HC Deb 15 April 1850 vol 110 cc354-60

I rise, Sir, in pursuance of notice, to bring in a Bill to make better provision for the interment of the dead in and near the metropolis. The House is aware that, by an Act passed towards the close of the last Session, the Act 12 & 13 Victoria, c. 111, power was given to the General Board of Health to inquire into the state of the burial grounds in the metropolis and other large and populous places; and they were also empowered to prepare a scheme to be submitted to Parliament to prohibit the practice of intramural interments. In pursuance of the power vested by Parliament in them under the Act, the Board of Health, in the course of last year, instituted very extensive inquiries into the state of the burial grounds in the metropolis and the neighbourhood. They also instituted similar inquiries in certain towns of the united kingdom, and they have prepared the scheme embodied in their report which has been upon the table now for some weeks, applicable to the metropolis and its immediate neighbourhood. The board considered the subject in two points of view, first, in reference to the effect of the existing practice on the public health, and, second, with regard to its effect on the decency and solemnity of burial. At this late hour I shall not think of stating the purport or nature of the evidence collected by the board in their inquiries, which forms the basis of the recommendations they have embodied in their scheme; for that report, I am aware, has attracted much of the public attention, and I believe that those I have the honour to address are perfectly aware of the nature of the mass of evidence collected by the board, and upon which the Bill is founded. I will only read a short passage, in which they give a summary of the facts that have come under their notice. It is from page 50 of the report:— From the replies to queries issued by the General Board of Health, it appears that the number of public and private burial grounds at the present time in the metropolis is 138; but this cannot be taken as the actual number, since a great many parishes have not yet sent in their returns. The total number cannot be less than 200, and is probably somewhat more. There are then in London, situated at various distances from each other, and each differing in extent, 200 centres of more or less pollution, each pouring off unceasingly day and night, its respective contribution of decaying matter, but the whole together, reckoning only the gases from decomposing human remains, amounting, as we have seen, in one year, to upwards of two millions and a half of cubic feet. Whatever portion of these gases is not absorbed by the earth—earth already surcharged with the accumulations of centuries—and whatever part does not mix with and contaminate the water, must be emitted into the atmosphere, bearing with them, as we know, putrescent matters perceptible to sense. That these emanations do act injuriously on the health of the people resident in the immediate neighbourhood of the places from which they issue, appears to us, by the evidence that has been adduced, to be indubitably established. From the law of the diffusion of gases, they must be rapidly spread through the whole of the atmosphere that surrounds the metropolis; and though they thereby become diluted, and are thus rendered proportionally innocuous, yet that they do materially contribute to the contamination of the air breathed by two millions of the people, cannot, we think, admit of any reasonable doubt. We submit, therefore, that a case is made out for the total prohibition of interments in the metropolis, on account of the injury resulting from the practice to the public health. I will now proceed at once to consider the general recommendations of the Board of Health. The substance of their recommendations is the prohibition of intramural interments within the metropolitan district, and in consequence thereof a complete change in the existing practice of interments. The Board of Health adopt the principle of appointing a board or commission, specially charged with the executive authority requisite for the accomplishment of this object; and they enumerate the duties with which that board or commission should be entrusted. The Bill is based upon their report, although it does not follow the recommendations of the board precisely in all their details; but it will be sufficient on this occasion to state shortly the main provisions of the Bill, reserving for future consideration mere matters of detail. It is proposed, then, in the first instance, in accordance with the recommendation of the Board of Health, that a district should be formed, to be termed "The Metropolitan Burial District." The parishes to be comprised in this district will he enumerated in the schedule, and they constitute, for the most part, the district already known as the Registrar General's London District, with the exception of some few outlying parishes which it has not been thought necessary to include within the provisions of the Bill. For this district it is proposed burial grounds shall be provided, under the control and management of the board charged with the execution of the Act, who shall also be authorised to fix the foes and payments to be required upon all interments. It is further proposed to give power to the board to take, under agreement, or otherwise by purchase, any of the cemeteries in the district, with the view of shutting up those which may, upon inquiry, appear unfit to be continued as places of interment, but with regard to the others making use of them as burial grounds under the provisions of this Act. A portion of every such burial ground is, as is the practice now, to be consecrated and provided with a suitable chapel for the performance of the funeral ceremony, according to the rites of the Church of England; and other parts of the ground are to be appropriated to the interment of persons of other religious denominations. A power will be given to set apart portions of these burial grounds for any denomination of Christians who, upon religious grounds, may require a separate place of interment. After one or more places of interment have been provided, it is proposed that power should be given to the Queen in Council to order burials in churchyards and other existing places within any portion of the district to be discontinued, subject to any exceptions which, due regard being had to the public health, may be expedient; and this prohibition may be extended from time to time until interments are discontinued throughout the whole district, with such saving rights as to family vaults, regard being had to the public health, as may be deemed necessary. It is also proposed that the inhabitants of any parish of which the burial ground is closed, shall have the same right of interment in the new cemeteries as they had in the parochial burial ground: and in order to provide for the natural wishes of persons to be buried near the bodies of their own relatives, power will be given to remove, without the expensive process called a "faculty," bodies from the intramural places of interment into the new grounds. Power is also given to provide in each district houses for the reception of the dead previous to interment, in order that the poor may not suffer in their health and comfort from continuing the dead in the rooms occupied by the living. One great practical difficulty felt with regard to framing provisions for extramural interments, was that of placing the poor in the same position with regard to burial grounds at a distance as they were with those that were near; and in order to remove that difficulty, it is proposed to empower those who choose to avail themselves of it to inter in these burial grounds at specified and moderate rates. A large portion of the income of some of the London clergy has been derived from fees upon burials; and justice requires that compensation should be given, both to them and other official persons for the loss they will incur by the measure. With regard to the clergy, regard will be had to any diminution of the expense now incurred by them on account of the duty from which they will be relieved, and provisions will be introduced for settling the compensation upon equitable terms. Looking at the large amount which some of the clergy have derived from these fees—in some cases they have formed nearly their whole income—it has been thought necessary to continue the compensation beyond the term of the existing incumbencies, as, in several parishes, if this were not the case, the clergymen would be left without the means of support; but in all cases a power will be given of revision from time to time. With regard to the clerks and sextons, compensation will be given during the tenure of their office. It is expected that the receipts from foes and payments on account of the numerous interments from the metropolis, will fully cover all the expenses; but it will be necessary to make some provision for the immediate purchase of burial grounds and other expenses. Power will therefore he given to borrow money upon the security of the fees and payments, and of a rate which the board will be authorised to make, not exceeding the annual amount of one penny in the pound, in the event of the fees and payments proving insufficient for the whole expenses. With regard to the parties who are to execute the Act, the Board of Health have recommended that this power should be entrusted to a board specially constituted for the purpose; but there are obvious objections to the creation of a new commission, unless some indispensable necessity can be shown for it; and it has been thought by the Government that the Board of Health are fully competent, and that they are upon the whole the best body to carry the Act into effect in the first instance. It is, therefore, proposed that one additional paid member should be added to the board, it being conceived that with this addition and the appointment of such subordinate officers as may be required, they will constitute a body fit for the direction and control of interments throughout the metropolitan district. The House, however, is aware that the Board of Health has only a temporary existence. It will expire, unless renewed, on the 1st of August, 1853, and if not then continued, the duties to be performed under this Bill must be discharged through some other agency. Before the expiration of that period, the subject must come under the attention of Parliament. I have now stated the main provisions of the measure as briefly as I could; but I trust I have said enough to induce the House to assent to the Motion I have to make for leave to bring in the Bill. I cannot, however, sit down without expressing the sense I entertain of the ability and efficiency with which the Board of Health have discharged the duties imposed upon them by Parliament, and of the value of the information they have collected and embodied in their report. The public, I think, are especially indebted to my noble Friend the Member for Bath, who, as an unpaid member of the board, within my own knowledge, has devoted most assiduously many months of valuable time to these duties, under circumstances, which, we all are aware, occurred last year, involving peculiar responsibility and anxiety, and who still is devoting his time and attention to the various and important duties with which the Board of Health is charged, and which they are performing with great benefit to the public. I shall conclude by stating my cordial concurrence with the hope expressed in the closing paragraph of the report of the Board of Health, that their inquiries, and the recommendations founded upon those inquiries, may eminently conduce to the public health, by leading at no distant period to the abolition of what they justly term "the great and growing evil" of intramural interments.


had no intention of offering the slightest opposition to the Motion, of which he approved; but he wished to know whether the Government supposed that the estimated total annual expense of 112,000l., would be defrayed by the fees without the rate?


said, that was a matter of detail, but he was not prepared to say what sum would be required. The rate would only be levied in case of the fees and payments proving insufficient.


said, that the Board of Health did not anticipate any call upon the public, in the shape of a rate, for they believed the fees and payments would be adequate to meet the expenditure.


was extremely thankful to the right hon. Baronet for this Bill, which he hoped would become law quickly. There was one board in London, the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Sewers, who had annually large sums of money passing through their hands; and he believed they had no power to order their accounts to be laid before Parliament. They were unaccountable. He suggested that a clause should be introduced into the present measure to avoid this mistake, and requiring the accounts to be rendered to Parliament annually.


said, provision was made for a report of the board's proceedings and an abstract of their accounts being annually laid before Parliament.


suggested that a provision should be introduced into the Bill to repeal the post-horse duty upon hearses.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir George Grey and Lord Seymour.

The House adjourned at a quarter after One o'clock.