St James Cemetery and the Necropolis Inquiry, 1857

Liverpool Mercury, May 18th, 1857

The interments at the Necropolis and St James Cemetery

On Friday Mr P. H. HOLLAND, Inspector for the burial department of the Home Office, commenced an inquiry into the burials at St James Cemetery, before going into that he agreed to hear the representations of the various parties at issue with reference to the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place at the Necropolis, He said he had acted as if the trustees had by their own neglect, forfeited all right to consideration, but the owners of vaults and graves had not forfeited that right at all. He had framed his report on the interests of the grave and vault owners, putting the trustees aside.

Mr HULL appeared on behalf of the committee of grave owners and stated, as a result of a conference with Mr LACE, the trustees had refused to hand over the concern to the Liverpool Burial Board, but, were willing to transfer its management to the board at London. He asked on behalf of the committee that the ground at present should be closed altogether, a grave owner objected to this.

Mr LACE said that the trustees were willing to leave it to him [Mr HOLLAND] or any other Government Inspector to say who should have the future management, as to the mode of interment and anything else. Mr HULL said the Burial Board would be the body to manage it, elected every year, and would be changed every year if they did not do their duty. The inspector asked would Mr LACE agree that the Secretary of State should nominate the committee of management after a fair report from all sides, the suggestion was agreed to.

The inspector said by agreeing to the proposition they would escape an order in council for closing the cemetery altogether, the new order would limit the opening of the grounds for private graves. It was agreed Mr LACE and Mr HULL should apply to Sir George GREY.

It was announced as probable that St Annes Cemetery, Edge Lane, being full, would be ordered to be closed.

Dr HOLLAND next proceeded to inquire into the state of St James Cemetery, in which it appears that the system of pit burials had to a great extent prevailed.

Mr Duncan GIBB, Mr Ralph HESS, Mr Isham GILL, Mr Thomas HAIGH, builder, and Mr Owen WILLIAMS, spoke to the existence of an offensive smell proceeding from the cemetery, and to the injury that over burial there has occasioned to the value of property in the neighbourhood. Inquiry adjourned till the next day.

Inquiry resumed in the Chancery Court, St Georges Hall before P. H. HOLLAND Esq, Inspector for the burial department of the Home Office. Mr MC GOWAN, Dr DUNCAN, Dr DAVIES, Mr FRESH and other officers of the Health Committee were present. Mr ALMOND, solicitor attended on behalf of the trustees of the cemetery.

Mr William JONES, a builder, carrying on business and residing at the upper end of Duke St was the first witness called. He stated that he owned property in the neighbourhood of the cemetery. He considered the open space made by the cemetery an improvement to the property, but its use as a burial ground injurious to it - cross-examined by Mr ALMOND. His next door neighbour Mrs HOOK was going to leave because her landlord was going to raise the rent, He could not say that he had experienced any inconvenience from the neighbourhood of the cemetery.

Mr H. AYNSLEY, one of the sanitary officers, called and examined. He stated that he had seen Dr FORMBY who could not attend due to ill health. Dr FORMBY told him that he was a mortgagee in the cemetery but had received little or no dividend. Witness asked him if he was aware that the pit system of burial was going on, and he replied he was not, he had property in Sandown Terrace, on the north side of the cemetery and in consequence of the complaints of the offensive smells, the property was much deteriorated in value so much that houses which let some years ago for £150, £180 and £200 per annum, were now reduced as low as £80. He attributed it to no other cause than the offensive smells and nuisances from the cemetery. He spoke strongly of the number of persons congregated on Sundays during the time of interments, and that respectable persons would not stop in the house. Visitors had frequently complained of the cemetery and Mrs FORMBY could not get a servant to stay with her for any length of time. Mrs FORMBY said she had endeavoured to get Dr FORMBY to move in the matter, but without effect, and that in order to do so she would tell persons who came after the houses of the bad smells that existed.

Mr MC GOWAN submitted two letters from Dr FORMBY which he read :-

Grassmere, May 12th 1857

“Dear Sir, The rents on my houses in Sandown Terrace are about one third reduced since interments in the cemetery became so numerous, No 5 and No 6, the two centre houses were let, one to Mr IRELAND and the other to Mr FELLOWES for 180 guineas each, and now 80 is the rent paid. Yours, truly, Thomas FRESH, Esq” undersigned Richard FORMBY.

Grassmere May 12th

“Dear Sir, When your messenger was gone I thought I had better give you my opinion of the effects likely to follow the continuance of the present plan of burying in the cemetery. No one will deny, and I have myself known, fever and death arise from bad smells. How can there be a more plentiful source of fever than the stench of the ill-kept churchyard? The cemetery is this at the present time, and its effects will soon be visible, Yours truly, Thomas FRESH, Esq” undersigned Richard FORMBY.

Mr ALMOND said that as regard to Dr FORMBY’S houses they were uninviting and in bad repair. That would account for their deterioration, besides they were not modern, and consequently less likely to meet the present competition.

Catherine JONES, Dr FORMBY’S servant said the house was not in bad repair, she had observed peculiar smells at the front of the house on opening the windows.

Mr Richard FORMBY was next examined, he said the houses belonging to Dr FORMBY, his uncle were as good as houses could be, he had never been in better houses in Liverpool. The bad smells had often been complained of in his presence by Dr and Mrs FORMBY, in fact the latter was always ill in the winter when she resided there. In the summer she always went away to the Lakes and invariably returned in improved health. He had never heard that the passing of the railway tunnel underneath the property depreciated the property. On cross-examination, some of the houses were built on artificial ground, there were 12 houses, two showed marks of subsidence.

Mr C. DAVIES, the borough engineer, described the cemetery to be about 400yds long and 100yds in breadth and about 45ft below the highest level in Hope St.

William MELLOR and Henry FITZPATRICK, officers in the inspector of nuisances department, stated that in the month of March and since then occasionally they had taken notice of and recorded what took place in the cemetery. A report made by this witness which was in the book was read by Mr MC GOWAN. The report stated that they had made periodical visits to the burial ground and taken notice of the mode in which the interments took place, which was by placing the bodies in pits in large numbers with little or no earth thrown over them until the pit was filled up.. In one pit opened on the 15th March, and closed on the 6th April, the pit being 30ft deep, 31 bodies were placed, the coffins separated by a mere sprinkling of earth. Another pit 20ft deep was opened on the 15th March and closed on the 16th April, contained 60 bodies. A third opened on the 15th March and closed on the 22nd March had 9 bodies in it. A fourth opened on the 25th April and closed on the 27th April had contained 31 bodies. A fifth opened on the 18th March and closed on the 11th May contained 10 bodies, a sixth opened on the 7th April and closed on the 28th April contained 82 bodies, this was 35ft deep. A seventh opened on the 9th April and closed on the 11th May contained 50 bodies. The pits were on average 7ft in length by 5ft wide.

From a calculation made by Mr DAVIES, the deputy borough engineer it appeared that 800 graves of the description referred to might be made in an acre of ground. Allowing a foot between each pit and 30 bodies each pit 24,000 could be interred in an acre of ground.

Mr ALMOND said there had not been 24,000 bodies interred up to the present time. Mr MC GOWAN replied that, that might be very well true, but, all the common pit burials, which were so numerous were within one spot.

Robert ORFORD and Charles CAMPBELL two sanitary inspectors, stated that in 1854 they visited the cemetery and witnessed the same proceedings as were spoken of by the last witnesses.

Mr Henry AYNSLEY and Robert HIGGINS two other sanitary inspectors collaborated the evidence of MELLOR and FITZPATRICK. The latter stating it had been part of his duty to attend the cemetery weekly during the past 10yrs, and he had frequently perceived very offensive smells. He had perceived the same smells in Upper Parliament St. Inspector AYNSLEY said he had heard parties attending funerals in the cemetery complaining of the disagreeable odours arising from the graves.

Dr DUNCAN the Medical Officer of Health, said he considered the pit burials as described, must be prejudicial to the heath of parties frequenting the cemetery, but, he could speak with little confidence as to the injury to the health of the inhabitants of the neighbouring houses. He doubted the probability of the foul air from the pits at the south end of the cemetery extending perceptibly to the north end, except occasionally, in certain states of the weather. Pit burials he believed to be injurious to public health. He concurred in his opinion that the practise was offensive to public decency, and contrary to our opinions of the respect that ought to be given to the dead. He also considered it unjust that the practise should be allowed in St James cemetery when it was forbidden in other places, and there was a great difficulty in carrying out the provisions of the law if any one place was allowed to be exempt.

Mr MC GOWAN observed that there was a memorial sent by the proprietors of St Mary’s cemetery, Kirkdale to Sir George GREY, praying that they may be exempt from the order in council, in consequence of this exemption in favour of St James cemetery. Inquiry to be resumed

Liverpool Mercury, May 20th, 1857

Inquiry resumed on Monday in the Vice Chancery Court, St Georges Hall before, Mr P. H. HOLLAND Esq, Inspector for the burial department of the Home Office. Mr MC GOWAN, Dr DUNCAN and Mr FRESH also Mr AINSLEY inspector of nuisances who appeared on behalf of the heath committee and Mr ALMOND, who appeared on behalf of the trustees of the burial board.

Mr James PEDDER of Falkner St, formerly in business as an attorney in this town, said, he had frequently perceived a strong odour at the south end of the walk adjoining the cemetery, particularly in sultry weather and when the wind was in the S .S.E His curiosity had been excited by seeing a white vapour arising from the cemetery, and the smell having been so strong as to compel him to leave.

The Rev Edward CAMPBELL, son of the Rev Rector CAMPBELL said that if the inspector by these proceeding threatened to take away that which was legally and justly the property of his father, he protested at it as unjust and illegal, the rector having received no notice of the proceedings and he [Rev Edward CAMPBELL] not having time to communicate with him on the subject, but if the inspector only meant to put a stop to that which was illegal and damaging to the general health of the neighbourhood, he felt confident his father would not object to the proceedings, as he was not capable on making profit on that which was contrary to law or public decency.

The inspector said, he was merely collecting information on which to frame a report.

Mr MC GOWAN said he had already intimated that the was quite sure that the rector would be willing to give up any pecuniary consideration he might have in the matter if it was necessary to do so for the public good.

The Rev Mr CAMPBELL, said if there was any notorious out rage upon public decency he was quite sure his father would be the last man to support it.

Mr ALMOND then addressed the court on behalf of the trustees of the cemetery. He said it was his privilege or duty to offer to the inspector some of the observations that had occurred to his own mind since Saturday with reference to the inquiry. No doubt the subject will not be quite so pleasant as it would be if he had the popular side of the questions to deal with. Nevertheless it did involve questions of vast importance not only of consideration to the inspector, but also for those by whose guidance the matter might ultimately be settled and determined as to what was best to be done under the circumstances.

To do justice to the gentlemen he represented, he directed attention to what he thought important, what was the effect of the particular act of parliament which concerned St James cemetery and how far subsequent acts, might be said to have altered or repealed it. He was contented that St James cemetery was exempt from the application of 15th and 16th Vic chap 86 sec 3, even if such was not the case and the inspector was satisfied that burials at the cemetery, particularly at the months end were being practised to such an extent as to cause injury to public health, people differed in their opinions, some would select that neighbourhood from choice, whilst others would fancy there smells and fumes arising from the cemetery and object to it. In the conflict of statements what was the inspector to determine? He thought the court should be fully satisfied that the course of burials was injurious beyond all question. If it was injurious, to what extent was it so ? Was the court to close the cemetery altogether, or impose some limitations on future interments ? There were no improprieties here, he wished to interfere with another inquiry as little as possible, but at St James there were no irregularities, no improprieties if they interfered with it at all it should only be so far as was consistent with the protection of the public. He was not in a situation to suggest what the inspector ought to do, it was very likely the trustees might conceive that the particular act of parliament under which they governed their affairs was still operating upon them, and that neither the inspector nor any order in council could ride paramount over it, and therefore, conceiving that such rights did exist as regards to them, it was impossible for him to suggest what might be done. He said, however, interfere with it as little as possible, because you have nothing to complain of, or, if at all, let those interments were the numbers are perhaps more than you can conceive to be right, be limited, and put them on the same footing as a private grave limiting the numbers to 6 or 8. Mr ALMOND then referred to the decreased value in property in the neighbourhood and contended that it arose from other causes than the proximity of the cemetery, namely the extension of the town and the desire of people in the vicinity who 10 or 20yrs ago occupying houses in the vicinity wanting to get further into the country. This was the case with a great deal of other property in what used to be the suburbs of the town, it was a fact that out of 214 houses in the line of streets immediately surrounding the cemetery, there was only one to let. He would now proceed to call gentlemen who would state that they have found no inconvenience or unpleasantness from the cemetery.

Mr Henry DAWSON, Ironmaster, 14 St James Rd, 1st witness called, said, he built the house in which he now lives in 1839, and it was about 150yds from the chief entrance to the cemetery, he had constantly been in the habit of passing and walking through the cemetery gardens before breakfast and had never perceived any smell. He did not conceive the cemetery to be an annoyance, he had got accustomed to the funerals and had heard no complaints from the neighbours. As to the depreciation of the property, he thought the whole town had depreciated in value and the house next door but one to where he lived was lately sold for £900 having cost, £1250. In reply to the inspector he said, hr had experienced offensive smells from a gully hole in Mr GIBB’S house at the corner of Duke St, he had never perceived any bad smells at the south end of the cemetery. In cross examination by Mr MC GOWAN, he said if there had been any bad smells from the cemetery they hadn’t come to his house, as there was a garden and row of houses to prevent it reaching the row in which he lived.

Mr J. B. ASPINALL, barrister, said he had friends living in one of Dr FORMBY’S houses in Sandown Terrace, whom he visited and he had never experienced any disagreeable smell, nor heard any complaints of such. The panic which arose in consequence of two of Dr FORMBY’S houses cracking extended to the whole of Sandown Terrace, and since that period the rents had fallen, he thought the present inquiry would depreciate the value of the property for the moment but, it would rise again. In reply to Mr MC GOWAN, he felt that from the distance of the houses he did not think the pits would be a nuisance to the people in the neighbourhood.

Mr William CULSHAW, Architect of Rodney St, said he lived in St James Rd, two and a half years ago and experienced no annoyance from the cemetery beyond the congregations of people to witness the funerals, and thought the depreciation of property might be attributed to that source. His wife’s friends lived 100yds from the pits and had never experienced any smells. The depreciation of houses in Gambier Terrace, he thought was owing to the houses being built to large for the locality.

Mr Charles TAYLOR of Russell St, had never experienced any offensive smells from the cemetery, nor had his brother, a surgeon, residing in the neighbourhood.

Mr HIGGINSON, a resident for 17yrs in the neighbourhood of the cemetery said, the only smells he perceived were from those from badly trapped gully holes. Since the inquiry commenced he had seen graves open in the cemetery but had smelt nothing offensive. He thought, however, that the system of pit burials was exceedingly objectionable.

Mr BANNISTER the chaplain of the cemetery said, that during the 6yrs he had done duty there he had not experienced any offensive smells from the graves, but, had from the bodies taken there. He should not say that it was not an exaggeration to say that 60 bodies had been put in one grave, but they were not left open longer than a month

Mr COURTIER, Secretary, said the total number of interments since 1828 had been 24000, on average there were 510 common graves or pits with on average 30 bodies in each, 163 guinea graves, in which 12 bodies had been interred and 10,000 private graves or vaults, some unoccupied. There were 44,000 yds of ground, of which 16,000 had been disposed of, so that above half of the available space had been appropriated.

This being the whole evidence Mr MC GOWAN addressed the court, replying to the legal arguments that had been raised and contending that if their present powers under the act of parliament did not meet the case it was their duty to apply for additional powers. The evidence adduced by the trustees did by no means controverted the positive facts, proved by a host of respectable witnesses. In conclusion he said the health committee only wished to do their duty to the public and he did not think they could be accused of unfairness in the charge of that unpleasant duty.

The Inspector said, that there were two points that had to be settled in the matter, the one point of law, the other of fact. We regard to the law he would let it be decided by those competent to do it. In his opinion the cemetery did come within the law, the next duty to contend with, did the cemetery pose a nuisance?, on that point they had the most positive testimonies given by respectable witnesses, that they felt the cemetery a nuisance giving off an offensive odour. Others equally came forward who had not felt it, as Mr MC GOWAN has justly observed, one fact was worth 50 assertions. With regard to the north end he thought the smells there were due to the gully holes not the graveyard, he had positive facts before him that there was a very offensive effluvium arising from the sewers in that district, which he thought could not come from the burial ground. There could not be doubt that burying so many people in one grave is injurious, all the witnesses had admitted that, and he therefore believed some good would result from the investigation. He believed the trustees were quite willing to do what they could to meet the needs of the public, therefore, he thought, he should not be required to make any stringent orders, but take time to consider the question well, and also hear any further information on the subject from either side.

Mr ALMOND on the part of the trustees and Mr MC GOWAN on the part of the health committee gave their thanks to Mr HOLLAND for the attention he had paid to the investigation.

Mr BOLD assured the inspector and the trustees were most willing and anxious to comply with the wishes of the inspector if he considered the present system of burial was prejudicial to public health.

This concluded the inquiry.


Copyright 2002 / To date