1850: Metropolitan Interment Act

The Metropolitan Interment Act 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c.52.) was passed during a storm of panic provoked by the cholera epidemic of 1848-9. Over 52,000 deaths occurred during the epidemic, which justified the substantial government interference that the Act introduced. The Times editorial was of the view that:

‘the bodies of the dead and the tears of the living are subjects which may be withdrawn from trading speculations without violence to the maxims of political economy’ (17th April 1850).

The Act encompassed all the reforms suggested by Edwin Chadwick’s earlier Interment Report and aimed to put undertakers out of business by establishing a state-run funeral service with funerals available at a range of price points. There would be public mortuaries to accommodate the dead in the period between the death and the funeral. The Act also envisaged a prohibition on all churchyard burial. The government would purchase existing joint-stock cemeteries and establish new sites. In essence, the Act adapted the practices of the French Pompes Funėbres. The entire system would be self-financing, supported through funeral and burial income. Operation of the Act would be overseen by the General Board of Health.

The Metropolitan Interment Bill passed into law in August 1850, and was almost immediately enmeshed in a storm of discord and opposition. The Treasury estimated that it would cost £750,000 to purchase the eight joint-stock cemeteries that ringed London, and many more hundreds of thousands to establish a system of national cemeteries. A beginning was made with the purchase of Brompton Cemetery, which remains in government hands. However, the Board’s ambition far exceeded the willingness of the Treasury or indeed any other body to advance the loans required for the Act to take effect. It was not possible to demonstrate the viability of the project until plans to secure a monopoly of funeral services were sufficiently advanced. The Act became mired in confusion, and progress stuttered.

The Times view of the affair was definitive: ‘Was there ever an affair so hopelessly mismanaged? Nothing has been done, absolutely nothing’ (The Times, 13th May 1852).

The Metropolitan Interment Act was repealed in its entirety by the first of the Burial Acts, passed in 1852.

Outside London, local responses to the cholera epidemic of 1848-9 may well have involved discussion of burial provision in the area and the merits of a proposed series of national cemeteries.

Additional reading

R.A. Lewis (1952) Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 1832-1854, London: Longmans, Green & Co.

S.E. Finer (1980 [1952]) The Life and Times of Edwin Chadwick, London: Methuen.

These secondary texts describe in detail the genesis of the first Burial Acts.

British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.