In 1838, an inquest was held in the parish of St. Botolph’s, Aldgate. The inquest was held because of a horrible accident. The accident involved 53-year-old Thomas Oakes, a gravedigger, and a 20-year-old passerby, who was also a fish dealer and the father of two children, named Edward Luddett.
It began after Oakes arrived at work. He opened a trap door covering a grave and descended into the grave. Shortly after his descent, the sexton’s daughter went to look for him and found Oakes insensible at the bottom of the grave. She screamed for help and her screams drew numerous bystanders. In addition, Oakes’s condition was passed to police constables who hastened to the spot, removed the trap door, and discovered Oakes lying on his back apparently dead. They called for a ladder to remove Oakes from the grave.
Among the bystanders at the grave was Luddett. Luddett volunteered to descend into the grave and assist Oakes. When Luddett descended, he took a rope with him and while in the grave, those above told Luddett to put the rope under Oakes’s arms so they could raise him. But as Luddett stooped to fix the rope around Oakes’s body, Luddett “appeared as if struck with a cannon ball, and fell back with his head in a different direction to his fellow sufferer, and appeared instantly to expire.”
Bystanders above then tried to descend into the grave, but each time an attempt was made the person was overcome by noxious fumes. Another gravedigger by the name of William Thomas King agreed to descend and had ropes affixed to him to pull him up in case of any problem. However, when he descended, he became insensible and had to be pulled out.
Because no one could descend, a butcher’s hook was eventually produced and sent down into the grave. It was with the hook that Oakes and Luddett were finally retrieved. Resuscitation was attempted on them, but it was to no avail as both were dead. Thus, both corpses were taken to the Aldgate workhouse.
The grave was said to be a pauper’s grave. It had been opened for four months and reported to be what was termed “a deep grave.” Deep graves were said to be as deep as 58 feet. This practice of digging deep graves had been adopted by the order of churchwardens five or six years earlier. In addition, deep graves were usually kept open until 17 to 18 bodies were interred in them. It was also common practice to not have any earth between the caskets unless someone died of contagion. If someone did die of a contagious disease, then slacked lime and a thin layer of earth might separate the caskets.
To ensure gravediggers were safe when they went down into the graves, techniques had also been adopted to dispel foul air. For instance, Aldgate gravediggers were in the “habit of burning straw … to dispel the impure air.” They also sometimes added slacked lime, sprinkled water over it, and then waited a half hour before entering a grave.
An inquest was held later the same day to discover the cause of the men’s death. A surgeon by the name of Jones attributed the deaths to “carbonic acid gas, generated from decayed animal matter.” He reported the men suffered “suffocation, the result of foul air emitted from the grave.” One tradesman, a Mr. Townley who lived near the cemetery, offered his testimony. He testified noxious odors were regularly emitted from the churchyard and were so bad and so frequent during the summer months, he was “compelled to close the windows of his house on account of the unwholesome effluvia arising from the churchyard.”
To further determine the cause of the accident, the jury asked to visit the grave site where jurors discovered several things. A newspaper reported the findings stating:
“[The grave was] much more narrow at the top than ordinary graves … On each side there were coffins heaped up on each other, and shelving out about the middle, so that the space at this place did not appear to be more than 20 inches or two feet. The coffins exhibited proof that they were indiscriminately placed there, one in particular was exuding matter of a most offensive effluvium, and not a particle of earth was there between those and the new grave.”
The jury considered what they had seen at the grave site and the testimonies given by Jones and Townley. They also discussed at length the “dangerous custom of crowding the churchyards with the dead in the most populous parts of the city.” Moreover, Jones conducted several experiments while at the grave site where he demonstrated the grave still “remained … two thirds full of the noxious vapour [immediately snuffing out a candle when it was lowered into the grave].”
After much consideration, a verdict of “Accidental Death” was returned. The jury foreman “expressed a hope in order to allay the strong feeling which the unfortunate affair had created in the neighborhood, that the grave would be at once filled up.” In addition, the deputy of the ward, who was also the church warden, a Mr. Tyars, “said he would most readily acquiesce in the wish of the jury.”
- “Disastrous Occurrence in Aldgate Church-Yard,” in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 9 September 1838
- “Disastrous Occurrence in Aldgate Churchyard-Two Lives Lost,” in Morning Post, 8 Sept 1838
- “Disastrous Occurrence in Aldgate Churchyard-Two Lives Lost,” in Lancaster Gazette, 15 Sept 1838
- “Dreadful Occurrence in the City,” in Windsor and Eton Express, 15 September 1838
- “Saturday’s and Tuesday’s Posts,” in Wiltshire Independent, 20 Sept 1838
- “The Late Frightful Occurrence in Aldgate Churchyard,” in Morning Chronicle, 11 Sept 1838