The Deathly Surprise on Portugal Street

Portugal Street and Clare Market are now partially (or entirely) surrounded by the London School of Economics, inoffensive if not particularly picturesque streets. As noted in my post on The Pickwick Papers, this area is described by Dickens with Pickwick and Sam wandering more or less happily through it when attending upon the business of their court case. As below:

With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.

Or:

In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs…These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.

I knew, of course, that this area had also been a terrible slum, but for the most part cleared and rebuilt by the late 1800s. Emmeline Pankhurst resided for a while in St Clement’s Inn, which she described as ‘a big rambling building’ where she could take refuge in a rooftop garden. Until 1903 the building had been attached to the Inner Temple as accommodations and offices for solicitors. A few years later it had been sold and the first London Women’s Social and Political Union offices were to be found there, within the apartments of socialists and WSPU members Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband. Their offices later moved to 40 Kingsway, near where Portugal street joins it. I have read a great deal about all of this. Reading Catherin Arnold’s Necropolis, however, pointed me in a completely different direction, as though I were reading about another place entirely rather than this same tiny network of streets:

Clement’s Lane.—This is a narrow thoroughfare on the eastern side of Clare Market ; it extends from Clare Market to the Strand [note: this is before the redevelopment of Aldwych and Kingsway — Aldwych is here shown at the bottom of the map, the Strand is just beyond it] and is surrounded by places, from which are continually given off emanations from animal putrescence.

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The back windows of the houses on the east side of the lane look into a burying ground called the ” Green Ground,” in Portugal Street, presently to be described ; on the west side the windows (if open) permit the odour of another burying place —a private one, called Enon Chapel —to perflate the houses ; at the bottom—the south end —of this Lane, is another burying place, belonging to the Alms Houses*, within a few feet of the Strand, and in the centre of the Strand are the burying ground and vaults of St. Clement Danes; in addition to which, there are several slaughter houses in the immediate neighbourhood: so that in a distance of about two hundred yards, in a direct line there are four burying grounds; and the living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead. The inhabitants of this narrow thoroughfare are very unhealthy; nearly every room in every house is occupied by a separate family. Typhus fever in its aggravated form has attacked by far the majority of the residents, and death has made among them the most destructive ravages.

The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescense. 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.

(*) This place is, I believe, filled with dead; many of the coffins being near the surface.

This is from Gatherings from grave yards; particularly those of London: with a concise history of the modes of interment among different nations, from the earliest periods. And a detail of dangerous and fatal results produced by the unwise and revolting custom of inhuming the dead in the midst of the living. By G.A. Walker, surgeon. 1839.

He quotes a correspondent to The Times (25 June 1839):

Dear Sir,

Passing along Portugal Street on Saturday evening, about ten minutes before seven, I was much shocked at seeing two men employed in carrying baskets 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.

There is more on this little area from this interview, found in Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department by Edwin Chadwick, published 1843:

The man had lived in Bear-yard, near Clare-market, which was exposed to the combined effluvia from a slaughter-house and a tripe factory. He was a bird- fancier, but he found that he could not rear his birds in this place. He had known a bird fresh caught in summer-time die there in a week. He particularly noted as having a fatal influence on the birds, the stench raised by boiling down the fat from the tripe offal. He said, “You may hang the cage out of the garret window in any house round Bear-yard, and if it be a fresh bird, it will be dead in a week.” He had previously lived for a time in the same neighbourhood in a room over a crowded burial-ground in Portugal-street ; at times in the morning he had seen a mist rise from the ground, and the smell was offensive. That place was equally fatal to his birds. He had removed to another dwelling in Vere-street, Clare-market, which is beyond the smells from those particular places, and he was now enabled to keep his birds. In town, however, the ordinary singing birds did not, usually, live more than about 18 months ; in cages in the country, such birds were known to live as long as nine years or more on the same food.
–footnote quoting Vide General Sanitary Report p 103 and note p 106

The ‘Green Ground’ they describe sat at Carey St and Portugal St, alongside a workhouse (handy) until it was occupied and expanded by King’s College Hospital beginning in 1840  (it moved to Camberwell in 1913).  It is now occupied by the LSE library quadrangle — some details are on the London burials site, and a brief history from the LSE point of view (and shorn of most of its earthy disgustingness) can be found here, which states that the bodies were actually moved after 1852 to be reburied in the suburbs. But to return to Clement’s Lane — and the infamous Enon Chapel that once stood here — I return to Walker, who was quite a bit more lurid than his partner Chadwick:

Enon Chapel. —This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence —lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth…Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attend ing the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”… (154-155)

There is much more, but do you need much more? For the ending of the story I give you a summary from the most excellent blog from The Order of the Good Death by Carla Valentine, Technical Curator for Barts Pathology Museum:

The new tenants who took over the lease in 1844 knew of the chapel’s history and capitalized on it by appealing to Londoners’ obvious tolerance for the macabre. They placed a layer of brick over the original wooden floor, lay down new wooden floorboards, and opened the space as a ‘low dancing saloon’ for teetotallers, cheerfully advertising “dances on the dead” as well as gambling. An old leaflet stated: “Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings” The Poor Man’s Guardian, in 1847, described this new venture as a ‘Temperance Hall’ which held plain and fancy dress balls accompanied by an efficient band: “Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath” [8] The venue was particularly popular for its annual boxing day bash.

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These dances continued until around 1848 when philanthropist, sanitary reformer and surgeon, Mr George Alfred Walker of Drury Lane, bought the chapel which was in the immediate neighborhood of his surgery. In 1839 he’d written, “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 in the universe, such sad mementoes of ignorance, cupidity, and degraded morality still exist?” [8] At his own expense (£100 – quite a substantial sum for the day) he began having the bodies exhumed and buried properly in a single pit in Norwood Cemetery. (Mr Walker, who had studied at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, was passionate about the abolition of intramural interment and wrote many books on the dangers of disposing the dead among the living.)

The process of exhumation at Enon became a spectacle when the remains were piled up and a “pyramid of human bones was exposed to view” near the premises, visited by 6000 people.

It was at this time, with the human remains finally being removed, that it was calculated over 12,000 bodies had been given eternal ‘rest’ by Mr Howse.

I wish I felt the bravado in dancing over dead was simply that, and not a smelly insect-filled attraction for privileged slummers, all those who preyed on them, and the people who wished to stare at both in macabre surroundings. Or that it were not emblematic of a most desperate poverty and complete failure of local government.

There is more horror (though not the same degree of horror) about the vaults in St Clement Dane Church in the Strand. There is more reporting of testimony on the burial grounds here and stretching west to Drury Lane (the same grounds where Lady Deadlock expired at the gate in Bleak House–at least here the burial grounds were not forgotten and Tom’s All Alone evokes some of the misery of this area’s poverty, but clearly not enough) to be found in this article from The True Tablet, 5th November 1842, like this occurrence — again from Enon Chapel:

There were some men repairing Clement’s-lane ; they asked me to give them a few baskets of rubbish, which I did, and they picked up a human hand, and were looking at it, and there were crowds collected ; it did not appear to have been buried probably a month; it was as perfect as my hand. The sexton, when he found there was likely to be a piece of work, ran out and snatched it away, and blew me up for letting them have it.

I am sure there is a great deal more in multiple places in fact, but not sure I can read any more.

I don’t even know where to begin in processing this. Not least because this stench and smell and presence of bodies and slaughter houses and typhus appears neither in Dickens, who I trust for detail and published The Pickwick Papers in 1836, nor in descriptions of the area from the Booth notebooks — though perhaps I shall look again, make sure of their date (which of course was earliest 1848). The bodies under the Enon Chapel where exhumed and reburied by George Walker himself, who marked their new location in Norwood Cemetery. What about these other burial grounds? Was the smell taken for granted? Was this so much a part of life? Was it too offensive to describe? I can see that Dickens’ light-hearted if critical tones stretching to rank sentimentality would certainly have been dragged down a bit at the first sight of a dismembered corpse or description of death by typhus surrounded by body bugs. Still, Arnold mentions a short story by Dickens that I want to track down, ‘The City of the Absent’. For later.

My cynical self may mock, but my romantic side insists both there should be some feeling about such a terrible place beyond the general soullessness of it today, and that there should be some sign, some memorial — that we should work harder at remembering ‘the good old days’ that weren’t very good after all.

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