In the mid-1800s London was about to burst. As young ruralists chased new opportunities in industrial jobs, the city’s population more than doubled in the first half of the 19th century. Residents of what was then the world’s largest city were crammed into ever more crowded quarters. Suffocating smoke swelled from the sooty factory chimneys and hung in the air like a shroud. Horse manure coated the streets, and human sewage amassed in the River Thames.
In shadowy parallel to the city’s living conditions, London’s dead were also being crowded. The city’s graveyards were overflowing. Small church graveyards had been the primary place for interring London’s dead for centuries. As the city’s population skyrocketed, these places proved woefully inadequate at supporting the new population. Graves were dug too shallowly and too close together. Hard rains exposed grim scenes of decomposition.
In the 1830s Parliament was moved to intervene. The city’s first large, privately run cemeteries were granted licenses to operate on what were then the outskirts of London. Planned as parklike gardens, spacious and meticulously manicured, these new cemeteries were dubbed the “Magnificent Seven.” The burial sites were costly, so these new sites only staved off the crisis for those who could afford it.