumation. Tout au long du 18e siècle, une paroisse voisine, St Anne, Soho, fonctionna en « centre clandestin », proposant d'inhumer des morts qui n’étaient pas de ses paroissiens, dans son cimetière, et cela pour un gigantesque profit financier. La «marchandisation» de l'inhumation, issue en partie de considérations de coûts, a donc eu un impact majeur sur les pratiques d'enterrement dans cette capitale qu'est Londres au dix-huitième siècle. En raison même de cette circulation post-mortem de cadavres, un des principaux résultats de cet article est que le nombre total de sépultures enregistrées dans une paroisse n’était en rien nécessairement conséquence des fluctuations des taux de mortalité locaux.

Leichenhandel und die kommodifizierung der beerdigung im georgianischen london

Auf der Basis von Quellen für das georgianische London stellt dieser Beitrag die These auf, dass historische Demographen zwei eng miteinander verbundene Phänomene neu unter die Lupe nehmen müssen: die Auswirkungen der Beerdigungsgebühren auf Grablegungspraktiken und die Auf- und Abschwünge eines ziemlich beachtlichen ‚Leichenhandels‘. Im 18. Jahrhundert waren Beerdigungsplätze in London heiß begehrt, und es gab einen aktiven Markt für die Bereitstellung angemessener und bezahlbarer Grabstätten. Dieser Beitrag fußt auf den Küsterbüchern der Gemeinde St.-Martin-in-the-Fields in Westminster, die auch – was sehr ungewöhnlich ist – „zertifizierte“ (‚certificate‘) und „rückständige“ (‚arrears‘) Begräbnisse verzeichnen. Eine nähere Untersuchung des durch diese Quelle aufgedeckten ‚Leichenhandels‘ ergibt, dass die Begräbnisgebühren von großer Bedeutung für das Verständnis der lokalen Fluktuationen bei den Grablegungspraktiken sind. Eine benachbarte Gemeinde, St. Anna in Soho, diente als veritables ‚geheimes Beerdigungszentrum‘, wo man das ganze 18. Jahrhundert hindurch Nicht-Gemeindeglieder in großem Umfang zu reinen Gewinnzwecken begrub. Die ‚Kommodifizierung‘ des Begräbnisses, die teilweise aus Kostenüberlegungen heraus betrieben wurde, hatte somit einen wesentlichen Einfluss auf Grablegung in der Metropole des 18. Jahrhunderts. Ein entscheidendes Ergebnis besteht darin, dass wegen dieses Leichenflusses die Gesamtzahl der registrierten Begräbnisse in einer einzelnen Gemeinde nicht unbedingt von den Fluktuationen der örtlichen Mortalitätsrate bestimmt gewesen sein muss.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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References

1 For some important recent work, see Harding, V., The dead and the living in Paris and London, 1500–1670 (Cambridge, 2002)Google Scholar; Jenner, M., ‘Death, decomposition and dechristianisation? Public health and church burial in eighteenth-century England’, English Historical Review 120, 487 (2005), 615–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Houlbrooke, R., Death, religion, and the family in England, 1480–1750 (Oxford, 1998)Google Scholar; Snell, K., ‘Gravestones, belonging and local attachment in England 1700–2000’, Past and Present 179, 1 (2003), 97134CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tarlow, S., Bereavement and commemoration. An archaeology of mortality (Oxford, 1999)Google Scholar; Gordon, B. and Marshall, P. eds., The place of the dead. Death and remembrance in late medieval and early modern Europe (Cambridge, 2000)Google Scholar; McDermott, R., ‘Burial location in the parish of Earls Colne, 1550–1830’, Local Population Studies 89 (2012), 6876Google Scholar. For a reassessment of the reliability of the London bills of mortality, see Schwarz, L. and Boulton, J., ‘Yet another inquiry into the trustworthiness of eighteenth-century London's bills of mortality’, Local Population Studies 85 (2010), 2845Google Scholar. See also Razzell, Peter, ‘Infant mortality in London, 1538–1850: a methodological study’, Local Population Studies 87 (2011), 4564Google Scholar.

2 Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871. A reconstruction (Cambridge, 1989), 100–2Google Scholar, 136–42, 152–4.

3 Stuart Basten, ‘Registration practices in Anglican parishes and dissenting groups in northern England, 1770–1840’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2008). For a recent exception, see Razzell, Peter, Christine Spence and Matthew Woollard, ‘The evaluation of Bedfordshire burial registration, 1538–1851’, Local Population Studies 84 (2010), 3154Google Scholar. See also Razzell, P. E. and Spence, C., ‘The history of infant, child and adult mortality in London, 1550–1850’, London Journal 32, 3 (2007), 271–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Snell, K., ‘Parish registration and the study of labour mobility’, Local Population Studies 33 (1984), 2943Google Scholar; Schofield, R., ‘Traffic in corpses: some evidence from Barming, Kent (1788–1812)’, Local Population Studies 33 (1984), 4953Google Scholar. See also Basten, ‘Registration practices’, 68–92, especially 88–92; Krause, J. T., ‘The changing adequacy of English registration, 1690–1837’, in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C. eds., Population in history. Essays in historical demography (London, 1965), 379–93Google Scholar; Basten, S., ‘Traffic in corpses: further evidence from late-Georgian north-east England’, Local Population Studies 88 (2012), 84–8Google Scholar.

5 Snell, ‘Parish registration’, 33.

6 Vanessa Harding finds that only 7 out of 532 (1.3 per cent) individuals were carried out of the parish for burial at St Helen's Bishopsgate between 1640 and 1658; Harding, The dead and the living, 57. Recording of deaths as opposed to burials might have been more common during the period, 1695–1706, when the Marriage Duty Act was in force; see Boulton, Jeremy, ‘The Marriage Duty Act and parochial registration in London, 1695–1706’, in Schürer, Kevin and Arkell, Tom eds., Surveying the people: the interpretation and use of document sources for the study of population in the later seventeenth century (Oxford, 1992), 242–50Google Scholar, especially n. 88.

7 This is demonstrable in St Martin's: in 1771, 26 individuals paid fees to the churchwardens for being ‘carried away’ (in all cases the individuals were charged for the use of parish bells) but in that same year a total of 175 individuals incurred the 12 d fee for an export ‘certificate’. See City of Westminster Archives Centre (hereafter COWAC) F149, 153.

8 This initial sample consisted of 69,350 interments in the sextons' books, together with 3,478 registered separately in a parochial burying ground in Camden Town. Burial books dated between 1747 and 1767 which include the names, addresses and costs of burial of those ‘in arrears’ added a further 3,111 unique burials. Throughout this article the term ‘sextons’ books’ refers to the following burial books held at COWAC, MS 419/233–244; 419/265–269; F2465, F2467, F2469. The Camden Town registers are at 419/123.

9 Harvey, C. E., Green, E. M. and Corfield, P. J., ‘Continuity, change, and specialization within metropolitan London: the economy of Westminster, 1750–1820’, Economic History Review 52 (1999), 469–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schwarz, L., ‘Hanoverian London: the making of a service town’, in Clark, P. and Gillespie, R. eds., Two capitals. London and Dublin 1500–1840 (Oxford, 2001), 93110Google Scholar; Spence, C., London in the 1690s: a social atlas (London, 2000)Google Scholar, esp. 81–8, 106–12; Schwarz, L. D., London in the age of industrialisation. Entrepreneurs, labour force and living conditions, 1700–1850 (Cambridge, 1992), 710CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 104–7.

10 For some recent work on poverty in London, see Green, D. R., Pauper capital. London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870 (Farnham, 2010)Google Scholar, especially 51–79; Spence, London in the 1690s, 66–75; Hitchcock, T., Down and out in eighteenth-century London (London, 2004)Google Scholar; Boulton, J., ‘Parish nurses in early modern London’, Family and Community History 10 (2007), 127–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The Hog Lane Almshouses also contained a French church.

12 Lloyd's Evening Post, Wednesday, 18 July 1764, issue 1096 correctly reported the first burial (of Judith Collimore) in the Drury Lane ground. For details of the new burying ground, see COWAC F2007/290–1, 304, 316. Concern had been expressed regarding the state of the New Burial Ground as early as 1756, COWAC F2007/172.

13 Lloyd's Evening Post, 7 December 1764, issue 1157.

14 For detail on interment practices, see the vestry minutes, especially COWAC F2008/13, 351, 355 and the overseers' accounts, 1778–1786: F573/2; F575/2r, 32r; F577/8r, 9r, 10r, 12r; F579/4r, 29r; F581/29r; F587; F589.

15 ‘Camden Town’, Survey of London: volume 24: The parish of St Pancras part 4: King's Cross neighbourhood (1952), pp. 134–9, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=65574 [accessed 26 May 2010].

16 Alfred Walker, George, Gatherings from graveyards 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 & fatal results produced by the unwise & revolting custom of inhuming the dead in the midst of the living (London and Nottingham, 1839)Google Scholar, Kessinger reprint, 162–3. By 1842, 10,982 corpses had been interred at Camden Town since its opening; see the account given in Edwin Chadwick's Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty's principal secretary of state for the Home Department (London, 1843), 100.

17 Maitland, W., The history of London, from its foundation by the Romans, to the present time, III (London, 1739), 537–8Google Scholar.

18 Birch, T., A collection of the yearly bills of mortality, from 1657 to 1758 inclusive (London, 1759), 5Google Scholar. I must thank Peter Razzell for this reference.

19 There were 48 cases, from 1767, where such individuals also paid for ‘certificates’ or bells only. These have all been treated as exported burials.

20 In two cases in May 1776 marginalia included instructions to the parish bearers regarding the fetching of the corpse. The 50-year-old Andrew Lee was brought from St Anne, Soho from a ‘Cheesemongers – Bearers to go to Queen Street Soho’; in the same month, the 78-year-old Mary Reeves was brought from St Margaret's (Westminster): ‘Bearers to go to Mr. Young Petty France’, COWAC 419/237. In 1765 parish overseers ‘paid the Bearers for fetching the body of Hannah Penson from Tottenham Court Road 4s’, COWAC F547. In 1824 the increased fees set by the vestry for erecting gravestones distinguished between parishioners, lodgers and non-parishioners, F2011/164.

21 Strange, Julie-Marie, Death, grief and poverty in Britain, 1870–1914 (Cambridge, 2005), 163CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Schofield, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 52.

23 Boulton, ‘Marriage Duty Act’, 247–50.

24 Adams, R. H., The parish clerks of London. A history of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks of London (London, 1971), 5960Google Scholar. The quote is from the Orders and rules of the Parish Clerks, pictured in Plate IX.

25 This 12 d fee for the certificate, what was also termed a ‘searchers report’, seems to have been split equally between the deputy parish clerk, the sextons and the two searchers; see the fascinating pamphlet by the Reverend William Boyer of St Martin's, Clerical policy; or, a short account of the impositions, encroachments, and regulations, of the Revd William Wrighte, Clerk in Orders, of the Parish of St Martin in the Fields (London, 1784), 6. For a clear description of the certificate system in London, see also Black, William, An arithmetical and medical analysis of the diseases and mortality of the human species (London, 1789), 254–7Google Scholar.

26 Three were sent ‘to St Anns’, one to Covent Garden, one to ‘the Savoy’ and one ‘to Bloomsbury’, COWAC 419/234.

27 The registers of these remaining neighbouring parishes do not consistently identify the burials of non-parishioners in this period.

28 This is particularly so since many of these burials were identified by street rather than parish. Even using local maps, street names are sometimes difficult to match precisely to parish and a small number are suspected strongly to have belonged to neighbouring parishes.

29 There was no provision for pauper burial at Bunhill. Only 13 per cent of those St Martin's residents interred at Bunhill paid less than 10 s in burial fees. See The National Archives (TNA) RG4/3980–97, 4288–90, 4633.

30 No family relationships are given, so this is an impression based on shared surname and local address.

31 Assuming that the certificates only recorded 70 per cent of all exports, and discounting imported burials in the overall total.

32 See Birch, A collection of the yearly bills, 5. It is probable, judging from the given number of burials per year, that this parish was indeed St Martin's.

33 Birch, A collection of the yearly bills, 6.

34 Schofield, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 51. See also Houlbrooke, Death, religion, and the family, 330–71, esp. 364–6; Harding, The dead and the living, 134–5.

35 Harding, The dead and the living, 272. In 1843, a London cleric condemned the new joint-stock private cemeteries: “And so,” said a highly intelligent gentleman, pointing to a cemetery of this class, “the time is come when Christian burial is made an article of traffic”, Chadwick, Supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns, 115.

36 Harding, The dead and the living, 59–61, 135–6, 207, 270–1; Burn, R., The Ecclesiastical Law, I (London, 1767), 234–6Google Scholar, 242–7; Snell, ‘Parish registration’, 36.

37 Lambeth Palace Library, LPL MS 2716/ff.7–8. Thanks are due to Dr Field, Jacob, who transcribed the document. It was drawn up as part of the proceedings of the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches. References to burial fees sent in by parishes occur in the minutes only in 1724–1725; Port, M. H. ed., The Commissions for Building Fifty New Churches. The minute books, 1711–27, A calendar, London Record Society 23 (1986), 113Google Scholar, 116–17, 126, 130. A Table of ‘funeral fees’ was to be set up in the Vestry Room of St Martin's early in 1725, F2006/157. Fees charged in 1840 are listed in Cauch, J., The funeral guide; or, a correct list of the burial fees, &c of the various grounds in the metropolis, & five miles round. Also, the cemeteries near London names and residences of sextons or parish clerks registrars of births and deaths, etc (London, 1840), 23Google Scholar, 39.

38 The sextons' books sometimes itemise the provision of ‘prayers’ (although this might well have been included in the Table under ‘attendance’), bell ringing and moving pavements. Occasionally the sexton collected the fine for burial in linen rather than wool as stipulated by statute.

39 In 1764, the vestry set out fees for the new Drury Lane Burial Ground, which distinguished between children aged between 6 and 12 years, and children under 6 years.

40 The French Chapel was located in Hog Lane, in Soho. From 1790 the ground was used exclusively by almshouse inmates.

41 For money wages, see Schwarz, Leonard D., ‘The standard of living in the long run: London, 1700–1860’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 38 (1985), 2441Google Scholar.

42 For a similar case, see Harding, The dead and the living, 61.

43 Both the churches of St George the Martyr, and St George, Hanover Square, charged ‘strangers’ double fees, unless the parties involved could demonstrate poverty; Port, Commissions for building churches, 126, 130; Harding, The dead and the living, 134–6. Double fees were the norm in nearly all London parishes by 1840; Cauch, The funeral guide, passim.

44 The parish vestry set out its ‘opinion’ on reasonable ‘gross’ fees for the ground ‘lately consecrated’ at Drury Lane in 1764. It prescribed totals of a guinea for the interment of a man or a woman, 4 s 6 d for a child under 6 years, and 7 s for a child aged between 6 and 12 years; COWAC F2007/316.

45 The number of imported adult burials at Drury Lane fell from 39 to 13 between 1770 and 1771. Adult burial imports made up 27 per cent of all burials at Drury Lane in 1770 but only 11 per cent in 1771.

46 The funeral expenses of Thomas Whaley ‘late one of the Bedels of this Parish’ were only 12 per cent of the total cost of his funeral; COWAC F419/237; F571/26r. Chadwick estimated that burial duties were 15 per cent of the total costs of a funeral of an adult artisan; Supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns, 71.

47 Thus the London edition of the Daily Gazetteer reported on 23 November 1736 (issue 440), ‘On Friday and on Saturday Morning last two Female Infants were left naked and dead in the Church-yard of St. Martin in the Field, which having no Marks of Violence about them, ‘tis supposed they were dropped there because those they belonged to were not able to pay the Burial Fees’. This ‘morbid economy of the poor’ will be dealt with in my forthcoming article on pauper burial.

48 There were 47,759 interments at Soho recorded in the parish register between 1747 and 1792, of which at least 69 per cent were of non-parishioners.

49 For a discussion of the traffic in corpses and its effects on the London bills of mortality, see Schwarz and Boulton, ‘Yet another inquiry’, 28–45.

50 See the vestry minutes of St Anne, Soho, COWAC A2203/50–4, 396–400, 403–406.

51 Covent Garden's interment of large number of strangers has been detected recently by Razzell, ‘Infant mortality in London’, Table 5.

52 COWAC H805/157–8.

53 The heavy traffic in corpses complicates Landers' analysis of ‘spatial variations in mortality’ in eighteenth-century London; Landers, J., Death and the metropolis: studies in the demographic history of London, 1670–1830 (Cambridge 1993), 301–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 See Basten, ‘Registration practices’, 92; Basten, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 88.

55 Schofield, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 52.

56 Snell, ‘Parish registration’, 29–43. For the differing proportions of children and adults imported into a sample of London parishes, see Razzell, ‘Infant mortality in London’, Table 5.

57 Schofield, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 52–3. For the latest on this, see Razzell, Peter, ‘Living same-name siblings in England, 1439–1851’, Local Population Studies 87 (2011), 65–9Google Scholar; Galley, Chris, Garrett, Eilidh, Davies, Ros and Reid, Alice, ‘Living same-name siblings and English historical demography: a reply to Peter Razzell’, Local Population Studies 87 (2011), 70–9Google Scholar.

58 Wrigley, E. A., Davies, R. S., Oeppen, J. E. and Schofield, R. S., English population history from family reconstitution 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997), 97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Basten, ‘Registration practices’, 91.

59 For imports in Newcastle, see Basten, ‘Registration practices’, 91, Table 2.13. For Barming, Kent, see Schofield, ‘Traffic in corpses’, 51.

60 London was atypical both for the wealth and number of its inhabitants, the huge choice of available burying places, and a tradition of extra-parochial interment that went back to the sixteenth century; Harding, The dead and the living, 59, 85, 90–101. Newcastle's interment practices were distorted by the custom, followed by around half the town's inhabitants, of opting for burial in the huge extra-parochial burying ground of Ballast Hills; Basten, ‘Registration practices’, 74–88. Razzell et al., using evidence from wills, argue that far lower percentages of testators were buried outside their parishes of residence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Razzell, Spence and Woollard, ‘Evaluation of Bedfordshire burial registration’, 41–2.

61 Harding, Vanessa, ‘“And one more may be laid there”: the location of burials in early modern London’, London Journal 14, 2 (1989), 112–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 114. See also Harding, The dead and the living, 52, 60.

62 Gill Newton informs me that between 1674 and 1720 the St Mary Colechurch registers record 7 per cent of all burials to extra-parochial grounds. Razzell agrees that ‘the traffic in corpses was extensive in some parts of London, and potentially a significant problem for reconstitution studies of individual parishes'; Razzell, ‘Infant mortality in London’, 51.

63 See Snell, ‘Gravestones, belonging and local attachment’, especially 100–3, 107–9, 116–18, 120–4.

64 Holmes, B., The London burial grounds: notes on their history from the earliest times to the present day (London, 1896), 191–7Google Scholar; Krause, ‘Changing adequacy’, 389. For a definitive discussion of the notorious Enon chapel, see Jupp, Peter C., ‘Enon Chapel: no way for the dead’, in Jupp, Peter C. and Howarth, Glennys eds., The changing face of death. Historical accounts of death and disposal (Basingstoke, 1997), 90104CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The ‘vast number of persons buried there’ was accounted for by the ‘cheapness of the fee’, Jupp, ‘Enon Chapel’, 92. See also Rugg, Julie, ‘From reason to regulation: 1760–1850’, in Jupp, Peter C. and Gittings, Clare eds., Death in England. An illustrated history (Manchester, 1999), 219–21Google Scholar; Walker, Gatherings from graveyards, 232, n. 1.

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