A grave legal dispute in Essex

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century Londoners began to realise they had a problem with their dead. The capital’s population was growing so fast that the parish graveyards were running out of space and posing a very real health hazard to the living. Decaying body matter was swept into the river course and sewers and contributed to outbreaks of disease; fresh corpses were being buried in plots that already contained previous, unmarked, occupants.

As a result the authorities took action and established 7 new cemeteries (known collectively as ‘the Magnificent Seven’) to cope with the demand from the expanding metropolis. These were laid out at Kensel Green , West Norwood, Highgate and Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets – all between 1832 and 1841.


Highgate cemetery in the 1840s

Death and burial mattered to the Victorians. They had already been through the horrors of body snatching by resurrection men and this is evident in the elaborate tombs they put up for their dearly departed and the mourning rituals they practiced. So it is not surprising that they thought ahead when it came their own mortality.

In early May 1883 a gentleman appeared at the Thames Police Court with a rather unusual request for the magistrate. Six years previously he had purchased a burial plot in Essex for his family. Sadly he had already had cause to use it, as his wife and one of his children had passed away. Now he discovered that his eldest son had gained legal access to the grave and ‘was filling it up so fast with the bodies of his own children’…[tragedy having struck his young family]…’that when the applicant’s turn arrived there will probably be no room left’.

The magistrate advised him to ‘seek a statutory declaration of his proprietary rights’ and have a word with the vicar to make sure the grave was not opened again without his permission. One is bound to wonder at the relationship between father and son in the aftermath of this.

                               [from The Graphic, Saturday, May 5, 1883

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