The reception house in Hammersmith’s Margravine Cemetery is a rare example of the buildings that were used to address the repeated cholera outbreaks in London between 1832 and 1866.
With disease continuing to spread throughout the city, Edwin Chadwick, the Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, led a nationwide review of the sanitary conditions of the poor. He found that most families could not afford a funeral, so a body was often left on a table in the house while money was raised for a funeral. These health conditions contributed to the spread of cholera throughout London. Chadwick called for reception houses to be built to house coffins between death and the funeral to prevent the spread of disease.
There were also calls for reception houses to address a common fear at the time of being buried alive. Across continental Europe ‘waiting mortuaries’ where bodies would be held until signs of decomposition were evident were already established.
Heritage Minister Tracey Crouch said:
“This reception house gives us a glimpse into how cholera outbreaks changed Victorian attitudes to burials and public health standards. It’s an important part of London’s history and I’m delighted that it will be listed.”
The Margravine Cemetery reception house is the only one of its kind remaining in London. It survives in its original condition and the interior remains largely untouched. The building contains stone slabs on the walls to hold the coffins along the five sides of the house.
Nine mortuaries were constructed across the city, but they were much larger and provided coroner’s facilities, rather than just spaces for housing the dead. Undertakers were then introduced in the 1880’s, making reception houses unnecessary.
The decision to list was made based on the building’s rarity, architectural interest and for adding to our understanding of Victorian funeral practices and improvements in public health.
Roger Bowdler, Director of Listing at Historic England, said:
“The history of death is the history of life as well: of how we remember, how we improve public health, and how we separate the living from the dead. Nowhere tells this as eloquently as a cemetery, and Margravine Cemetery contains some truly eloquent reminders of the London Way of Death”.
Ruth Savery, Secretary of The Friends of Margravine Cemetery said:
“We’re proud to have this fascinating piece of local history in Margravine Cemetery to add to our three listed monuments. It’s remarkable how well the reception house has survived and we’re delighted it is gaining this recognition.”