Bodies rise from crowded Upper Norwood graves in 1870s scandal
The cemetery at All Saints church in Upper Norwood might seem peaceful in the spring sunshine but in the 1870s it was the site of a great scandal, with bodies rising from overpopulated graves.
The vicar at the time had continued to carry out burials long after the cemetery was full pocketing the extra cash.
During the course of the scandal it emerged that over 3,000 corpses had been buried in the small graveyard, an average of three per plot.
A Home Office enquiry was carried out after local residents complained about the terrible smell coming from the yard.
In the mid-nineteenth century church graveyards were becoming full and municipal cemeteries, like All Saints, were opened to alleviate the strain.The population in that area was rising fast and in 1845 All Saints became a Parish church playing host to baptisms, weddings and funerals.
In 1856 the Reverend James Watson succeeded as vicar and would remain at the helm of the church for the next 40 years.
The scandal came to the surface in 1869, Rev Watson strongly resisted any suggestion that his graveyard had been overused and insisted that 1,900 burials had taken place.
The burial register, when it was eventually produced, showed a different story: 3052 corpses had been buried in the church yard.
Water was found in many of the graves leading to the rapid decay of the bodies.
Local residents said that the smell was terrible. The commissioner’s report said: “The emanation from [the bodies] which permeated the soil to the surface was highly injurious to health”.
The ground was so waterlogged that when the inspectors ordered a trench dug, they had to bale out buckets of water.
The head grave digger claimed he had made sure that all graves dug were 20 feet from a drain, but this was proven to be a complete lie.
The Home Office found that there had been a systematic violation of the law. Too many bodies had been buried in unsuitable soil and no new graves should be opened.
The final report also said that a plan of the churchyard should be produced.
Rev Watson was not deterred and insisted that burials in the churchyard should continue, he made such an issue of it that one of the committee members offered to subscribe £10 to make up for the loss in burial fees.
Local historian Brian Roote stumbled across the story during his research into the history of the church.
He said: “I don't think it was illegal but a bit unethical. As far as I am aware the graves are still there.
“The fact that the vicar and grave digger were so insistent on carrying on interments and the offer of a sub by one of the committee does beg the question as to where all the cash was going?”
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