Any reference to social history during the nineteenth century will include public health reform as a substantial thread. Massive population growth and overcrowding in towns and cities throughout the UK meant that housing was dangerously overcrowded, with limited supply of clean water and inadequate sewerage and waste disposal. The sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick is central to this thread. In 1842 he wrote The Health of Towns, a seminal environmental health publication that described conditions in towns and cities throughout the country.
The state of local churchyards and burial grounds was a strong sub-theme running through that report, and this provoked a special parliamentary response soon after publication. Chadwick took this research further and a report dedicated to interment in towns was published in 1843: A Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns.
In this report, Chadwick’s review of burial conditions, echoed earlier work published by George Walker. However, Chadwick extended the remit of his investigation to review funeral practices. In particular, he focused on poorer families. They had limited funds to draw on and were obliged to live alongside their dead relatives – sometimes in a single overcrowded room – whilst they saved for the funeral. He regarded much funeral expenditure as excessive and wasteful.
Chadwick wanted the government to copy continental practices, and take over all funeral businesses, establish public mortuaries, and purchase existing cemeteries. His campaign drew momentum from the cholera epidemic of 1848-9 which was blamed on ‘predisposing causes’ including toxic emanations from graveyards. The Metropolitan Interment Act, passed in 1850, carried Chadwick’s recommendations in full.
The Interment Report contains statistical information on burials in sites across London. Parts of the document were reproduced in detail by many provincial newspapers, and – like Walker’s Gatherings from Graveyards – helped to justify local cemetery establishment.