Dancing on the dead

You might have seen on the sidebar that my Christmas read has been Dirty Old London: The Victorians fight against filth by Lee Jackson. The book is a real eye-opener about just how awful were the conditions in the Capital 150 years ago. Almost every means of spreading contagion seems to have been employed.

One of my personal favourites, admittedly briefly mentioned, is the Enon Chapel.

[T]he chapel opened in April 1822 on Clements Lane which was roughly the site of the current London School of Economics. The incumbent of the chapel was certainly economical with his burial fees (fifteen shillings an internment), and the truth. It was built over an open sewer, hardly surprising as London had a labyrinth of rivers and gullies at that time, and the miasma or smell as we would call it today must have permeated throughout the chapel.

Children attending Sunday school during the summer observed a long narrow black fly appeared in the chapel in vast numbers, which they nicknamed ’body bugs’.

At this dubious place of worship attendees would hold handkerchiefs over their mouths during services and complained of a particular taste in their mouths. A wife of one of the congregation recorded that the odour was so bad she had to wash the handkerchief when her husband returned from Sunday service.

At that time grave robbing was commonplace so having a loved one interned in a church’s vault was regarded as the better alternative to graveyard burial, where families would keep vigil over a recently buried corpse until putrefaction has begun making the body valueless to the medical profession.

At the Enon Chapel Mr Howse offered, for a reasonable fee, internment in the chapel’s vaults. In fact 12,000 coffins were squeezed into a space 59 feet by 12 feet. The vanishing trick was accomplished by dropping the human remains into the sewer and breaking up the coffins, using the wood for cooking and heating.

The chapel had been, rather than a dubious place of worship by dissenting Baptist brethren, largely used as a burial speculation at a time when due to London’s rapid expansion, burial sites were at a premium.

The sewer was vaulted over about 1834 and until it closed in 1844 Howse probably used quicklime as a means to be rid of the bodies, although later large quantities of bones were subsequently found under the kitchen floor.

After the chapel’s closure its use took a bizarre twist when it was let out for various purposes.

Dancing-on-the-dead One was as a dance hall for teetotallers, the events were cheerfully known ’Dancing on the dead’. An old show bill from the time indicates that dancing on the dead was one of the attractions of the place: ‘quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels, &c. are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath. Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’.

In a further twist near the chapel’s last days it was leased by George Walker, nicknamed ‘Graveyard Walker’, who had campaigned to end internment within the walls of a building. To promote his crusade to abolish this practice Walker threw open the doors of the chapel. The desiccated corpse of Howse, who had offered so many dubious cheap burials, was displayed for public inspection. The chapel lasted up until the 1890s.

As a footnote: When excavations on the site in 1967 prior to the building of The London School of Economics under its campus large quantities of bones were uncovered.

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