In 1843, the Scottish cemetery designer, John Claudius Loudon, explained that the purpose of a burial ground was to dispose of the dead ‘in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living.’
A decade earlier, London cemeteries had reached critical mass. Death rates were rising within the city due to overcrowding and outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox and typhus.
Burial grounds were bursting at the seams, causing one Reverend John Blackburn to remark:
I am sure the moral sensibilities of many delicate minds must sicken to witness the heaped soil, saturated and blackened with human remains and fragments of the dead…
The rate at which burials were growing was mind-boggling. According to one report, many cemeteries around London were burying as many as 11,000 people per acre.
To put this in perspective, most cemeteries today accommodate 750-1,000 burials per acre—a tiny fraction of what was acceptable in the past.
Bodies were literally crammed on top of one another. Most graveyards contained open pits with rows and rows of coffins exposed to sight and smell.
Pit burial was so common in London that two men asphyxiated on the methane and other gases emanating from decomposing bodies after falling twenty feet to the bottom of one such pit in the early 19th century.
For those living nearby, the smell was unbearable, especially during the summer months. The houses on Clement’s Lane in the East End of London backed into the local churchyard, and ‘ran with stinking slime.’
The stench was so overpowering, that occupants kept their windows shut all year long. Even the children attending Sunday school could not escape these unpleasantries. They learned their lessons as insects buzzed around them, no doubt originating from inside the church’s crypt which was crammed with 12,000 decomposing bodies.
Even after the chapel was closed in 1844, it continued to be used, this time for ‘Dances on the Dead’ (see illustration, below) until the bodies were eventually moved to West Norwood Cemetery a few years later.
It made headlines from the off when it became the first prison in London to introduce the treadmill.
This was an ingenious but sadistic form of punishment: up to a hundred prisoners a time spent ten hours a day climbing its revolving steps.
These connected to millstones which ground flour for the inmates’ daily bread. It was mandatory for all those who weren’t sick or dying. Anyone who complained was chained to it.
The treadmill made Brixton famous. It fascinated a public cowed by a seemingly unrelenting rise in crime.
Poems and plays were written about it, ballads were sung and cartoons printed.
The dukes of York and Wellington and even royalty were said to have seen it for themselves.
Some of those forced onto the mill gained a fame of their own. Among them was John Dando – the Oyster Eater.
He feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food then refusing to pay.
He ate anything, though shellfish was his weakness. In Brixton he had to be separated from the other prisoners whom he robbed of bread and beef.
The Forty Thieves was a notorious band of child pickpockets, based in Lambeth, which stole its name from an infamous gang of New York.
Its members were regular visitors to Brixton and easily identified by a distinctive tattoo of five dots inked onto the web between thumb and forefinger.
The prison’s first governor also gained notoriety. John Green terrorised prisoners, but also staff, and had a fondness for whipping children. He was eventually sacked for violence, being drunk on duty and having an ‘addiction’ to swearing.
In the 1850s Brixton achieved another first when it became a convict prison solely for women.
Victorian sensibilities, though, meant only women could be put in charge of its inmates.
The governor, Emma Martin, had eleven children who lived with her in the prison grounds and in contrast to her predecessor, John Green, earned a reputation for kindness and fairness.
Brixton served as a military prison in the 1880s, but at the turn of the century became the remand prison for the whole of London. It would come to entertain some of the most extraordinary figures of the twentieth century.
Among them was Terence MacSwiney, the republican activist and Lord Mayor of Cork, who died in the prison in 1920 after a 74 day hunger strike.
It brought the world’s attention to the cause of Irish independence, prompting workers to down tools in New York and sparking riots in Barcelona.
Oswald Mosley was moved in Brixton during the invasion scare of 1940 where he was said to have taken German lessons.
The philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell had two stints in Brixton and likened his stay to a cruise on an ocean liner.
The Krays, who epitomised a darker London glamour, were remanded to Brixton on a charge of murder.
Surrealist painter Hans Ruedi Giger, whose designs inspired the creature in Alien and whose otherworldly and often grotesque art graced album covers for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Debbie Harry and Danzig, died at age 74.
Giger once described his artwork as “biomechanical,” the BBC reports, and earned renown for his monochromatic dystopian landscapes and perverse monsters.
Many paintings featured genitalia in the art, while others found machines fused to organic beings.
“My paintings seem to make the strongest impression on people who are, well, who are crazy,” Giger said in a 1979 interview, according to the Associated Press. “If they like my work they are creative … or they are crazy.”
Detail from Jan van Neck’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1683), showing Ruysch in the centre with an infant cadaver.
When visiting Frederik Ruysch in Amsterdam in 1697, Tsar Peter the Great kissed one of the specimens from his anatomical museum, and afterwards bought the entire collection.
Three hundred years later, the Dutch crown prince, Willem Alexander, when visiting St Petersburg, was withheld from seeing Ruysch’s work. Diplomats had decided the prince had to be spared the sight of the ‘macabre, deformed foetuses’ that Ruysch had preserved.
If he had heard this, Frederik Ruysch would have turned in his grave.
Not that he would have been surprised to hear that his preparations had survived three centuries, for he would have expected nothing less. Nor would he have been astonished to find a prince taking an interest in his work.
But he would have been dismayed to hear his specimens described as macabre, since it was precisely the beauty of his preparations that earned Ruysch long-lasting fame. For centuries, friend and foe alike have agreed that he should be credited, above all, with making anatomy an acceptable pursuit.
A depiction of one of Ruysch’s displays, featuring infant skeleton’s weeping into handkerchiefs, as featured in Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken…van Fredrik Ruysch.