We’re used to thinking of medieval London as stinking, but the 18th and early 19th centuries may have been worse. A rapidly increasing population poured sewage into the Thames via its tributaries, as well as from actual toilets positioned over the river at handy points; add soot created by burning coal in the home and the noisome tangs of early industry, and the air would have been foul.
But there was one stinking facet that we’d never given much thought to, until flicking through a copy of The Golden City by Bernard Ash. This is probably a good time to issue a health warning: if you’re eating, close this page down and come back later. Here’s something about rude museum exhibits instead. We’ll see you soon.
Basically, the problem was dead people. Specifically, seeing them again a bit sooner than we should have. Residents, particularly in the City of London, were still burying their dead in the tiny parish churchyards that had been in use for up to 1,000 years, and they weren’t built to deal with the volume of people. The practice had always been that coffins would be interred until everything rotted and only bone was left. Then the skeletons would be stored in the charnel house. In reality, there were too many burials and bodies were dug up before the flesh had fully decomposed. Bernard Ash put it quite succinctly:
The ground had already been used for burials time and time over and was no longer made up of soil but of bone, rotten wood and human decay.
The smell from churchyards – and vaults underneath churchyards where the still-decaying bodies were kept – is better left to the imagination. It’s no wonder that some 25 years before the Great Stink prompted Parliament to build proper sewers, that same august body started the creation of the Magnificent Seven suburban cemeteries.