St George’s Gardens, the park on the site of the former churchyard of St George in the East in Stepney, is a neat, peaceful place – when I visited, the play area was full of children, and other people were relaxing on benches or looking at the old monuments near the church. In the midst of all of this is a derelict building that looks terribly sad and out of place. However, this forlorn little building has a fascinating history that includes that most infamous of East End criminals, Jack the Ripper, and later became a pioneering centre for the education of local children.
Built in about 1876 in the old churchyard of St George in the East (which had by the 1870s been closed to new burials for many years), this building started life as a mortuary. Although many years of disuse have left the building in a sorry state, the attractive patterned tiles used in the building’s construction can still be seen – designs that mirror the gateposts at the entrances to St George’s Gardens on Cable Street.
At the time that the mortuary was completed, such buildings were still a rare sight in London. This was despite Edwin Chadwick recommending the building of more mortuaries in 1843, when he published a supplement to The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population looking specifically how the poor of London dealt with the death of family members.
Chadwick found that many of London’s poorer familes, many of whom lived in just a single room, would keep the body of their deceased family member at home until the time came for a funeral and burial. As it sometimes took time for families to get the required money together to bury their loved one, a body could remain in the family’s living space for two or three weeks, perhaps even longer – clearly a health hazard as the body would be decaying. Like most of his contemporaries, Chadwick believed in the miasma theory – that putrid smells and vapours caused fatal diseases – and as a result of his findings in his 1843 report, he recommended that mortuaries were built to house the dead until their burial.
However, the idea of sending the body of a deceased family member to a mortuary was slow to take hold. The parish of St Anne, Soho, was the first to provide a mortuary, in 1854, but for the most part mortuaries tended to be attached to institutions such as workhouses and hospitals.
Families had many reasons for wishing to keep the body of a loved one at home until the funeral. The fear of bodysnatching was still a very real one in the 19th Century, as was the fear of being buried alive. Keeping a body at home would allow the family not only to keep an eye on it, but also to ensure that the person had died (as it was not always easy to tell the difference between a coma and death and this time, until decomposition began). People were also afraid that an unattended corpse might be dissected without authorisation In addition to these fears, it was also a tradition to keep the body at home – that way, friends, relatives and neighbours could come to pay their respects to the deceased and provide support to the bereaved family.
The slow growth in use of mortuaries in the later 19th Century was partly influenced by legal matters. Coroners had often held inquests in private homes or local taverns – the idea of a corpse being laid out in a pub for all to see is quite an unbelievable thing to us nowadays. Amid concerns about the suitability of these makeshift inquest venues, coroners put pressure on London’s vestries (predecessors of the Borough Councils) to provide suitable locations for both post-mortems and inquests, and gradually mortuaries became more common across the city. Changing people’s perceptions of where a body should lie after death was, however, a slow process, and many mortuaries were at first little used.
St George in the East, a stunning Baroque church built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the 1720s, was situated in an area where poverty and overcrowding were rife. When the church was first opened, the area to the east of the City of London was still fairly rural, but as the East End grew and grew, the parish of St George in the East became crowded with those displaced by slum clearances in other parts of London who flocked to the area for its cheap housing.
Probably the most well-known person to rest in the mortuary at St George in the East was one of the suspected victims of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Elizabeth Stride was the first of two women to be brutally murdered in the same evening at the end of September 1888. Elizabeth was found with her throat cut around an hour before a second victim, Catherine Eddowes, was found nearby, with her throat also cut and her body mutilated. Elizabeth Stride’s body was taken to the mortuary at St George in the East, where a post-mortem took place, and she was buried in a humble grave in the City of London cemetery on 6th October 1888.
The mortuary at St George in the East closed in about 1900, as by that time technology had advanced enough for bodies to be refrigerated to delay decomposition – a facility which the little mortuary at St George in the East wasn’t able to provide.
The former mortuary was not out of use for long. A donation of £253 from an anonymous benefactor enabled the building to reopen as the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Nature Study Museum in about 1904. The museum was the brainchild of Kate Marion Hall, curator of the Stepney Borough Museum, and Claude Hinscliffe, curate of the parish of St George in the East. Claude Hinscliffe was the first secretary of the School Nature Study Union, which was set up in 1902/3 and was influential in the provision of nature study in London in the early 20th Century. Stepney was the first London borough to use ratepayers’ money to provide museums for the education of local people.
The Nature Study movement was a nationwide phenomenon in the early years of the 20th Century – whilst researching this post, I’ve found reports of Nature Study centres, exhibitions and school visits in places all over Britain, including Exeter, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Dunfermline. The movement also enjoyed popularity across the Atlantic in the United States. There were concerns that children growing up in crowded inner-city areas never got to experience the wonders of nature at first hand that rural children could enjoy.
Stepney’s Nature Study Museum was a huge success. During the school summer holidays, up to 1,000 visitors came through its doors each day, and the little building was sometimes packed with 70 children or more at one time. As well as attracting local schoolchildren during the holidays, the museum was part of the local school curriculum and played host to school visits.
As the picture above shows, the museum contained large numbers of stuffed and preserved specimens of birds, insects and other animals. These items were intended local children the opportunity to observe these creatures close-up for the first time. As well as animal specimens, trees and flowers were planted outside, and the museum even had a meteorological station for which records were regularly kept. Plants, animals, weather – the museum was a wide-ranging resource.
In recent years, keeping bees has become more popular in built-up parts of London, with hives often being set up on roof gardens and terraces. But “urban honey” is nothing new – the bees at the Nature Study Museum were clearly a big attraction, if this little piece from a newspaper in 1927 is anything to go by:
Many other live animals lived at the museum. Most – like Tom the toad, pictured below – were aquatic creatures. Anemones, fish and amphibians were all kept in tanks, and outside was an “ant-hive” and an aviary. Other creatures were more difficult to take care of. A troublesome monkey – perhaps one of the exotic creatures donated by the museum by a sailor stopping at London’s docks – was known to bite museum staff and visitors.
The Nature Study Museum closed its doors following the outbreak of the Second World War. Many local children had been evacuated to rural areas and the museum’s contents were relocated to the Whitechapel Museum. In April 1941, devastating fires caused by a landmine gutted the church of St George in the East and many of the surrounding buildings. The museum escaped the flames, but it was never to reopen, even after a new church was constructed within the restored shell of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s building in the 1960s.
The Nature Study Museum may be long abandoned and decaying, but nature is very much evident in St George’s Gardens. The grass was cloaked with daisies, and various trees and flowers were reclaiming the old mortuary for nature.
Best of all, though, was what I spotted high on the church’s striking tower. A high-pitched call drew my eyes skywards, and there it was – a peregrine falcon, observing everything around it from its superb vantage point. These beautiful falcons are known to nest on tall buildings in cities – sites that mimic their more usual habitat of steep cliffs.
It’s a crying shame to see a small but fascinating piece of London’s history crumbling away. Not only does the building’s original use as a mortuary provide an insight into attitudes towards death amongst London’s families (and also plays a small part in the Jack the Ripper saga), but the Stepney Nature Study Museum is a wonderful early example of natural history teaching in an inner-city area. In recent years there have been a number of attempts to restore the old museum and make good use of the building again, but to date none of these schemes have come to fruition. Let’s hope that one day soon, this sad little building may be able to retake its place in the local community.
References and further reading
St George in the East – History http://www.stgite.org.uk/history.html
St George in the East – Nature Study Union http://www.stgite.org.uk/naturesstudy.html
Derelict London – Cemeteries, Churches and Chapels http://www.derelictlondon.com/cemetery–churches.html
Pam Fisher – Houses for the dead: the provision of mortuaries in London 1843-1889, The London Journal, Vol. 34, No.1, March 2009 (source – PDF)
Caroline Sandes – The Mortuary that became a museum, Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Newsletter Winter 2011 http://www.academia.edu/6003360/The_Mortuary_that_became_a_Museum_-_St_George_in_the_East_London
Field Studies Council – A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, March 2004 https://www.field-studies-council.org/media/268859/2004_a_review_of_research_on_outdoor_learning.pdf (PDF)