Saturday 2 May 2015

Westminster, 1840

Hello, thank you for calling in.  You are a member of a very small group and I value each and every one of you. 
I have had a tiring and difficult week, the weather seems to have lost its way and I have dug out the hot water bottle which I thought I had put away until the end of the year.  It's a bank holiday weekend so obviously, it's raining and it's cold.  Plans for outings and gardening have been shelved BUT I am not downhearted!  I have a large mug of Earl Grey, half a bar of chocolate and nothing else planned, so I can do some family history research!  It's one of my favourite indoor pursuits.  I would like to introduce you to William Green.

William was born in the spring of 1795 and didn’t marry until he was 35 years old; his bride was 28 year-old Mary Drake and they were married at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster on 15th December 1830.  This does not mean that they were in any way grand, it simply means that they lived in that parish and in fact, William was working as a humble dyer when their son George John was born almost two years later.  Then came three daughters: Fanny Elizabeth in 1835, Mary Ann in 1837 and Jane Joan in 1840.  Little Jane was baptised on 28th June but William couldn’t attend.

By 1840 William had been employed for several years as a gravedigger at St Margaret’s, the same church where he had been married and all of his children baptised. 

I have shown you this picture before and mentioned that this church appears in several branches of my family tree.  That green space in front of the church is the old churchyard. Presumably, the bodies are still there, underneath the grass.

I expect William was kept very busy as the years 1836-1842 saw major epidemics of influenza, typhus, typhoid and cholera across the UK -  in 1840 alone typhus killed more than 17,000 people in London.  It was a horrible job, the churchyards had become so full that coffins were often buried within inches of each other, or even stacked on top of each other, the stench was horrendous and there were serious concerns about the effect this was having on public health, particularly in crowded cities.  A Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to investigate The Effect of Interment of Bodies in Towns and in June 1842 reported that

“The practice of burying in over-filled churchyards makes the office of gravedigger a loathsome and unhealthy employment, degrading to the persons who perform it and inevitably driving them to habits of drunkenness.”

The report goes on to state that gravediggers were known to drink large amounts of spirits, partly to try and kill off any trace of illness they may have picked up from the dead bodies and partly to blot out the horrors of their work. 

So, in the spring of 1840 William was digging a grave in the overcrowded churchyard when his pickaxe accidentally penetrated a coffin which was already down there.  He was “suddenly seized with faintness, excessive chilliness, giddiness and an inability to move his limbs” and fell down in the grave.  Showing very little signs of life, he was quickly taken not to a doctor, but to a pub!  They tried to revive him there with “warm beer, brandy and other stimulants” and he seemed to recover a little, so they took him home to 11 Little Chapel Street and his own doctor came out to see him and gave him the usual treatments (whatever they were), although he could see that there was no hope of recovery.  Within a week, William was dead, leaving behind a pregnant widow, an elderly mother-in-law and three children under the age of eight.   

The story doesn’t end there: four days after William died, his doctor died and three or four days after that, the doctor’s maidservant died.  The Select Committee reported that

“The symptoms of these cases of peculiarly malignant typhus were nearly as rapid and decisive as if it had been the plague.  There can be no doubt that it was generated in the gravedigger by the effluvia from the coffin into which he struck his pickaxe; yet it is equally certain that this disease so generated was communicated from him to his medical attendant, and from the latter again to his maidservant, both of whom likewise died.”

So how do I know all this?  When William’s doctor became ill he was treated by his doctor, J.C Atkinson, who subsequently wrote about the case in The Lancet, Volume 2 in an article entitled “Fatal Consequences of the Effluvium in Metropolitan Grave-yards” and called for the cleaning-up of such overcrowded areas in order to improve the health of the poor.  You can read the article here if you are interested.  Dr Atkinson’s article was used by the House of Commons Select Committee in their investigation and the facts of the case were included in their report, which I read online in The Law Magazine, or Quarterly Review of Jurisprudence and which you can read here

Now, there is a lesson here for genealogists.  Before I knew all this, I simply had a copy of William's death certificate which records the cause of his death as "Erysipelas" and his occupation as "Grave-digger at St Margaret's West.".  I could simply have left it there but decided to Google " William Green gravedigger St Margaret's Westminster" to see if there was any information about him out there in the ether.  As you can see, there was a whole story to be told.  Thank goodness for the internet.
William was my great, great, great, great grandfather.  I carry his genes.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x




  1. I wonder if they took him to this public house?!

    1. Myra, you never cease to amaze me. I think this looks highly likely, thank you. Shame it's not there any more.