HC Deb 17 June 1852 vol 122 cc872-81

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the Second Reading of this Bill said, that he was deeply impressed with the importance of passing this measure during the present Session. The evils which resulted from the existing system of burial were notorious; they had furnished matter for numerous blue books, and had animated the speeches of hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House for years past. So impressed were the late Government with a sense of the necessity of abolishing entirely the existing system of intramural burial, that they proposed to Parliament a measure which had for its object the entire abolition of the nuisance. That measure gave great and almost extravagant powers to that department of the State which was intended to deal with the subject; but, great as those powers were, they were not sufficient. Indeed, after nearly two years' experience of the measure, the melancholy announcement was made, in a Report recently presented to Her Majesty, that not a single burial-ground had been closed under the provisions of the Act, and that nothing whatever had been done to mitigate the enormous evils which existed. The causes which led to the failure of the Act of Parliament were twofold. In the first place, as the money required to meet the considerable expenses to be incurred was to be raised by loan, the Board of Health had to give security to the capitalists who were to advance the necessary amount; and when those capitalists came to investigate the security which the Board could offer, it turned out that the existence of the Board was not guaranteed for more than three years, and consequently they could not give the required and necessary security. It was obvious, however, that an Act of the Legislature, transferring to some permanent department of the State the liability of the Board of Health, would meet that objection. He therefore would not dwell further upon that difficulty as it was one purely of form. The second cause of the failure of the Act was, however, one of substance; it was this: as the money required was to be raised by loan, when the Insurance Companies came to investigate the security, it turned out that the fees upon which the security was to be given, did not, under the provisions of the Act, in any proportion which could be ascertained or depended upon, necessarily go to the Board of Health. No provision was made by the Act to prevent the establishment by other parties besides the Board of Health of extramural cemeteries after the burial-grounds in the metropolis had been closed. The burial-grounds to be provided by the Board of Health would be subject to very considerable charges for compensation; but joint - stock companies might have erected new cemeteries outside the metropolitan districts which would be exempt from these great and heavy charges. If such cemeteries were established, as they probably would be, their existence would be fatal to the whole of the calculations upon which the estimates of the Board of Health were founded. The Board, in a memorial which they had presented to the late Government, had expressed, in a very terse sentence, their view of their case. They said that this objection went to the root of all the calculations upon which their estimates were based, and could not be removed except by freeing the Board from the possibility of competition. In other words, unless the Government and the Legislature were prepared to give a strict and close monopoly of the burial of all the people who died in the metropolis to the Board of Health, the Act must remain, as it had been, a dead letter. The Board proposed to the late Government two alternatives for the removal of this cause of failure. They proposed, in the first place, that it should be made compulsory upon all persons to bury their dead in cemeteries belonging to the Board of Health. The late Government declined to concede so vast and important a privilege to the department as that which they asked for. The Board in the next place suggested, that if the Government objected to give them that great monopoly, they might give them the power of levying upon all bodies buried in cemeteries other than those belonging to the Board of Health a fine equivalent to the fee which they would have received if the bodies had been buried within their cemeteries. The late Government declined to agree to this pro- posal also, regarding it as equally objectionable in point of principle with that which they had previously objected to. This was the state of the case when the present Government came into power. His (Lord J. Manners's) attention was of course immediately directed to a subject so important and intricate, and it seemed to him, as it did to his Colleagues, that it was their bounden duty to endeavour to cut the Gordian knot which had hampered and fettered the carrying out of an Act of Parliament which, though passed with the best intentions, had proved to be impracticable in its operation. They thought, in common with the late Government, that the proper remedy for the acknowledged evils would not be found in carrying out to such a great extent the principle of monopoly and centralisation as that by which alone, as it appeared, the Act of 1850 could be rendered effective; but in reverting to the more constitutional, simple, and less objectionable method, by which from time immemorial the parochial authorities had been intrusted with the burial of the dead—subject, indeed, to certain restrictions on the part of the State, for the removal of evils which everybody admitted had from time to time been discovered in parochial management of these matters in various parts of the metropolis. The Bill which he had had the honour to introduce, might be divided into four heads. In the first place, it proposed to repeal altogether the Act of 1850. In the second place, it proposed to give power to the Secretary of State to close any burial-grounds in the metropolitan districts which had been proved to be obnoxious to public decency or public health. In the third place, it proposed to give power to the parochial authorities to replace the closed burial-grounds by others for the use of their parishes. And, in the fourth place, it proposed to authorise the Government to offer the temporary use of a cemetery of which they found themselves in possession to those parishes which might be suddenly deprived of their existing burial-grounds, and which, unless some temporary accommodation were provided for them, might find themselves without any accommodation for the burial of their dead. The Bill had been for some weeks in the hands of Members and the public, and, although it had not been discussed within those walls, it had been freely circulated and commented upon outside them; and at this period of the Session the House would probahly excuse him if he forbore to enter into any further details of the measure. He wished, however, to meet one objection which he had seen taken, and very fairly taken, to one essential part of the constitution of the parochial boards which he proposed to create. It had been said, and said with truth, that in the City of London it would not be unreasonable to expect that fifty or sixty parishes might agree to combine to provide one burial-ground for their joint purposes; but as, by the Bill as it stood, it was provided that not less than three persons, being ratepayers, should form the burial board of each parish, it was obvious that a mortuary Parliament, composed of from 150 to 160 persons, would be highly inconvenient and absurd. He intended, therefore, to propose in Committee to substitute for the burial boards of the City of London the machinery which was set on foot in 1848 for cognate purposes—he meant the Commission of Sewers acting under the Corporation of London, which might he regarded as the representative body of all the parishes in the city. By this means they would remove the objection to which he had adverted, and at the same time conserve the essential principle of local responsibility. The House would have seen that on one important point the Bill escaped a difficulty which might have proved fatal to many other schemes—he alluded to the principle of compensation. As the Bill did not propose to close any burial-grounds, except those which were proved to be a public nuisance, and inimical to public health or public decency, he thought the House would agree with him that they were not called upon to grant compensation for burial-grounds so situated. But it had been represented to him that by the Bill as it stood the Secretary of State might exercise the discretion vested in him to close burial-grounds which in his view might be nuisances, although they might not at common law be nuisances. All he could say on this point was, that looking at those who had filled, and who were likely to fill, the office of Secretary of State, he did not think there was much ground for apprehension that that functionary would exercise the discretion vested in him in any way that would inflict injustice on the proprietors of burial-grounds; but if hon. Gentlemen were of opinion that any danger existed on that score, he should be quite ready in Committee either himself to propose a clause to meet that particular case, or to assent to one which might be submitted by any other Member of the House. He did not wish further to anticipate any objections which might be raised to the various provisions of the Bill. Of course, he knew that they could not all be satisfactory, and that there must be amendments proposed and acceded to with regard to several of them; but what he asked the House to do at present was to assent to the principle upon which the Bill was based; and with that view he committed it to the deliberate and dispassionate consideration of the House, firmly believing that while it might not meet the views of those excellent, but he believed mistaken, men who would subject all the funeral arrangements of this great community to a department of the State, it would afford a practical remedy to a great and pressing evil, with as little alteration as possible of the present constitution, and with as little violence as possible to the feelings, habits, customs, and rights of the different classes in the metropolis, while, at the same time, it subserved public decency and public health. He, therefore, begged leave to move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Second Time."


said, if he believed the remedy proposed by his noble Friend was a practical one, calculated to meet the acknowledged evils of the present state of things, he should be sorry to oppose it; but it was exactly because he believed it to be illusory, and that it would raise public expectation even higher than the measure of the late Government, that he protested against it. He was not for centralisation, but for consolidation. He thought that the metropolis had been groaning too long under a system of fragmentary and practically irresponsible management in regard to its affairs—those of its affairs which in other towns were under municipal control; and he hoped to see the day when some well-considered system of municipal government, with a due proportion of the representative element, would be given to the metropolis; and to that he looked for a satisfactory settlement and solution of quasi municipal questions like those which they had been debating that evening. This was not the time to enlarge further upon the great question of municipal institutions—a population of two millions and a half dwelling close round the seat of Government—but lie would only remark that it involved most difficult and complicated arrangements, and very important political consequences to the Empire at large, as well as to the metropolis and its inhabitants. He objected to the bringing in of such a measure as the present one at the fag end of the Session, and on the eve of a dissolution, remembering that the kindred measure of the late Government created a great deal of discussion in a very full House, and that its principles were affirmed by almost a larger majority than any which the late Government had on any subject. The noble Lord had referred to what he called the failure of the scheme of last Session; but it could not properly be called a failure, for the whole scheme in its completeness had not been tried—indeed it had not been wholly embodied in the Act of last Session. Instead of introducing the present, it would be far preferable to pass a temporary, measure, which would meet the exigencies of the ease (which this Bill did not), and leave it to the new Parliament to come, with full time for due deliberation, to the consideration of a permanent and complete measure. It could not be said that there was any overwhelming pressure to proceed with this measure, for under the Act of last year a burial-ground had been purchased in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, and was now in the hands of the Government; and of the existing burial-grounds some 150 acres or more were at this moment unoccupied. Under these circumstances he thought the Government ought not in haste to have proceeded to deal with so important a subject at this period of the Session. He warned his noble Friend that the metropolitan parishes were not likely to combine in the way he supposed for carrying out arrangements so complicated; or, if they did, he warned him of the consequences of suddenly calling into existence, without any precautions or checks, an organised representative assembly elected by the best population of the metropolis, holding its sittings close to those of the Imperial Parliament—a sort of Marylebone vestry magnified, with ten times the authority and influence—that would be very unlikely to confine its attention to the matters which alone it was intended to administer. He objected also to the reopening of the religious questions which were sure to arise, and had arisen, with regard to the expenditure to be bestowed by parishes upon mortuary chapels in burial - places open alike to the reception of the dead belonging to Dissenters and members of the Church of England. He considered the present Bill to be an unnecessary measure, and even worse than unnecessary, because hon. Members greatly deceived themselves if they supposed that its complicated arrangements could he easily carried into effect, He thought that this most important subject of intramural interment ought! to be left to a new Parliament, which could frame at its leisure proper and well-considered provisions for the permanent settlement of the question.


said, he must beg of the House to allow him to set himself right with respect to a statement which he had made when this Bill was last before the House relative to a young man who had died of malignant smallpox having been hurried in St. Clement Danes churchyard, and in three weeks having been disinterred. He had received a letter from the authorities of the parish, in which they stated that they had been greatly startled and chagrined at the statement reported in the Times, and said to have been made by him with reference to their churchyard. In consequence of that letter, and apprehensive lest, from the circumstance of his being acquainted with much more disgusting and appalling facts in connexion with that churchyard, he might have given too ready credence to what had been represented to him. he immediately made inquiries; and he found that what had really occurred was this- -the young man had died of malignant smallpox; but not three weeks after, as had stated, but three days after, the uncle, passing by, found the grave of his nephew open, and the sexton at work. He read the inscription on the coffin, and men were at work in the grave. These churchwardens were "startled and chagrined." Now, he had been referred to two individuals who lived close to this graveyard, and he begged to call the attention of the House to their statements. Here was the statement of one of them:— I, Thomas Woollidge, of 26, Brydgesstreet, Covent-garden, in the county of Middlesex, declare that in the year 1846 I lived at Mr. Pillion's, a baker in the Strand, opposite St. Clement Danes Church, and there witnessed the following scenes. I also declare that usually the graves were dug on the Satui' day morning, and that, after being finished, they were covered over with a tarpaulin, and left till Sunday morning. During the process of digging I have seen limbs of human beings brought out and thrown carelessly about, and that over the graves were erected a triangle, with a pail suspended, and with this they also brought out decomposed matter, which they removed to a stone building at the east end of the church. And I further declare that, during the whole time I lived at Mr. Pullen's (nearly two years), myself and family frequently suffered from ill health, which was the chief cause of my leaving; and, lastly, I declare this declaration to be true. The other person said— I, John W. Young, son-in-law of Thomas Woollidge, of 26, Brydges-street, Covent-garden, aforesaid, declare that I frequently watched (during the time we lived at Mr. Pullen's, the baker's, opposite St. Clement Danes Church, in the year 1846) the prooceedings of the two gravediggers belonging to the said church, and I do declare that I have observed them traverse the churchyard with an iron rod, about 10 feet, and, after boring for about half an hour, dig a grave, beginning on Saturday, and, after having completed it, bringing up pails of decomposed matter. During the time they threw a tarpaulin over it, leaving it in this state till Sunday, when a fresh body was interred; and I do declare that I have seen these men on other times open the same grave for other bodies until they had entirely filled it up; and I further and lastly declare, that I have witnessed the men, after finishing digging, scrape the matter off their tools and their trousers;—and in truth of this my declaration, I hereunder sign my name. Dated this 7th day of June, 1852. JOHN W. YOUNG. In addition to this, one of the gravediggers of St. Clement's had been examined before the Committee of 1842, and this was what he stated:— John Eyles, a gravedigger of St. Clement Danes, examined.—Question 1187. Is your father interred there?—Yes, he is. I did not want him to be buried there. 1188. Did anything occur to his remains?—I saw them chopping the head of his coffin away. I should not have known it if I had not seen the head with the teeth. One tooth was knocked out, and the other was splintered. I knew it was my father's head, and I told them to stop, and they laughed; but I would not let them go any further, and they had to cover it over. With regard to the present Bill, he, as a metropolitan Member, begged to thank the present Government for having introduced it. It was by far the best measure that had been introduced on the subject, and he thought they were entitled to the thanks of the public for repealing the Act of 1850. They were also entitled to credit for not giving compensation to the proprietors of those churchyards in which these nuisances are perpetrated. He would suggest that the invidious task of closing the graveyards should not be imposed upon the Secretary of State, hut that Parliament should make it compulsory for all graveyards to be closed by a date fixed; the parishes would then find plenty of places to bury their dead in. He hoped the Government were in earnest upon this occasion, and that this Bill would pass with such amendments as would make it acceptable to the people, and conducive to their general health and happiness.


said, he agreed with the hon. Member for Finsbury, that it was desirable as speedily as possible to put an end to the burials within the metropolis. The only reason why the Bill of 1850 was passed through the House was, that it was founded upon the Report of the Board of Health. That Bill failed because the Board of Health could not raise the money necessary to buy cemeteries. They could not raise the money, because the Board of Health itself was to expire in five years after 1848; and the Board, therefore, having only a temporary life, was not able to borrow the money. But there was another difficulty. In order to borrow the money, it was considered not only necessary to have the control of all the burials within the metropolis, but to have a monopoly over all the burials in the country. Another power sought for was still more objectionable. It was proposed that persons dying within the metropolis should be paid for whether they were buried in the metropolis or not, and should be made to bear a fair proportion of the expenses of the measure; so that a person coming up from the south or north of England, and dying in London, would have to be paid for. He (Lord Seymour) thought this could not be carried out, and he did not propose it to the House. Last December it was decided that another measure should be submitted to Parliament, and he (Lord Seymour) took measures preparing an Act which would have the effect of repealing all the Interment Acts, and other Acts relative to burials, and giving a discretionary power to the Secretary of State, or some other officer of the Government. To that extent he entirely agreed with the present Bill; he also approved of the provisions which would enable parishes to make their own burial grounds, if the details could be carried out.


begged leave, as one of the metropolitan Members, to thank the Government for having introduced this Bill. Nothing had given greater pleasure to the metropolis than to hear that this matter had been taken out of the hands of the Board of Health, and if it should be proposed to reconstitute that Board, he would do all in his power to resist it. If the noble Lord (Lord J. Man- ners) intended to propose any Amendments, he trusted that he would have them printed, in order that the House might have an opportunity of seeing them before they went into Committee.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2°.