St. Clement Danes Churchyard.
The ground around the church is much reduced in size and paved over. The crypt has been cleared and opened as a chapel.
Burial place of Anne Donne, Wife of John Donne, d.1617. Also, supposedly, of Harold Harefoot, King of the English, d. 1040.
This is now 1 acre in extent, having been curtailed, when the Strand was altered. It is closed. (Holmes)
ST. CLEMENT'S CHURCH, Strand. - There is a vault under this church called the "Rector's Vault," the descent into which is in the aisle of the church near the communion table, and when opened the products of the decomposition of animal matter are so powerful, that lighted candles, passed through the opening into the vault, are instantly extinguished; the men at different times employed, have not dared to descend into the vault until two or three days had elapsed after it had been opened, during which period the windows of the church also were opened to admit the perflation of air from the street to occupy the place of the gas emitted; - thus a diluted poison is given in exchange from the dead to the living in one of the most frequented thoroughfares of the metropolis. The other vaults underneath the church are also much crowded with dead. From some cause, at present doubtful, these vaults were discovered to be on fire (1) upwards of fifty years ago; they continued burning for some days, and many bodies were destroyed.
At the eastern side of this church a pump was formerly fixed; this, within the previous month, has been removed, and a brick erection placed upon its site; the well was sunk in the year 1807, but the water had become so offensive, both to the smell and taste, that it could not be used by the inhabitants, owing, most probably, to the infiltration of the dissolved products of human putrefaction. Graves certainly have been dug very near to this well, and the land springs have risen to within a few feet of the surface.
From information recently obtained, it appears that several persons have been buried near this spot, and that in particular, the coffins of two very respectable inhabitants of the parish, as soon as let down into the graves, sunk below the surface of the water which had percolated into them; it is even stated that the deceased, from a wish to be buried in a watery grave, and knowing the situation, had particularly fixed upon it for the interment of their bodies.
Can it be surprising, then, that the water of this well should have become impregnated and corrupted ?
(1) This is not a very unusual
circumstance; the vaults underneath St. James's Church, Jermyn Street,
many years since, were on fire.
In 1941 the crypt was explored for the first time for nearly a hundred years. To quote Mr E A Young, a churchwarden and one-time bell-ringer, in The New Rambler for January 1944:
The crypt, we found, extended under half the church and below the two vestries. It had been approached by steps on both sides. The roof is of groined vaulting, carried on brick piers and stone columns. It is very massive, yet the columns standing under the knave, in rows of three, seem to give the crypt an architectural value. The floor I could not see as it was covered with a layer of earth (probably containing human remains.)
An act was passed in 1851,
prohibiting burials in urban areas. Shortly after this the overseers
made a general clearance of the cells and their contents.
The best of the coffins were re-enclosed in a newly formed chamber, and
all else uniformly spread to a depth of 30 inches in a layer over the
floor, always closely packed with earth, and covered with quicklime.
Thus leaving all seemly, as we find it today.
Crypt - tastefully decorated with old coffin plates
Rocque showing much larger ground, and almshouses to the right.
Open air vault of Lincoln's Inn chapel 2004
BURYING GROUND, PORTUGAL STREET.- This ground belongs to the parish of St. Clement Danes ; it is commonly known by the name of the " Green Ground," and has been in use as a burying place beyond the memory of man.
The soil of this ground is
saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence. On Saturday the
27th April, 1839, at 5, p.m. I went, accompanied by a friend, to Nos.30
and 31, Clement's Lane, and, upon looking through the windows of the
back attics, we saw two graves open, close to the south-eastern
extremity of this burying ground. Several bones were lying on the
surface of the grave nearest to us-a large heap of coffin wood was
placed in readiness for removal, and, at a small distance, a heap
covered with coarse sacking, was observed, which, when the covering was
taken off, proved also to be long pieces of coffin wood, evidently not
in a decayed state. The nails were very conspicuous. Several basketfuls
of this wood were taken to a building at the south-west extremity of the
ground. We were informed that this sight was by no means a novel one; it
was commonly-almost daily, observed. The cloth covering of the wood
appeared to be nearly as fresh as when interred. The grave diggers were
seen to take off tin plates from the coffins broken up. This desecration
of the grave has not escaped the notice of the passer-by, as is proved
from the following letter to the editor of the Times newspaper, which
was published on the 25th of June last:-
Passing along Portugal Street on Saturday evening, about ten minutes before seven, I was much shocked at seeing two men employed in carrying baskets (1) of human bones from the corner of the ground next the old watch-house (where there was a tarpaulin hung over the rails to prevent their being seen, and where they appeared to be heaped up in a mound), to the back of the ground through a small gate.
Where this leads to I do not know; but I should be glad, through the medium of your invaluable journal to ask, why is this desecration ?
Sir,- I feel more particularly
than many might do, as I have seen twelve of my nearest and dearest
relatives consigned to the grave in that ground; and I felt that,
perhaps, I might at the moment be viewing, in the basket of skulls which
passed before me, those of my own family thus brutally exhumed.
At all events, for the sake of the community at large, it should be inquired into.
The complaint here made is, unfortunately applicable to most of the metropolitan burying grounds, under the present system; a system as dangerous as it is revolting and disgusting: the evil can only be effectually destroyed by an enactment of the Legislature, prohibiting altogether interment within cities, towns, or densely populated villages.
The effluvia from this ground,
at certain periods, are so offensive, that persons living in the back of
Clement's Lane are compelled to keep their windows closed; the walls
even of the ground which adjoins the yards of those houses, are
frequently seen reeking with fluid, which diffuses a most offensive
smell. Who can wonder, then, that fever is here so prevalent and so
In the beginning of the present year, I was called upon to attend a poor man, who lived at 33, Clement's Lane; his health was broken, his spirits depressed, and he was fast merging into that low form of fever of which this locality has furnished so many examples. I found him in the back room of an extremely dirty house, his wife and family with him. On looking into the " Green Ground," through the window of his room, I noticed a grave open within a few feet of the house; the sick man replied to my observations, " Ah, that grave is just made for a poor fellow who died in this house, in the room above me; he died of typhus fever, from which his wife has just recovered,-they have kept him twelve days, and now they are going to put him under my nose, by way of warning to me."
About twenty years since, it was the custom in the " Green Ground" to bury the poor in a vault underneath the pauper's promenade, which is now flagged over -- trap doors covered the entrance to the vault; a large chimney or shaft, rising from about the centre of the vault, carried off the products of decomposition from this place; the smell, I am informed by a respectable man, was disgustingly offensive, and was frequently intolerable during hot weather. The bodies were buried in slight deal three-quarter stuff coffins; these were soon destroyed : they were packed, as is the custom, one upon the other; the superincumbent weight, aided by the putrefactive process, had deranged several of the bodies; in replacing one of the coffins, three guineas fell from it; it was supposed that the money had been clutched in the hand previous to death ; a more rational supposition is, that the nurse had hidden the money in the coffin, but that the opportunity had not offered of removing it.
The workhouse, at the
north-eastern extremity of this ground, has, within the last few weeks,
been disused; and the building, it appears, is about to be converted
into an hospital, for the reception of patients, belonging to the
Medical and Surgical department of King's College: from the high
standing of the gentlemen connected with this establishment, I can
entertain no doubt that the condition of the earth's surface, and,
consequently, the salubrity of the surrounding atmosphere, will be
primary objects of attention before patients are admitted.
In the middle of the north-east boundary of this burying ground is placed a grave-stone with the following inscription ;-
HERE LYE THE
REMAINS OF HONEST JO MILLER,
A TENDER HUSBAND, A SINCERE FRIEND,
A FACETIOUS COMPANION, . AND AN EXCELLENT COMEDIAN;
HE DEPARTED THIS LIFE THE 15TH DAY OF AUGUST, 1738, AGED 54 YEARS.
If humour, wit, and honesty could save
The hum'rous, witty. honest, from the grave,
The grave had not so soon this tenant found,
Whom honesty, and wit, and humour crown'd :
Could but esteem and love preserve our breath,
And guard us longer from the stroke of death,
The stroke of death on him had later fell,
Whom all mankind esteem'd and lov'd so well.
FROM RESPECT TO
MIRTHFUL QUALITIES, AND HISTRIONIC EXCELLENCE,
COMMEMORATED BY POETIC TALENT IN HVMBLE LIFE,
THE ABOVE INSCRIPTION, WHICH TIME
HAD NEARLY OBLITERATED, BAS BEEN PRESERVED
AND TRANSFERRED TO THIS STONE BY ORDER OF
MB. JAMES BUCK, CHURCHWARDEN, A.D.1816.
(1) Many waggon loads were
removed to a receptacle situated on the north east of this ground; some
idea may be formed of the quantity, when I state that five men were
employed about a week in their removal.
A part of the buildings of this
hospital stands on ground which, up to about the year 1850, was one of
the burial-places belonging to the parish. It was about the third of an
acre in extent, and called the "Green Ground," as if in
mockery. From a report of a parochial committee in 1848, we learn that
upwards of 5,500 bodies had been interred within it in the previous
quarter of a century. The scenes witnessed here were of the most
offensive character. In it was interred, among other lesser celebrities,
Joe Miller, the author of the "Jest Book" which bears his
name, who died in 1738. A monument was erected to his memory, with an
inscription, said to be by Stephen Duck, who began life as a thresher,
but afterwards entered the Church, and wrote some poems, which incurred
the satire of Dean Swift. This monument, having become decayed and
almost illegible, was renewed in 1816, and is to be seen leaning up
against the wall of one of its offices. The inscription on it ran as
(see reference above)
Of "Joe Miller" little is known except what may be gathered from his tombstone. Mr. Peter Cunningham, in his "Handbook of London," published in 1850, speaks of Joe Miller’s headstone as standing in the old burying-ground "half concealed in summer by a clump of sunflowers," and draws the special attention of his readers to "the ‘Grange’ public-house, with its old and picturesque inn-yard." It may be remembered that Sir William Davenant, in his "Playhouse to Let," mentions this hostelry in a way which implies that it was a haunt of players.
"Let him enter and send
his train to our house-inn, the ‘Grange.’ " But alas! for the
progress of modern improvements, the "Grange" and its yard are
gone. It was taken down in 1853, and its site in now covered by a part
of King’s College Hospital.
(Walter Thornbury, A Narrative of its History, its People and its Places. Illustrated with Numerous Engravings from the Most Authentic Sources: Old and New London: Volume 3 (7.44)
College Hospital and its surroundings have obliterated the
recollections and annihilated the grave-stones of the Burial Ground
of St Clement Danes, where Nathaniel Lee, the bombastic dramatist
(1657-1692), author of Sophonisba and Gloriana, was
buried, having been killed in a drunken street brawl.
(Henry B. Wheatley, London Past and Present: Its History, Associations, and Traditions.: 3 Vols.)
Chamberlain, grave-digger at St. Clement's, testified that the ground
was so full of bodies that he could not make a new grave "without
coming into other graves." He said:
"We have come to bodies quite perfect, and we have cut parts away with choppers and pickaxes. We have opened the lids of coffins, and the bodies have been so perfect that we could distinguish males from females and all those have been chopped and cut up. During the time I was at this work, the flesh has been cut up in pieces and thrown up behind the boards which are placed to keep the ground up where the mourners are standing - and when the mourners are gone this flesh has been thrown in and jammed down, and the coffins taken away and burnt."
An assistant grave-digger testified that, happening to see his companion one day chopping off the head of a coffin, he saw that it was his own father's! Another digger testified that bodies were often cut through when they had been buried only three weeks. Another testified to things more horrible than ever Dante saw in Hell. He says: "One day I was trying the length of a grave to see if it was long and wide enough, and while I was there the ground gave way, and a body turned right over, and the two arms came and clasped me round the neck!"
London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852
From Portugal St., 2003
I have several times visited this Golgotha. I was struck with the total disregard of decency exhibited, - numbers of coffins were piled in confusion -large quantities of bones were mixed with the earth, and lying upon the floor of this cellar (for vault it ought not to be called ), lids of coffins might be trodden upon at almost every step.
My reflections upon leaving the masses of corruption here exposed, were painful in the extreme; I want language to express the intense feelings of pity, contempt, and abhorrence I experienced. Can it be, thought I, that in the nineteenth century, in the very centre of the most magnificent city of the universe, such sad, very sad mementos of ignorance, cupidity, and degraded morality, still exist? Possibly I am now treading over the mouldering remains of many, once the cherished idols of the heart's best and purest affections,- here, thought I, may repose one who has had his cares, his anxieties - I who, perchance, may have well fulfilled life's duties, and who has tasted its pleasures and its sorrows, - here he sleeps as I must sleep; yet I could not but desire that I might have a better resting place - a Christian burial.
(1) From the most authentic information, I have reason to believe, that since the establishment of this place, from ten to twelve thousand bodies have been deposited here, not one of which has been placed in lead.
(2) I have not been able to
obtain a scientific description of these insects.
But far worse than the graveyard alluded to above, was another place of burial within the limits of this parish, long known as Enon Chapel, but afterwards converted into a chapel of ease to St. Clement’s, and called Clare Market Chapel. The building stands close to the eastern entrance to Clement’s Inn, and the access to it is through a gateway leading into a narrow and extremely dingy court, which opens out into Carey Street. It was converted from secular to religious uses in 1823, by a Dissenting congregation, of whom Mr. Diprose writes-
"These pious people,
looking very naturally to ways and means, turned the vaults beneath
their meeting-house into a burial-place, which soon became filled with
coffins up to the very rafters, so that there was only the wooden
flooring between the living youth and the festering dead, for a
Sunday-school was held in the chapel as well as the congregational
meeting. This state of things was allowed to continue till 1844, when a
new sewer having to be carried under the building, the Commissioners of
Sewers discovered the loathsome charnel-house, and had the place closed,
but left the bodies to lie there and rot, heedless of all consequences.
The upper premises then became tenanted by a set of teetotallers, who,
amongst other uses, turned it into a dancing-room, where the thoughtless
and giddy went to ‘foot it’ away over the mouldering remains of sad
mortality, part of the bygone generation turning to dust beneath the
dancers’ feet." This loathsome abomination ceased in 1847-8, when
a surgeon, Mr. G. A. Walker, gained possession of the chapel with the
intention of removing the remains from the vault, or
"dusthole," as it was usually called, to a more appropriate
place. The work of exhumation was then commenced, and a pyramid of human
bones was exposed to view, separated from piles of coffin wood in
various stages of decay. This "Golgotha" was visited by about
6,000 persons, previous to its removal, and some idea may be formed of
the horrid appearance of the scene, when it is stated that the quantity
of remains comprised four upheaved van loads. The whole mass of bodies
was decently interred by Mr. Walker, at his own cost, in one pit in the
cemetery at Norwood, the coffin wood being piled up and burnt. It is
indeed strange to think that such foul abuses were not swept away until
the reign of Victoria.
(Walter Thornbury, A Narrative of its History, its People and its Places. Illustrated with Numerous Engravings from the Most Authentic Sources.: Old and New London: Volume 3(7.44))
A church, called Enon Chapel, was built some twenty years ago, by a minister, as a speculation, in Clement's Lane in the Strand, close on to that busiest thoroughfare in the world. He opened the upper part for the worship of God, and devoted the lower - separated from the upper merely by a board floor - to the burial of the dead. In this place, 60 feet by 29 and 6 deep, 12,000 bodies have been interred! It was dangerous to sit in the church ; faintings occurred every day in it, and sickness, and for some distance about it, life was not safe. And yet people not really knowing the state of things, never thought of laying anything to the vault under the chapel.
But perhaps the reader will exercise his arithmetical powers, and say that it would be impossible to bury 12,000 persons in so small a place, within twenty years. He does not understand the manner in which the speculating parson managed his affairs. It came out before the Committee of the House of Commons, that sixty loads of mingled dirt and human remains were carted away from the vault at different times, and thrown into the Thames the other side of Waterloo Bridge. Once a portion of a load fell off in the street, and the crowd picked up out of it a human skull. It was no longer safe to cart away the remains, and yet the reverend speculator could not afford to lose his fine income from the burials, and so his ever-busy intellect invented a novel mode of getting rid of the bodies - he used great quantities of quicklime! But quicklime would not devour coffins, and so they were split up and burnt in secret by the owner of the chapel. several witnesses swore to this before the Committee. Said one of them:
"I have seen the man and his wife burn them it is quite a common thing."
London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852
At the time I attended it, there were interments, and the place was in a filthy state: the smell was most abominable and very injurious; I have frequently gone home myself with a severe headache, which I suppose to have been occasioned by the smell, more particularly in the summer time; also, there were insects, something similar to a bug in shape and appearance, only with wings, about the size of a small bug; I have seen in the summertime hundreds of them flying about in the chapel; I have taken them home in my hat, and my wife has taken them home in her clothes; we always considered that they proceeded from the dead bodies underneath.
Samuel Pitts, cabinet maker and regular attendee at Enon 1828 - 1834. Testimony to Select Committee quoted in 'The Changing Face of Death' (Jupp and Howard)
Dancing on the Dead
The Site today
Rolls Chapel in 1800