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Travelogue I9

July 1, 2016

Back in Berkeley Square, I reached the end of my reading. If the signage told of a stone nymph come to join the pumphouse in the 1850’s, it was rather the talk of the square’s trees that held my attention. Planted in 1789 by a resident of the square, the trees now knew universal acclaim as Central London’s oldest living inhabitants and had outlived even the square’s iron railings, removed like many others to contribute to armament manufacturing at the height of the Second World War.

I would shortly encounter more of their kind in a one-time churchyard, though not before passing through Mount Street and its long lane of turn-of-the-century, thé-au-lait townhouses. Their brick and terracotta and coloring naturally brought to mind the Hotel Russell, which had so captivated me the year before and before which I had passed only earlier that morning. At the end of Mount Street lay the Mount Street Gardens, formerly one of two churchyards joined to the parish of St. George’s Hanover Square, as a nearby legend told it.

That text informed me, ever the literate wanderer, that both church and churchyard had their beginnings in the Commission for Fifty New Churches, of which only twelve saw the day in the end. Regardless, the commissioners had acquired the plots for church and both churchyards separately, the one in which I then found myself coming from a Sir Richard Grosvenor in 1723. This plot, also home to a parish workhouse, served the church well for more than a hundred before the Mount Street Churchyard, like Central London’s other burial sites, found itself bound to turn away away the newly dead following the passage of the Burial Act of 1852.

It would seem that Parliament and the Privy Council had seen their hand forced by rampant illness in Victorian London to take necessary measures to avoid future outbreaks of cholera. Yet those measures, or so it seemed, fell far short of uprooting industry and cleansing the air and had instead issued in a number of acts like the aforementioned Burial Act forbidding further interment within intramural London. As I later managed to piece together from various internet sources, the Act, though passed, did not go altogether unchallenged and drew, most notably, a response from W.H. Hale, the Archdeacon of London. Said response had taken the form of a charge written to his clergy to the effect that intramural burials had no bearing on public health conditions and enjoining them to call attention to Act’s injurious effect on religion and morals in the metropolis.

For, according to the charge’s thesis, enclosing the dead within the new extramural burial grounds led both to their neglect by kin and to the loss of whatever example of virtue which they might serve kin and the public more generally: out of sight, out of mind. Hale was not, however, content with sentimental platitudes and also advanced in the charge’s closing paragraphs that scientific terms such as “miasma” and “deleterious emanations” were so many ways of frightening the wits out of the simple-minded, unaware that gaseous science was, as per a one-time professorial acquaintance of Hale’s, “too much in its infancy”. As its practitioners later came to find, miasma theory was empirically unsound and, in truth, cholera resulted from the contamination of the city’s water and food supply by feces containing the bacteria. The above goes to show that Hale was unsurprisingly wrong, though for the right reasons.

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