'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
The churchyard of St Anne, Soho, is now a peaceful public park, but in the mid-nineteenth century this was one of the most notorious burial grounds in London. In use for centuries, the sheer number of burials had raised the ground level by several feet, and the air was foul with the stench of decay. Joseph Rogers, a local GP, was called to many cases of fever in the slums surrounding the graveyard, and discovered that noxious liquids from decomposing corpses were dribbling into his patients’ cellars and contaminating a well nearby.
Most early Victorian physicians believed that airborne vapours – ‘miasmas’ – rose from graveyards, cesspits and sewers, and caused epidemics of diseases like cholera. This ‘miasmatic’ theory of infectious disease found its roots in the writings of Classical Greek and Roman physicians like Hippocrates and Galen. But it continued to shape mainstream medical thought on infectious diseases well into the nineteenth century.
In the 1830s George Walker, a London surgeon, carried out a survey of the city’s overcrowded cemeteries. Walker published his conclusions as Gatherings from Graveyards in 1839. In this passage, he describes a visit to the graveyard of St Giles, on the other side of Charing Cross Road:
Here in this place of ‘Christian burial’, you may see human heads, covered with hair; and here, in this ‘consecrated ground’, are human heads with flesh still adhering to them. On the north side, a man was digging a grave; he was quite drunk, so indeed were all the gravediggers we saw. We looked into this grave, but the stench was abominable. We remained, however, long enough to see that a child’s coffin, which had stopped the man’s progress, had been cut, longitudinally, right in half; and there lay the child, which had been buried in it, wrapped in its shroud, resting upon the part of the coffin that remained.