Every building carries history within its walls, ceilings, floors and foundations. “The practice of burying or concealing items in the structure of a house a window frame, a player-piano roll in a ceiling, or a granite name under the floorboards. Or concealed shoes in your walls or chimneys- What’s in Your Walls? A Concealed Shoe?
In 1842 London was the modern mega city of the world. For some of her 2.5 million inhabitants it was an exciting, fashionable and thriving metropolis. For many it was a city of squalor, decay, epidemics and early death and the disposal of the dead was becoming an increasing problem for the living.
London’s population had exploded but the authorities did not plan for the increasing numbers of the dead. Burial grounds and churchyards were filled beyond capacity with coffins stacked on top of each other in deep shafts. Open graves sat just feet from the living world.
At a time when there was little to no standards for sanitation, the burial of the deceased occurred in churchyards many of which in were in the middle of small towns. Over time the churchyards became so overflowing with dead bodies that the surrounding neighborhoods became decidedly unhealthy.
The bodies were usually buried in shallow pits beneath the floorboards of chapels and schools.
Enon Chapel was opened in April 1822 by a corrupt and greedy Baptist minister, Mr W. Howse. The chapel was built over an open sewer in Clements Lane, close to the Strand. The local residents suffered from appalling smells, vast numbers of rats and an atmosphere so putrid that it rotted exposed meat within hours. The local children noted the insects and flies crawling out of the coffins and vaults and nicknamed them ‘body bugs’. It wasn’t much better for the congregation either, who regularly passed out during services.
The cause lay under the flimsy floorboards but it was only discovered in 1839 when the authorities wanted to replace the open sewer. They made a grim discovery. The chapel was a charnel house that defied sanity. Offering far cheaper services than his rivals, Howse had over the years buried an estimated 12,000 bodies in a space fifty-nine feet by twelve. Vast numbers of decomposing bodies were separated from the living by a few inches of earth and some flimsy floorboards. To pack-in more bodies Howse emptied the coffins and burnt them for firewood. He dowsed bodies in quicklime for quicker decomposition, dumped human remains to fester in the sewer and loaded carts to discard into the Thames and landfill at Waterloo Bridge. He had got away with it by exploiting the fear many had of body snatchers removing their loved ones. They believed that the churchyards were more secure than more open burial grounds and cemeteries.
The authorities closed the chapel and vaulted over the sewer but, unbelievably, did not remove the bodies. The chapel was renamed Clare Market Chapel and let to a teetotaller sect who exploited the macabre history of the chapel for tea dances, fancy dress balls and gambling. ‘Dances on the dead’ went the advert, which also insisted that lady and gentlemen must wear shoes and stockings for admittance.
Another addition to the coffin’s interior was usually a bell of some sort. Due to the contagious nature of diseases like small pox, cholera and diphtheria as well as the misdiagnosis of comas for death, unfortunately many people were actually buried alive in the Victorian age. Therefore, as a means of forestalling a not quite dead person’s burial, the installation of bells in coffins became de rigeuer.