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 7 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 7 of 27)
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near the surface in crowded districts.

§ 31. The accounts given by the medical practitioners and persons who
are chiefly in attendance on the parties before death, are corroborated
by the evidence of undertakers and others engaged in providing goods and
services for the performance of the last rites for artisans of a
condition to defray the funeral expenses.

Mr. Wild, an undertaker, residing in the Blackfriars Road, London, who
inters between 500 and 600 bodies annually, of which about 350 are of
the working classes, states, that the time during which the corpse is
kept in the house varies from five to twelve days.

The greater proportion of the working men in London live and sleep
in one room only, do they not?—Three-fourths of the rooms we have to
visit are single rooms; the one room is the only room the poor
people have.

When you visit the room, in what condition do you find the corpse?
How is it laid out?—Generally speaking, we only find one bed in the
room, and that occupied by a corpse. It frequently happens that
there is no sacking to the bedding; when they borrow a board or a
shutter from a neighbour, in order to lay out the corpse upon it;
they have also to borrow other convenient articles necessary, such
us a sheet. The corpse of a child is usually laid out on the table.
The Irish poor have a peculiar mode of arranging the corpse; they
place candles around the bed, and they have a black cross placed at
the head of the bed.

Is the practice of keeping bodies in the place of abode for a long
time much altered in cases where the death has occurred from fever
or any contagious disease?—Very seldom; they would keep them much
longer if it were not for the undertaker, who urges them to bury
them. In cases of rapid decomposition of persons dying in full habit
there is much liquid; and the coffin is tapped to let it out. I have
known them to keep the corpse after the coffin had been tapped
twice, which has, of course, produced a disagreeable effluvium. This
liquid generates animal life very rapidly; and within six hours
after a coffin has been tapped, if the liquid escapes, maggots, or a
sort of animalculæ, are seen crawling about. I have frequently seen
them crawling about the floor of a room inhabited by the labouring
classes, and about the tressels on which the tapped coffin is
sustained. In such rooms the children are frequently left whilst the
widow is out making arrangements connected with the funeral. And the
widow herself lives there with the children. I frequently find them
altogether in a small room with a large fire.

Have you known instances of the spread of disease amongst the
members of the family residing in the same room where the corpse is
kept?—Some medical men have said that corpses of persons who have
contagious diseases are not dangerous; but my belief is, that in
cases of small-pox and scarlatina it is dangerous; and only the
other day a case of this nature occurred,—a little boy, who died of
the small-pox. Soon after he died, his sister, a little girl who had
been playing in the same room, was attacked with small-pox and died.
The medical attendant said, the child must have touched the corpse.
A poor woman, a neighbour, went over to see one of these bodies, and
was much afflicted and frightened, and I believe touched the body.
She was certainly attacked with the small-pox, and, after lingering
some time, died a few days since. The other day at Lambeth, the
eldest child of a person died of scarlet fever. The child was about
four years old; it had been ill a week. There were two other
children, one was three years old and the other sixteen months. When
the first child died there were no symptoms of illness for three
days afterwards, the corpse of the eldest was kept in the house;
here it was in a separate room, but the medical man recommended
early interment, and it was buried on the fourth day. The youngest
child had been taken by the servant into the room where the corpse
was, to see it, and this child was taken ill just before the burial
and died in about a week. The corpse of this child was retained in
the house three weeks. It is supposed that the other child had also
been taken into the room to see the corpse and touch it, and at the
end of the three weeks it also died. The medical attendant was
clearly of opinion that had the first child been early removed, it
would have been saved. The undertaker’s men who have to put into
coffins the corpses of persons who have died from any contagious
disease, are sometimes sick and compelled to take instantly gin or
brandy; and they will feel sickly for some hours after, but they are
not known to catch the disease. I have often heard the men say on
the morning following, “I have been able to take no breakfast
to-day,” and have complained of want of appetite for some time

Mr. Jeffereys, an undertaker, residing in Whitechapel, gives a similar
account of the dreadful effects of this practice.

It is stated that the practice of keeping the body in the house is a
very great evil; how long have you known bodies to be kept in the
house before interment?—I have known them to be kept three weeks: we
every week see them kept until the bodies are nearly putrid:
sometimes they have run away almost through the coffin, and the poor
people, women and children, are living and sleeping in the same room
at the same time. In some cases there is superstition about the
interments, but it is not very frequent. Then when the corpse is
uncovered, or the coffin is open, females will hang over it. A widow
who hung over the body of her husband, caught the disease of which
he died. The doctor told her he knew she must have kissed or touched
the body: she died, leaving seven orphans, of whom four are now in
an orphan asylum. A young man died not long since, and his body
rapidly decomposed. His sister, a fine healthy girl, hung over the
corpse and kissed it; in three weeks after she died also.

§ 32. The descriptions given by the labouring classes themselves of the
circumstances precedent to the removal of the body for interment, are
similar to those in the instances above cited. They are thus described
by John Downing, one of several respectable mechanics examined:—

You, as secretary [of a burial society] are called upon to attend
the funeral; are you not?—Yes, I am. It is part of our rules, also,
that the secretary shall see the body and identify it. When old
members, whom I have known, have been sick, I have visited them,
although I am not obliged to do it.

What in the case of death is the condition in which you generally
find the corpse?—It is generally stretched out on a shutter, with a
sheet over it. Children are generally laid out on the table.

In how many cases do you find that those whom you visit, who may
perhaps be considered to be of the class of respectable mechanics,
do you find them occupying more than one room?—About one case in

Have you observed any effects from the long retention of the body in
the same room as the family?—Yes, I have known children to have
taken the disease and die; I have also known the widow who has hung
over the body and kissed it, become ill and die through it. I have
known other cases where there has been severe illness. I have myself
been made ill by visiting them; I have felt giddy in the head and
very sick, and have gone to the nearest house of refreshment to get
some brandy. I have felt the effects for two or three days.

§ 33. The next class of witnesses, who receive the remains at the place
of burial, attest the fact that the smell from the coffin is frequently
powerfully offensive, and that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence
that the decomposing matter escapes from it, and in the streets, and in
the church, and in the church-yard, runs down over the shoulders of the

§ 34. So far as the inquiry has proceeded in the provincial towns, it
appears that the practice of keeping the corpse in the crowded living
rooms does not differ essentially from the practice in the metropolis.
Mr. R. Craven, a surgeon residing at Leeds, who has had great experience
amongst that population, states—

The Irish almost universally live huddled together in great numbers
in a small space. I have often known as many as twenty human beings
lodged and fed in a dirty filthy cottage with only two rooms. Great
many live in cellar dwellings. I have frequently seen a cellar
dwelling lodge a family of seven to ten persons, and that in close
confined yards. I have seen a cellar dwelling in one of the most
densely-populated districts of Leeds in which were living seven
persons, with one corner fenced off and a pig in it; a ridge of clay
being placed round the fence to prevent the wet from the pigsty
running all over the floor, and to this cellar there was no

I believe that a much larger proportion of the Irish attacked by
fever, die, than of English. Children they do not make so much
parade of, as here is greater difficulty of obtaining the funds for
their burial. It is no uncommon thing to see a corpse laid out in a
room where eight to twelve persons have to sleep, and sometimes even
both sleep and eat.

He also states also that—

Amongst the hand-loom weavers there is some difference. They
generally live in cottages consisting of two small rooms or cellar
dwellings; these have always a large space occupied by the loom; and
in cottages of two rooms I have frequently seen two families
residing having in the upper room two looms. When deaths occur in
this class the corpse cannot be laid out without occupying the space
where the family have to work (the father or mother weaving, and
children winding or rendering other assistance), or in the room
where they live and eat. This, I am of opinion, has a very debasing
effect on the morals of this class of the community, making
especially the rising generation so familiar with death that their
feelings are not hurt by it: it has also a very injurious physical
effect, frequently propagating disease in a rapid manner and to an
immense extent.

§ 35. Mr. Christopher Fountaine Browne, one of the parochial surgeons of
Leeds, whose district comprehends a population of 45,000 persons,
chiefly of the working classes, states that:—

The people amongst whom I practise generally occupy one room where
they live in, and a bed-room above; but I have known many instances
of a family, say a man, his wife, and from three to six children,
having only one bed and one apartment for all purposes. But a great
many dwellings there consist of only one room, and in many of the
lodging-houses I have seen five or six beds in one small room, in
which it has been acknowledged that from 12 to 14 persons have
passed the night, and the air has been so bad that I have been
compelled to stand at the window whilst visiting the patient.

He also states, that—

He has seen many deaths take place in such houses when the body
remains in the bed where it died; and I have known it remain two or
three nights before interment. In Irish cases they keep them longer.
I have seen a child lie in a down-stairs room in a corner, dead of
small-pox, and another dying, and the house full of lodgers eating
their meals. The length of time that a corpse is kept varies very
much according to the disposition of the relatives and the means of
procuring a burial, as there are no restrictions as to the length of
time bodies are to be kept.

I have observed, that in cases of small-pox disease frequently
follows in rapid succession on different members of the same family.
I have frequently known cases of a low typhoid character arise where
many persons sleep in the same room: the addition of a death from
any such cause of course increases the danger to the living.

In Manchester and in several northern districts, it appears that by
custom the corpse seldom remains unburied more than three or four days,
but during that time it remains in the crowded rooms of the living of
the labouring classes. Every day’s retention of the corpse is to be
considered an aggravation of the evil; but the evidence is to be borne
in mind that the miasma from the dead is more dangerous immediately
after death, or during the first and second day, than towards the end of
the week. In a proportion of cases decomposition has commenced before
the vital functions have ceased; immediately after death decomposition
often proceeds with excessive rapidity in the crowded rooms, which have
then commonly larger fires than usual.

§ 36. It is observed by some of the witnesses that usually, and except
by accident, and in few cases, the miasma from the remains of the dead
in grave-yards can only reach the living in a state of diffusion and
dilution; and that large proportions of it probably escape without
producing any immediately appreciable evil. The practice, however, of
the retention of the remains in the one room of the living brings the
effluvium to bear directly upon the survivors when it is most dangerous,
when they are usually exhausted bodily by watching, and depressed
mentally by anxiety and grief—circumstances which it is well known
greatly increase the danger of contagion. The males of the
working-classes in general die earlier than the females, and in the
greater number of cases the last duties fall to the widow; and the
prevalence of fatal disease chiefly amongst the children is frequently
attributed to the circumstance, that she is aroused from the stunning
effect of the bereavement by the necessity of going abroad and seeking
pecuniary aid, and making arrangements for the funeral, whilst the
children are left at home in the house with the corpse.

In Scotland, from an aversion to sleeping in the presence of the corpse,
it is the practice to sit up with it, and there is then much drinking of
ardent spirits. Mr. W. Dyce Guthrie speaks strongly of the evils
attendant upon the practice of the unguarded retention of the body under
such circumstances, and of the instances known by himself where persons
have come from a distance to attend the funeral of a departed friend,
and have returned infected with a disease similar to that which
terminated the friend’s existence. The concurrent and decided opinion of
himself and a number of other medical witnesses is, that the public
health is much more affected by the pestiferous influence of the corpse
during the interval of time that occurs from the moment of death, up to
the hour of the funeral, than it commonly is or can be after interment.

§ 37. Of the deaths which take place in the metropolis, it will be seen
that more than one-half are the deaths of the labouring classes. The
following table, taken from the Mortuary Registries during the year
1839, shows the numbers of deaths amongst the chief classes of society,
and the proportions of deaths from epidemic diseases. At least four out
of five of the deaths of the labouring classes, it will be remembered,
are stated to occur in the single living and sleeping room, that is to
say, upwards of 20,000 annually.

│ │ │ │Ratio of │
│ │ Ratio │Number of│ Deaths │ Average
│ │ of │ Deaths │ from │ Age at
│ │Deaths │ from │Epidemic,│Death of
│ Number of Deaths of │ of │Epidemic,│Endemic, │the whole
│ each Class. │ Chil- │Endemic, │ and │ Class,
│ │dren to│ and │ Conta- │including
│ │ Total │ Conta- │ gious │ Chil-
│ │Deaths.│ gious │ Disease │ dren.
│ │ │Diseases.│to Total │
│ │ │ │ Deaths. │
│ │Chil- │ │ │ │ │
│ │ dren │ │ │ │ │
│Adults.│under │Total.│ │ │ │
│ │ 10 │ │ │ │ │
│ │Years.│ │ │ │ │
Gentry, │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Profes- │ │ │ │ │ │ │
sional │ 1,724│ 529│ 2,253│ 1 in│ 210│ 1 in│ 44
Persons, │ │ │ │ 4–3/10│ │ 10–7/10│
& their │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Families │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Tradesmen, │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Clerks, &│ 3,979│ 3,703│ 7,682│ 1 in│ 1,428│ 1 in│ 25
their │ │ │ │ 2–1/10│ │ 5–4/10│
Families │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Undescribed│ 2,996│ 2,761│ 5,757│ 1 in│ 1,051│ 1 in│ 28
│ │ │ │ 2–1/10│ │ 5–5/10│
Labourers │ │ │ │ 1 in│ │ 1 in│
and their│ 12,045│13,885│25,930│ 1–9/10│ 5,469│ 4–8/10│ 22
Families │ │ │ │ │ │ │
Paupers │ 3,062│ 593│ 3,655│ 1 in│ 557│ 1 in│ 49
│ │ │ │ 6–2/10│ │ 6–6/10│
Total │ 23,806│21,471│45,277│ 1 in│ 8,715│ 1 in│ 27
│ │ │ │ 2–1/10│ │ 5–2/10│

In making up this table, all who were not distinguished as master
tradesmen were entered as mechanics. This circumstance would give to the
labouring classes an appearance of a higher average age of death than is
gained by them. On the other hand, some of the labouring classes will be
found to have died in the workhouse, which would perhaps keep the
average where it now stands, whilst if the registration were more
accurate, the average age of death of the middle classes might be found
to be about 27. The average age of death of 27 given for the whole
metropolis is not made as an average of the averages, but from the
average of the whole. The apparent high average of the age of death of
paupers arises from the smaller proportion of children amongst them: and
the larger proportion of aged adults who seek refuge in the

§ 38. The deaths registered from epidemic, endemic, and contagious
diseases during the year 1839, which was by no means an unhealthy year,
were as follows in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham:—

│ │ Deaths from │ Ratio of Deaths
│ Total Number of │ Epidemic, │ from Epidemic
│ Deaths. │ Endemic, and │ Disease to the
│ │ Contagious │ Total Number of
│ │ Diseases. │ Deaths.
Liverpool │ 7,435│ 1,844│1 in 4
Manchester │ 6,774│ 2,006│1 in 3–4/10
Leeds │ 4,388│ 965│1 in 4–5/10
Birmingham │ 3,639│ 747│1 in 4–9/10

The numbers of deaths which occurred during that year amongst the
labouring classes are not distinguished, but they were for the next year
as follows. And in the three first-named towns, I conceive that the
proportion of cases of deaths amongst those classes where the corpse is
kept in the living room, is in all probability as great as in the

Liverpool 5,597
Manchester 4,629
Leeds 3,395
Birmingham 2,715

I am unaware of any data existing in the towns in Scotland from which
any estimate can be made of the extent to which the evils in question
are prevalent there. In the recent Report on the Census, sufficient is
shown of the condition of the labouring population in the towns in
Ireland to prove, that in them, the evils must fall with at least as
great severity as they are described to occur in the worst, conditioned
districts in England.[11]

§ 39. If the returns and the statements of witnesses acquainted with the
crowded districts be correct, that four out of five families of the
labouring classes have each but one room, then every unit of upwards of
20,000 deaths per annum which occur in the metropolis, every unit of
4600 deaths of the labouring classes which occur annually at Liverpool,
must be taken as representing a horrible scene of the retention of the
corpse amidst the family in the manner described in the testimony of
those who have witnessed it;—and every unit of some 4000 deaths from
epidemics in the metropolis, and every third or fourth recorded death in
other towns, and even in crowded villages, represents a distressing
scene, and moreover a case of peculiar danger and probable permanent
injury to the survivors amongst whom it takes place. Great, however, as
may be the physical evils to them, the evidence of the mental pain and
moral evil generally attendant on the practice of the long retention of
the body in the rooms in use and amidst the living, though only noticed
incidentally, is yet more deplorable.

§ 40. The duty which attaches to male relations, or which a benevolent
pastor, if there were the accommodation, would exercise on the
occurrence of the calamity of death to any member of a family, is to
remove the sensitive and the weakly from the spectacle, which is a
perpetual stimulus to excessive grief, and commonly a source of painful
associations and visible images of the changes wrought in death, to
haunt the imagination in after-life. When the dissolution has taken
place under circumstances such as those described, it is not a few
minutes’ look after the last duties are performed and the body is
composed in death and left in repose, that is given to this class of
survivors, but the spectacle is protracted hour after hour through the
day and night, and day after day, and night after night, thus
aggravating the mental pains under varied circumstances, and increasing

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 7 of 27)