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THREE days after the events related in the preceeding
chapter,- and at that hour in the cold wintry morning when the dawn breaks in
fitfu1 gleams through a dense atmosphere of a dark neutral dye, - a
labouring-man, with a shovel and pickaxe upon his shoulder, entered one of the
cemeteries in the immediate vicinity of Globe Lane.
This cemetery was only partly enclosed by houses; on the
remaining sides there was a low wall.
The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it,
impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in
the depth of winter,- and invariably throughout the summer,- the stench was so
intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window
open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and
every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the
clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!
The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The
proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view - namely, to crowd the
greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this
economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead,
that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or
decayed human remains pre-[-324-]dominated. Still
the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a
newcomer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the
In one part of the ground was a rude brick-building,
denominated a Bone-House. This hovel was provided with a large fire-place; and
seldom did a day pass without smoke being seen to issue from the chimney. On
those occasions, - when the furnace was lighted, - the stench from the cemetery
was always more powerful than at other times.
Some of the poor inhabitants of the adjoining houses had
remonstrated with the parochial authorities on the subject of this nuisance
being tolerated; but the only reply the applicants could obtain was, "Well,
prefer an indictment at the session., if you don't like it!"
The idea of men in the receipt of eight or ten shillings a
week preferring an indictment! Such a process is only accessible to those
possessed of ample means; for the legislature has purposely rendered law, - that
is, the power of obtaining justice, enforcing rights, or suppressing nuisances,
- a luxury attainable only by money. The poor, indeed! who ever thought of
legislating for the poor? Legislate against them, and it is all well and
good: heap statute upon statute - pile act upon act - accumulate measure upon
measure - encumber the most simple forms with the most intricate technicalities
- diversify readings and expand in verbiage until the sense becomes
unintelligible - convert the whole legal scheme into a cunning web, so that the
poor man cannot walk three steps without entangling his foot in one of those
meshes of whose very existence he was previously unaware, and whose nature he
cannot comprehend even when involved therein ;- do all this, and you are a wise
and sound statesman; for this is legislating against the poor - and who,
we repeat, would ever think of legislating for them?
But to continue.
The grave-digger entered the cemetery, and cast a glance
That glance well expressed the man's thoughts; for he
mentally asked himself, "Whose grave must I disturb now to make room for
the new one?"
At length he advanced towards a particular spot, considered
it for a moment, and then struck his spade into the soil, as much as to say,
"This will do."
The place where he had now halted was only a few yards from
the Bone-House. Taking a key from his pocket, he proceeded to unlock the door of
Entering the Bone-House he took from amongst a quantity of
implements in one corner, a long flexible iron rod similar to those which we
have already described as being used by the body-snatchers.
Returning to the grave, he thrust the rod into the ground. It
met with a little resistance from some substance a little harder than the soil;
but the man pushed it downwards with a strong arm; and it sank at least twelve
feet into the ground.
Satisfied with this essay of the nature of the spot, the
grave-digger drew back the rod; and from the deep but narrow aperture thus
formed, issued a stench more pestiferous than that which ever came from the
lowest knacker's yard.
The man retreated rapidly to the Bone-House; that odour was
too powerful even for one who had passed the greater portion of his life in that
He now proceeded to light a fire in the Bone- House; and when
be saw the huge logs which he heaped on the grate, blazing brightly, he
covered them with coke. The current of air from the open door fanned the
flames, which roared up the chimney; and the grave-digger felt invigorated and
cheered by the genial warmth that issued from the ample grate.
After lingering for a few minutes in the Bone House, the
grave-digger returned to the spot which he had previously marked for excavation.
Baring his brawny arms to the very shoulders, he now set
himself vigorously to work to dig the grave which was to receive a new-comer
Throwing the earth up on either side, he had digged to a
depth of about two feet, when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately
took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel
the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was
already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without
much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up
But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most
nauseating kind - fetid, sickly, pestiferous - making the atmosphere heavy, and
the human breath thick and clammy, as it were - and causing even that
experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.
Leaping from the grave, he began to busy himself in conveying
the pieces of the broken coffin and the putrid remains of mortality into the
Bone-House. where he heaped them pell-mell upon the fire.
The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones;
a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and
the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half
up the chimney.
And from the summit of that chimney came a smoke-thick,
dense, and dark, like the smoke of a gasometer or a manufactory, but bearing on
its sable wing the odour of a pestilence.
The man returned to the grave, and was about to resume his
labour, when his eyes caught sight of a black object, almost embedded in the
damp clay heaped up by the side. He turned it over with his spade: it was the
upper part of the skull, with the long, dark hair of a woman still remaining
attached to it. The grave-digger coolly took up the relic by that long hair
which perhaps had once been a valued ornament; and, carrying it in this manner
into the Bone-House, threw it upon the fire. The hair hissed for a moment as it
burnt, for it was damp and clogged with clay ; then the voracious flames licked
up the thin coat of blackened flesh which had still remained on the skull; and
lastly devoured the bone itself.
The grave-digger returned to his toils; and at a depth of
scarcely one foot below the coffin thus exhumed and burnt, his shovel was again
impeded for a moment - and by another coffin!
Once more was the pickaxe put into requisition a second
coffin was broken up; another decomposing, but not entirely decomposed, corpse
was hacked,. and hewed, and rent to pieces by the merciless implement which was
wielded by a merciless arm ;- and in a few moments, the fire in the Bone-House
burnt cheerfully once more, the mouth of the chimney vomiting forth its dense
and pest-bearing breath, the volume of which was from time to time lighted with
sparks and flakes of fire.
Thus was it that this grave-digger disposed of the old
tenants of the cemetery in order to make room for new ones.
[-325-] And then fond, surviving
relations and friends speak of the last home and the quiet
resting-place of the deceased: they talk with affectionate reverence of
those who sleep in the grave, and they grow pathetic in their eulogies of
the tranquil slumber of the tomb!
Poor deluded creatures! While they are thus engaged in
innocent discourse, - a discourse that affords them solace when they ponder upon
the loss which they have sustained, - the last home is invaded - the quiet
resting-place is rudely awakened with sacrilegious echoes - the sleep of
the grave is disturbed by the thunder of a pickaxe - and the corpse is
snatched from the tranquil slumber of the tomb to he cast into the
all-devouring furnace of the Bone-House.
The grave-digger proceeded in his task; and a third coffin
was speedily encountered. Each successive one was more decayed than that which
had preceded it; and thus the labour of breaking them up diminished in severity.
But the destination of one and all was the same - the fire of
No wonder that the cemetery continued to receive so many
fresh tenants, although the neighbours knew that it must be full :- no wonder
that the stench was always more pestiferous when the furnace of the Bone-House
And that man - that grave-digger performed his task - his
odious task - without compunction, and without remorse: he was fulfilling the
commands of his employers - his employers were his superiors - and "surely
his superiors must know what was right and what was wrong!"
And so the grave-digger worked and toiled - and the fire in
the Bone-House burnt cheerfully - and the dark, thick smoke was borne over the
whole neighbourhood, like a plague-cloud.
Two hours had passed away since the man had commenced his
work; and he now felt hungry.
Retiring to the Bone-House, he took a coffee-pot from the
shelf, and proceeded to make some coffee, the material for which was in a
cupboard in a corner of the building. Water he took from a large pitcher, also
kept in that foul place; and bread he had brought with him in his pockets.
He drew a stool close to the fire; and, when the coffee
boiled, commenced his meal.
The liquid cheered and refreshed him ; but he never once
recollected that it had been heated by flames fed with human flesh and bones!
While he was thus occupied, he heard footsteps approaching
the Bone-House; and in a few moments Mr. Banks, the undertaker, appeared upon
"Mornin', sir," said the grave-digger. " Come
to have a look at the size of the grave, s'pose? You've no call to be afeard;
I'll be bound to make it big enow."
"I hope it won't be a very deep one, Jones,"
returned the undertaker. "Somehow or another the friends of the blessed
defunct are awerse to a deep grave."
"My orders is to dig down sixteen feet and shore up the
sides as I deepens," said Jones. " Don't you see that I shall throw
the earth on wery light, so that it won't take scarcely no trouble to shovel it
out agin; 'cos the next seven as comes to this ground must all go into that
"Sixteen feet!" ejaculated the undertaker, in
dismay. "It will never do, Jones. The friends of the dear deceased wouldn't
sleep quiet in their beds if they thought he had to sleep so deep in his'n. It
won't do, Jones - it won't do."
"My orders is sich from the proprietors, sir,"
answered the grave-digger, munching and drinking at intervals with considerable
"Now I tell you what it is, Jones," continued the
undertaker, after a moment's pause, "not another grave will I ever order in
this ground, and not another carkiss that I undertake shall come here, unless
you choose to comply with my wishes concerning this blessed old defunct."
"Well, Mr. Banks, there isn't a gen'leman wot undertakes
in all Globe Town, or from Bonner's Fields down to Mile End Gate, that I'd
sooner obleege than yourself," said Jones, the grave-digger;
"but if so be I transgresses my orders "
"Who will know it?" interrupted Banks. "You have whole and sole
charge of the ground; and it can't be often that the proprietors come to trouble
"Well, sir, there is summut in that "
"And then, instead of five shillings for yourself, I should not hesitate
to make it ten "
"That's business, Mr. Banks. How deep must the grave be?"
deep is it already?"
"A matter of nine feet, sir," said Jones.
"Then not another hinch must you move," cried the undertaker, emphatically; "and here's the ten bob
as an earnest."
Mr. Banks accordingly counted ten shillings Into the hands of the
"When's the funeral a-coming, sir?" asked Jones, after a pause.
"At two precisely," replied Mr Banks.
"Rale parson, or von of your men as usual?" continued the grave-digger,
"Oh, a friend of mine - a wery pious, savoury, soul-loving
wessel, Jones - a man that it'll do your heart good to hear. But, I say, Jones," added
the undertaker, "you're getting uncommon full here."
"Yes, full enow, sir; but I makes room."
"I see you do," said Banks,
glancing towards the fire: "what a offensive smell it makes."
"And would you believe that I can scarcely support it myself
sometimes, Mr. Banks?" returned Jones. " But, arter all, our ground
isn't so bad as some others in London."
"I know it isn't," observed the undertaker.
"Now ain't it a odd thing, sir," continued the grave-digger, "that
persons which dwells up in decent neighbourhoods like, and seems exceedin' proud
of their fine houses and handsome shops, shouldn't notice the foul air that
comes from places only hid by a low wall or a thin paling?"
"It is indeed odd enough," said Mr. Banks.
"Well, I knows the diggers in some o' the yard. more west," continued
Jones, " and I've heard from them over and over agin that they pursues just
the wery same course as we does here - has a Bone House or some such conwenient
place, and burns the coffins and bones that is turned up."
"I suppose it is necessary, Jones?" observed Mr. Banks.
"Necessary, sir? in course it be," exclaimed the grave-digger. "On'y
fancy wot a lot of burials takes place every year in London; and room must be
made for 'em somehow or other."
"Ah! I know something about that," said the undertaker. "Calkilations
have been made which proves that the average life of us poor weak humans [-326-]
creeturs is thirty-five years; so, if London contains a
million and a half of people, a million and a half of persons dies, and is buried
in the course of every thirty-five years. Isn't that a fine thing for
them that's in the undertaking line? cause it's quite clear that there's a
million and a half of funerals in every thirty-five years in this blessed city."
"And a million and a half of graves or waults rekvired," said Jones. "Well, then, who the deuce
blame us for burning up the old 'uns to make room for the new 'uns?"
"Who, indeed?" echoed Mr. Banks. "T'other day I had an undertaking,
which was buried in Enon Chapel, Saint Clement's Lane, - down there by Lincoln's
Inn, you know. The chapel's surrounded by houses, all okkipied by poor
people, and the stench is horrid. The fact is, that the chapel's divided into
two storeys: the upper one is the preaching place; and the underneath one is
the burial place. There's only a common boarded floor to separate 'em. You go
down by a trap-door in the floor; and pits is dug below for the coffins. Why at
one end the place is so full, that the coffins is piled up till they touch the
ceiling - that is, the floor of the chapel itself, and there's only a few inches
of earth over 'em. The common sewer runs through the place; so, what with that
and the coffins and carkisses, it's a nice hole."
"Wuss than this?" said Jones.
"Of course it is," returned Banks; "'cause at all
ewents this is out in the open air, while t'other's shut up and close. But I'll
tell you what it is, Jones," continued the undertaker, sinking his voice as if he
were afraid of being overheard by a stranger, "the people that lives in that
densely-populated quarter about
Saint Clement's Lane, exists in the midst of a pestilence. Why they breathe nothing but the putrid stench
of the Enon burial-place, the Green Ground in Portugal Street, and the
Alms-House burying ground down at the bottom of the Lane."
"All that'll breed a plague von o'these days in the
werry middle of London," observed Jones.
"Not a doubt of it," said the undertaker. "But I
haven't done yet all I had to say about that quarter. Wery soon after a burial
takes place at Enon Chapel, a queer-looking, long, narrow, black fly crawls out
of the coffin. It is a production of the putrefaction of the dead body. But what
do you think? Next season this fly is succeeded by another kind of insect just
like the common bug, and with wings. The children that go to Sunday-school at
the Chapel calls 'em 'body bugs.' Them insects is seen all through the summer
flying or crawling about the Chapel. All the houses that overlooks the Chapel is
infested with rats; and if a poor creetur only hangs a bit of meat out of his
window in the summer time, in a few hours it grows putrid."
"Well, Mr. Banks, sir," said Jones, after reflecting
profoundly for some moments, "it's wery lucky that you ain't one o'them
chaps which writes books and nonsense."
"Why so, Jones?"
"'Cos if you was to print all that you've been tellin'
me, you'd make the fortunes of them new cemetries that's opened all round
London, and the consekvence would be that the grounds in London would have to
shut up shop."
"Very true, Jones. But what I'm saying to you now is
only in confidence, and by way of chat. Why, do you know that the people round
about the burying grounds in London - this one as well as any other - have seen
the walls of their rooms covered at times with a sort of thick fatty fluid,
which produces a smell that's quite horrid! Look at that burying place in
Drury Lane. It a so full of blessed carkisses, that the ground is level with the first-floor windows of the houses round
"Well, it's a happy thing to know that the world don't
trouble themselves with these here matters," said Jones. "Thank God! in my
ground I clears and clears away coffins and bodies both alike, as quick as I
turns 'em up. Lord! what a sight of coffin nails I sells every month to the
marine-store dealers; and yet people passes by them shops and sees second-hand
coffin furniture put out for sale, and never thinks of how it got there, and
where it come from."
"Of course they don't," cried Banks. "What the devil
do you think would become of a many trades if people always wondered, and
wondered how they supported theirselves?"
"You speaks like a book, Mr. Banks, sir," said Jones.
"Arter all, I've often thought wot a fool I am not to sell the coffin-wood
for fuel, as most other grave-diggers does in grounds that's obleeged to be
cleared of the old 'uns to make room for the new 'uns. But, I say, Mr. Banks, sir,
I've often been going to ask you a question about summut, and I've always forgot
it; but talkin' of these things puts me in mind of it. What's the reason, sir,
that gen'lemen in the undertaking line wery often bores holes right through the
"That's what we call 'tapping the coffin,' Jones,"
answered Mr. Banks; "and we do it whenever a body a going to remain at home
two or three days with the coffin-lid screwed down, before the funeral takes
place. Poor people generally buries on Sunday: well, p'raps the coffin's took
home on Wednesday or Thursday, and then the body's put in and the lid's screwed
tight down at once to save trouble when Sunday comes. Then we tap the coffin to
let out the gas; cause there is a gas formed by the decomposition of dead
bodies." * [* The products of ordinary combustion are sufficiently
poisonous. The gases produced by the decomposition of the dead are partially
soluble in water; and a fatty pellicle is instantly formed in large quantities.
The wood, saturated with these dissolved gases, and used as fuel (a frequent
occurrence in poor neighbourhoods, and in the vicinity of metropolitan
graveyards), must diffuse, in addition to the exhalations constantly given off
from bodies in vaults, and on the earth's surface, vast volumes of gaseous
poison. Hence many of those maladies whose source, symptoms, and principle. defy
medical experience either to explain or cure.]
"Well, all that's a cut above me," said Jones. "And
now I must get back to work "
"Not at that grave, mind," interrupted the undertaker.
"It musn't be another hinch deeper."
"Not a bit, sir - I ain't a goin' to touch it: but I've
got another place to open; so here goes."
With these words the grave-digger rose from his seat, and
walked slowly out of the Bone-House.
"At two o'clock, Jones, I shall be here with the
funeral," said Mr. Banks.
"Wery good, sir," returned Jones.
The undertaker then left the burial-ground; and the
grave-digger proceeded to open another pit.
chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
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