Edwin Chadwick.

Report on the sanitary conditions 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 online

. (page 5 of 27)
Online LibraryEdwin ChadwickReport on the sanitary conditions 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 → online text (page 5 of 27)
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sewer opposite Mr. Post’s house, that he had a pump, the water from
the well attached to which had been very good, and used for domestic
purposes; but that, since a burying-ground was formed above his
house, the water in his well had become of so disagreeable a flavour
as to prevent its being used as heretofore: and he was in hopes that
the extra depth of our sewer would relieve him from the drainage of
the burying-ground, to which he attributed the spoiling of his

Professor Brande states that he has “frequently found the well-water of
London contaminated by organic matters and ammoniacal salts,” and refers
to an instance of one well near a church-yard, “the water of which had
not only acquired odour but colour from the soil;” and mentions other
instances of which he has heard, as justifying the opinion, that as
“very many of these wells are adjacent to church-yards, the accumulating
soil of which has been so heaped up by the succession of dead bodies and
coffins, and the products of their decomposition, as to form a filtering
apparatus, by which all _superficial_ springs must of course be more or
less affected.” Some of the best springs in the metropolis are,
fortunately, of a depth not likely to be considerably affected by such
filtration. In Leicester, and other places, I have been informed of the
disuse of wells near church-yards, on account of the perception of a
taint in them. The difficulty of distinguishing by any analysis the
qualities of the morbific matter when held in solution or suspension in
water, in combination with other matters in towns, and the consequent
importance of the separate examination already given to those qualities,
may be appreciated from such cases as the following, which are by no
means unfrequent. In the instance of the water of one well in the
metropolis, which had ceased to be used, in consequence of an offensive
taste (contracted, as was suspected, from the drainage of an adjacent
church-yard), it was doubted whether it could be determined by analysis
what portion of the pollution arose from that source, what from the
leakage of adjacent cesspools, and what from the leakage of coal-gas
from adjacent gas-pipes. In most cases of such complications, the
parties responsible for any one contributing source of injury are apt to
challenge, as they may safely do, distinct proof of the separate effect
produced by that one. Popular perceptions, as well as chemical analysis,
are at present equally baffled by the combination, and complaints of
separate injuries are rarely made. If, therefore, the combined evil is
to remain until complaints are made of the separate causes, and their
specific effects on the health, and until they can be supported by
demonstration, perpetual immunity would be ensured to the most noxious

The effects of unguarded interments have, however, as will subsequently
be noticed, been observed with greater care on the continent, and the
proximity of wells to burial-grounds has been reported to be injurious.
Thus it is stated in a collection of reports concerning the cemeteries
of the town of Versailles, that the water of the wells which lie _below_
the church-yard of St. Louis could not be used on account of its stench.
In consequence of various investigations in France, a law was passed,
prohibiting the opening of wells within 100 metres of any place of
burial; but this distance is now stated to be insufficient for deep
wells, which have been found on examination to be polluted at a distance
of from 150 to 200 metres. In some parts of Germany, the opening of
wells nearer than 300 feet has been prohibited.

§ 15. Where the one deleterious cause is less complicated with others,
as in open plains after the burial of the dead in fields of battle, the
effects are perceived in the offensiveness of the surface emanations,
and also in the pollution of the water, followed by disease, which
compels the survivors to change their encampments.

The fact is thus adduced in the evidence of Dr. Copeland:—

“It is fully ascertained and well recognized that the alluvial soil, or
whatever soil that receives the exuviæ of animal matter, or the bodies
of dead animals, will become rich in general; it will abound in animal
matter; and the water that percolates through the soil thus enriched
will thus become injurious to the health of the individuals using it:
that has been proved on many occasions, and especially in warm climates,
and several remarkable facts illustrative of it occurred in the
peninsular campaigns. It was found, for instance, at Ciudad Rodrigo,
where, as Sir J. Macgregor states in his account of the health of the
army, there were 20,000 dead bodies put into the ground within the space
of two or three months, that this circumstance appeared to influence the
health of the troops, inasmuch as for some months afterwards all those
exposed to the emanations from the soil, as well as obliged to drink the
water from the sunk wells, were affected by malignant and low fevers and
dysentery, or fevers frequently putting on a dysenteric character.”

§ 16. In the metropolis, on spaces of ground which do not exceed 203
acres, closely surrounded by the abodes of the living, layer upon layer,
each consisting of a population numerically equivalent to a large army
of 20,000 adults, and nearly 30,000 youths and children, is every year
imperfectly interred. Within the period of the existence of the present
generation, upwards of a million of dead must have been interred in
those same spaces.

§ 17. A layer of bodies is stated to be about seven years in decaying in
the metropolis: to the extent that this is so, the decay must be by the
conversion of the remains into a gas, and its escape, as a miasma, of
many times the bulk of the body that has disappeared.

§ 18. In some of the populous parishes, where, from the nature of the
soil, the decomposition has not been so rapid as the interments, the
place of burial has risen in height; and the height of many of them must
have greatly increased but for surreptitious modes of diminishing it by
removal, which, it must be confessed, has diminished the sanitary evil,
though by the creation of another and most serious evil, in the mental
pain and apprehensions of the survivors and feelings of abhorrence of
the population, caused by the suspicion and knowledge of the disrespect
and desecration of the remains of the persons interred.

§ 19. The claims to exemption in favour of burial-grounds which it is
stated are not overcrowded would perhaps be most favourably considered
by the examination of the practice of interment in the new cemeteries,
where the proportion of interments to the space is much less.

§ 20. I have visited and questioned persons connected with several of
these cemeteries in town and country, and I have caused the practice of
interments in others of them to be examined by more competent persons.
The inquiry brought forward instances of the bursting of some leaden
coffins and the escape of mephitic vapour in the catacombs; the tapping
of others to prevent similar casualties; injuries sustained by
grave-diggers from the escapes of miasma on the re-opening of graves,
and an instance was stated to me by the architect of one cemetery, of
two labourers having been injured, apparently by digging amidst some
impure water which drained from some graves. No precedent examination of
the evils affecting the public health, that are incident to the practice
of interment, appears to have been made, no precedent scientific or
impartial investigation appears to have been thought necessary by the
joint-stock companies, or by the Committees of the House of Commons, at
whose instance privileges were conferred upon the shareholders: no new
precautionary measures or improvements, such as are in use abroad,
appear consequently to have been introduced in them; the practice of
burial has in general been simply removed to better looking, and in
general, better situated places. The conclusion, however, from the
examination of these places (which will subsequently be reverted to) is,
that if most of the cemeteries themselves were in the midst of the
population, they would, even in their present state, often contribute to
the combination of causes of ill health in the metropolis, and several
of the larger towns.

§ 21. It has been considered that all danger from interments in towns
would be obviated if no burials were allowed except at a depth of five
feet. But bodies buried much deeper are found to decay; and so certain
as a body has wasted or disappeared is the fact that a deleterious gas
has escaped. In the towns where the grave-yards and streets are paved,
the morbific matter must be diffused more widely through the subsoil,
and escape with the drainage. If the interments be so deep as to impede
escapes at the surface, there is only the greater danger of escape by
deep drainage and the pollution of springs.

Dr. Reid detected the escape of deleterious miasma from graves of more
than 20 feet deep. He states—

In some churchyards I have noticed the ground to be absolutely
saturated with carbonic acid gas, so that whenever a deep grave was
dug it was filled in some hours afterwards with such an amount of
carbonic acid gas that the workmen could not descend without danger.
Deaths have, indeed, occurred occasionally in some churchyards from
this cause, and in a series of experiments made in one of the
churchyards at Manchester, where deep graves are made, each capable
of receiving from 20 to 30 bodies, I found in general that a grave
covered on the top at night was more or less loaded with carbonic
acid in the morning, and that it was essential, accordingly, to
ventilate these grave-pits before it was safe to descend.

This I effected on some occasions by means of a small chauffer
placed at the top, and at one end of the grave a tube or hose being
let down from it to the bottom of the grave. The fire was sustained
by the admission of a small portion of fresh air at the top, and the
air from the bottom of the grave was gradually removed as the upper
stratum was heated by the fire around which it was conveyed; and
when it had been once emptied in this manner a small fire was found
sufficient to sustain a perpetual renewal of air, and prevent the
men at work in the grave-pits from being subject to the extreme
oppression to which they are otherwise liable, even when there may
be no immediate danger. A mechanical power might be used for the
same purpose; and chemical agents, as a quantity of newly slaked
lime, are frequently employed, as they absorb the carbonic acid.
From different circumstances that have since occurred, it appears to
me probable that numerous examples of strata or superficial soil
containing carbonic acid may be more frequently met with than is
generally suspected, and that while in churchyards the presence of
large quantities of carbonic acid may be frequently anticipated, its
presence must not always be attributed solely to the result of the
decomposition of the human body.

The amount of carbonic acid that collects within a given time in a
deep grave-pit intended to receive 20 or 30 bodies, is much
influenced by the nature of the ground in which it is dug. In the
case referred to, the porous texture of the earth allowed a
comparatively free aerial communication below the surface of the
ground throughout its whole extent. It was, in reality, loaded with
carbonic acid in the same manner as other places are loaded with
water; it was only necessary to sink a pit, and a well of carbonic
acid was formed, into which a constant stream of the same gas
continued perpetually to filter from the adjacent earth, according
to the extent to which it was removed. From whatever source,
however, the carbonic acid may arise, it is not the less prone to
mingle with the surrounding air, and where the level of the floor of
the church is below the level of the churchyard, there the carbonic
acid is prone to accumulate, as, though it may be ultimately
dispersed by diffusion, it may be considered as flowing in the same
manner in the first instance as water, where the quantity is

Again, where the drainage of the district in which the church may be
placed is of an inferior description, and liable to be impeded
periodically by the state of the tide, as in the vicinity of the
Houses of Parliament, where all the drains are closed at high water,
the atmosphere is frequently of the most inferior quality. I am
fully satisfied, for instance, not only from my own observation, but
from different statements that have reached me, and also from the
observations of parties who have repeatedly examined the subject at
my request, that the state of the burying-ground around St.
Margaret’s church is prejudicial to the air supplied at the Houses
of Parliament, and also to the whole neighbourhood. One of them,
indeed, stated to me lately that he had avoided the churchyard for
the last six months, in consequence of the effects he experienced
the last time he visited it. These offensive emanations have been
noticed at all hours of the night and morning; and even during the
day the smell of the churchyard has been considered to have reached
the vaults in the House of Commons, and traced to sewers in its
immediate vicinity. When the barometer is low, the surface of the
ground slightly moist, the tide full, and the temperature
considerable—all which circumstances tend to favour the evolution of
effluvia both from the grave-pits and the drains—the most injurious
influence upon the air is observed. In some places not far from this
churchyard fresh meat is frequently tainted in a single night, on
the ground-floor, in situations where at a higher level it may be
kept without injury for a much longer period. In some cases, in
private houses as well as at the Houses of Parliament, I have had to
make use of ventilating shafts, or of preparations of chlorine, to
neutralize the offensive and deleterious effects which the
exhalations produced, while, on other occasions, their injurious
influence has been abundantly manifested by the change induced in
individuals subjected to their influence on removing to another
atmosphere. No grievance, perhaps, entails greater physical evils
upon any district than the conjoined influence of bad drainage and
crowded churchyards; and until the drainage of air from drains shall
be secured by the process adverted to in another part of this work,
or some equivalent measures, they cannot be regarded as free from a
very important defect.

The drainage of air from drains is, indeed, desirable under any
circumstances; but when the usual contaminations of the drain are
increased by the emanations from a loaded churchyard, it becomes
doubly imperative to introduce such measures; and if any one should
desire to trace the progress of reaction by which the grave-yards
are continually tending to free themselves of their contents, a very
brief inquiry will give him abundant evidence on this point. My
attention was first directed to this matter in London ten years ago,
when a glass of water handed to me at an hotel, in another district,
presented a peculiar film on its surface, which led me to set it
aside; and after numerous inquiries, I was fully satisfied that the
appearance which had attracted my attention arose from the coffins
in a churchyard immediately adjoining the well where the water had
been drawn. Defective as our information is as to the precise
qualities of the various products from drains, church-yards, and
other similar places, I think I have seen enough to satisfy me that
in all such situations the fluids of the living system imbibe
materials which, though they do not always produce great severity of
disease, speedily induce a morbid condition, which, while it renders
the body more prone to attacks of fever, is more especially
indicated by the facility with which all the fluids pass to a state
of putrefaction, and the rapidity with which the slightest wound or
cut is apt to pass into a sore.

Mr. Leigh, surgeon and lecturer of chemistry at Manchester, confirms the
researches made by Dr. Reid in that town, and observes on this subject—

But the decomposition of animal bodies is remarkably modified by
external circumstances where the bodies are immersed in or
surrounded by water, and particularly, if the water undergo frequent
change, the solid tissues become converted into adipocire, a fatty
spermaceti-like substance, not very prone to decomposition, and this
change is effected without much gaseous exhalation. Under such
circumstances nothing injurious could arise, but under ordinary
conditions slow decomposition would take place, with the usual
products of the decomposition of animal matters, and here the nature
of the soil becomes of much interest. If the burial-ground be in
damp dense compact clay, with much water, the water will collect
round the body, and there will be a disposition to the formation of
adipocire, whilst the clay will effectually prevent the escape of
gaseous matter. If on the other hand the bodies be laid in sand or
gravel, decomposition will readily take place, the gases will easily
permeate the superjacent soil and escape into the atmosphere, and
this with a facility which may be judged of when the fact is stated,
that under a pressure of only three-fourths of an inch of water,
coal gas will escape by any leakage in the conduit pipes through a
stratum of sand or gravel of three feet in thickness in an
exceedingly short space of time. The three feet of soil seems to
oppose scarcely any resistance to its passage to the surface; but if
the joints of the pipes be enveloped by a thin layer of clay, the
escape is effectually prevented.

If bodies were interred eight or ten feet deep in sandy or gravelly
soils, I am convinced little would be gained by it; the gases would
find a ready exit from almost any practicable depth.

§ 22. He also expresses an opinion concurrent with that of other
physiologists, that the effects of these escapes in an otherwise
salubrious locality, soon attract notice, but their influence in
obedience to the laws of gaseous diffusion, developed by Dalton and
Graham, is not the less when scattered over a town, because in a
multitude of scents they escape observation. In open rural districts
these gases soon intermix with the circumambient air, and become so
vastly diluted that their injurious tendency is less potent.

Other physical facts which it is necessary to develope in respect to the
practice of interment may be the most conveniently considered in a
subsequent portion of this report, where it is necessary to adduce the
information possessed, as to the sites of places of burial, and the
sanitary precautions necessary in respect to them.

§ 23. From what has already been adduced, it may here be stated as a

That inasmuch as there appear to be no cases in which the emanations
from human remains in an advanced stage of decomposition are not of a
deleterious nature, so there is no case in which the liability to danger
should be incurred either by interment (or by entombment in vaults,
which is the most dangerous) amidst the dwellings of the living, it
being established as a general conclusion in respect to the physical
circumstances of interment, from which no adequate grounds of exception
have been established;—

That all interments in towns, where bodies decompose, contribute to the
mass of atmospheric impurity which is injurious to the public health.

_Injuries to the Health of Survivors occasioned by the delay of

In order to understand the state of feeling of the labouring classes,
and the general influence upon them, and even the effects on their
health, of the practice of interment, it will be necessary to submit for
consideration those circumstances which immediately precede the
interment, namely, the most common circumstances of the death.

§ 24. In a large proportion of cases in the metropolis, and in some of
the manufacturing districts, one room serves for one family of the
labouring classes: it is their bed-room, their kitchen, their washhouse,
their sitting room, their dining room; and, when they do not follow any
out-door occupation, it is frequently their work room and their shop. In
this one room they are born, and live, and sleep, and die amidst, the
other inmates.

§ 25. Their common condition in large towns has been developed by
various inquiries, more completely than by the census. As an instance,
the results may be given of an inquiry lately made, at the instance and
expense of Lord Sandon, by Mr. Weld, the secretary of the Statistical
Society, as to the condition of the working classes resident in the
inner ward of St. George’s, Hanover Square, and in the immediate
vicinity of some of the most opulent residences in the metropolis. It
appeared that 1465 families of the labouring classes had for their
residence 2175 rooms, and 2510 beds. The distribution of rooms and beds
was as follows:—

DWELLINGS. │Number of║ BEDS. │Number of
│Families.║ │Families.
Single rooms for each │ 929║One bed to each family │ 623
family │ ║ │
Two rooms for each family│ 408║Two beds to each family │ 638
Three rooms for each │ 94║Three beds to each family│ 154
family │ ║ │
Four rooms for each │ 17║Four beds to each family │ 21
family │ ║ │
Five rooms for each │ 8║Five beds to each family │ 8
family │ ║ │
Six rooms for each family│ 4║Six beds to each family │ 3
Seven rooms for each │ 1║Seven beds to each family│ 1
family │ ║ │
Eight rooms for each │ 1║Dwellings without a bed │ 7
family │ ║ │
Not ascertained │ 3║Not ascertained │ 10
│ —————║ │ —————
Total │ 1,465║ Total │ 1,465

Out of 5945 persons 839 were found to be ill, and yet the season was not
unhealthy. One family in 11 had a third room (and that not unoccupied)
in which to place a corpse. This, however, appears to be a favourable
specimen. From an examination made by a committee of the Statistical
Society into the condition of the poorer classes in the borough of
Marylebone, it appeared that the distribution of rooms amongst the
portion of population examined showed that not more than one family in a
hundred had a third room.

No. occupying part of a room, 159 families, and 196 single persons.
No. occupying one room 382 families, and 56 single persons.
No. occupying two rooms 61 families, and 2 single persons.
No. occupying three rooms 5 families, and 7 single persons.
No. occupying four rooms 1 families, and 0 single persons.

§ 26. Mr. Leonard, surgeon and medical officer of the parish of St.
Martin’s-in-the-Fields, gives the following instances of the
circumstances in which the poorest class of inhabitants die, which may

Online LibraryEdwin ChadwickReport on the sanitary conditions 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 → online text (page 5 of 27)