When walking around a cemetery, looking at the gravestones, one of the first things you might notice is the age at which the person commemorated on the stone died. You come by this information either because the age at which they died is written on the gravestone or by way of some simple maths (the years of birth and death are almost always written there).
When walking around an old Victorian cemetery, it’s almost impossible not to notice that people were dying at a much younger age in those days. This is hardly surprising given that medicine was not nearly as advanced as it is today, that the poorer classes often were living in some truly horrible conditions, and in the big cities like London, all lumped together in confined areas, and given statistics like this one: in 1871, women were having, on average, 5.5 children (what half a child looks like I dread to think). One in three children would die before their first birthday.
Diseases would spread quickly and kill many. The first of the Magnificent Seven to open was Kensal Green in 1832 and this was the same year that a cholera epidemic hit East London, causing panic, quarantining and a lot of deaths. One of the symptoms of this particular disease was profuse diarrhea, which can cause death is fluids and salts lost from the body are not replaced. This was not something that was widely understood in 1832, and doctors would try to restrict fluid intake rather than encourage it. Add to this poor, cramped living conditions and overflowing sewage systems, as well as the fact that it was customary for a sick person to be surrounded by as many friends and family as possible, usually all together in the same room – and it’s really no surprise that people started dying left, right and centre.
Having said this, and for all the drama that just the word ‘cholera’ provokes in one’s mind, more people died of tuberculosis in 1832 (then known as ‘consumption’, another word that seems to carry a lot of drama and romance with it – if you can associate romance with a disease that causes night sweats, chills, the coughing up of bloody lumps of lung tissue and wasting away of all the organs) and at one point, a child born in the Bethnal Green area of London was not expected to live much past his 16th birthday. Fun times indeed.
You begin to see the need for some proper, big cemeteries to house the dead – and I’m only scratching the surface here.
Before I skip off to go and think about something less morbid, and just to satiate your bloodthirsty need for a bit of delicious Victorian gore (if you’re anything like me, you definitely have it), I found a web page that lists common Victorian causes of death. Keep these in mind the next time you’re bumbling along through the wilds of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park or relaxing at Brompton or taking the Highgate West tour. You’re surrounded by the victims of these illnesses and accidents – thank your lucky stars for antibiotics, commons sense and health and safety laws.
1 – Lung infections: these included TB, pnumeonia, influenza, smallpox, scarlet fever and typhoid. Spread linked to poor sanitation as well as sexually transmitted diseases.
2 – Workplace accidents: Have you recently suffered an accident in the work place that wasn’t your fault? Fallen on an industrial saw perhaps? Full thickness burns to the face after spilling hot fat on yourself? You can claim now! Just text the word HELP to Ye Olde Claims 4 U NOW! Oh wait, you can’t, you bled out already. Oh well. There’s a really pretty plot at Nunhead Cemetery with your name on it.
3 – Infant/mother mortality. You suspect midwifery training was not really a thing in 1845.
4 – Heart failure. Still a common cause of death today, but much more thoroughly understood and treatable. None of these adverts warning you about crushing chest pain in those days.
All photographs by Christina Owen.
Artwork courtesy of Pretox.org.