St Botolph’s Tragedy

By the dawn of the 19th century, London had a massive public health problem in that the number of dead in the City, had grown to far outnumber that of the living.

The dead were in evidence anywhere and everywhere that people deigned to look, as it was customary to bury the deceased in the, extremely overcrowded churchyards of which there was an abundance in the one square mile of the City of London.

The result of this surplus of dead citizens, can still be seen in some of the older churchyards, where the level of the surface is elevated above the level of the surrounding streets and passageways.


The stench of death was all too apparent and, on warm summer days it must have been positively nausea-inflicting  for those who had the misfortune to live in close proximity to a City churchyard, which, given the number of churchyards, must have been a fair chunk of the populace!

There were times when the noxious gasses that emanated from the decomposing corpses could result in tragedy, as was the case on 7th September 1838, when a grave digger by the name of Thomas Oakes, set about excavating a grave from the soil in the churchyard of St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate, on the eastern fringe of the City of London.

The Morning Post, reported the  subsequent tragic events as they had unfolded in its issue of Saturday September the 8th 1838.

The article read as follows:-


Yesterday forenoon, about eleven o’clock, a very melancholy occurrence took place in the burial-ground attached to Aldgate Church, Houndsditch, by which two men named Thomes Oakes and Edward Liddell lost their lives.


It appears that Oakes, who was appointed grave-digger, had the previous dug a grave in that part of the ground where the paupers are interred.

The depth of it was near 20 feet.

It was entirely a new grave, and the unfortunate man had penetrated into the maiden earth.

On leaving he placed a wooden flap over it, as is the common practice, and in the flap was a trapdoor.


Yesterday, about the time above mentioned, he went to the grave for the purpose of finishing it, and descended by the trapdoor.

In a few minutes after he was found at the bottom of the grave in a state of insensibility, lying with his head on the ground, when information was given to City police constables, Martin 94 and Evans 60, who with the sexton proceeded to the spot.


The flap was promptly taken off, upon which the sexton inquired of the bystanders who would venture down.

A ladder was fixed to the base of the grave when Edward Liddell, a Fellowship porter, offered to descend.

He took a rope with him, but just as he was in the act of stooping to fix it round the body of Oakes, he fell senseless.


Some other persons then attempted to descend, but, on coming in contact with the air of the grave, they soon felt hat they must quickly retrace their steps.


As a last resource a butcher’s meat hook was procured, by which the bodies of he unfortunate men were drawn to the surface.

Mr. Jones, a surgeon, and some other medical gentlemen of the neighbourhood, who had promptly attended, used the necessary means to restore life, but in vain. The bodies were then conveyed in shells to Aldgate workhouse.


In the course of the afternoon an inquest was held on the bodies, when the above facts were given in evidence.

Several of the jurors remarked that it was a lamentable custom to bury the dead in so populous a metropolis as London, and here was an instance of the noxious air that was sent forth from the churchyards. It was surprising that the inhabitants could exist in the vicinity.


Mr. Cheeper, the master of the workhouse, who was one of the witnesses, said that during the summer season he had always been compelled to close the windows of his house, on account of the unwholesome effluvia arising from the churchyard.

A long discussion ensued amongst the jury, who again animadverted in the strongest terms upon the dangerous custom of crowding the churchyards with the dead in the most populous parts of the city.


A verdict of  “Accidental Death” was returned, and the jury requested the coroner’s interference in endeavouring to remedy the evil by a representation to the Legislature, whenever he had an opportunity of so doing.