Charles Dickens and the London 'dead-house' mystery

St George's Hospital
Image caption St George's Hospital closed in 1980 and is now the Lanesborough Hotel
The Lanesborough Hotel is situated in Knightsbridge, west London
Image caption Dickens' statement related to a scandal at the former St George's Hospital

The mystery of how Charles Dickens forced a London hospital to make changes in the way it treated the dead has been unravelled.

Charles Dickens scholars have long been intrigued about his involvement in a hospital scandal in the 1850s.

In correspondence between the writer and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, there are references to a statement sent to the governors of St George's Hospital in west London.

But the depth of Dickens' involvement has only just been discovered after the full statement was uncovered by an academic examining the hospital's archive earlier this year.

It was 1856 and Dickens was in the midst of writing Little Dorrit, his satire on the shortcomings of society, when a scandal erupted at St George's Hospital, now the Lanesborough Hotel in Knightsbridge.

Margaret Purvis, a widow from the outer edges of the urban slum Devil's Acre in Westminster, died from cancer at the hospital, aged 46, and a post-mortem examination was carried out by Henry Gray, who at the time was writing his influential human anatomy textbook.

Family-friend Harriet Bragg went to take care of Mrs Purvis's body, but she was wrongly told only men could enter the mortuary, or dead-house.

When the undertakers went to collect the body they found it naked and dishevelled and on the same slab as the corpses of two naked men.

Shocked by the state of the body, Mrs Bragg enlisted the help of the heiress and philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Miss Coutts in turn enlisted the help of Dickens who wrote a statement to the hospital governors.

It was transcribed into the official records in 1857 and buried until now.

In the statement, dated 3 January, Dickens said Mrs Purvis's body had "no appearance upon it of the face having been composed, or the lower jaw adjusted.

Image caption Dickens involvement in St Georges saw him help "completely ordinary" people

"Its appearance... was so forlorn and shocking, that she [Mrs Bragg] hid it from the sight of the daughter of the deceased, until she had been able to perform those functions for it, which decency and humanity usually suggest."

An investigation into the complaint found the allegations to be "substantially true," if "somewhat exaggerated" but it did prompt a change.

At that time the hospital had no dedicated storage for the dead other than a lecture theatre with a dissecting table and a closet.

A new room was built to store the dead in temporary coffins, and a nurse was employed to "dress and decently dispose" the bodies and to look after the relatives.

Dr Ruth Richardson, an independent scholar connected to King's College London and Cambridge University, discovered Dickens' statement as she was researching the history of Gray's Anatomy.

Dickens' scholars have been aware of the statement as it was mentioned in other letters between Miss Coutts and Dickens.

Image caption Dr Ruth Richardson's work has been described as a "scoop"

Dr Richardson said: "The Dickens scholars knew from the letters that a statement existed, but no-one seems to have a clue what it was about.

"The fact that the statement survives within the transcription of Miss Coutts' letters in the hospital archives is new.

"There had been reference to it, but no-one had ever found the text, and no-one seems to have known the context."

She added: "I think most people would have been surprised in the 1850s that dead patients in any London charitable hospital were not laid out by the nursing staff.

"The way in which Dickens and she [Miss Coutts] worked together on this case demonstrates their mutual understanding that influence could be used for the common good.

"It's terribly important, it suddenly became a nursing matter and a hospital matter and clears up something which has baffled scholars. Nobody knew Dickens had been involved."

The discovery has excited Dickens' scholars.

Professor David Paroissien, editor of the academic journal Dickens Quarterly, said: "It's something of a scoop. We have almost 500 words of Dickens that have never seen the light of day before.

"In a broader sense it shows one further perspective in which he is ready to engage on behalf of completely ordinary and obscure persons. Something like this is quite rare."

Matt Haswell, the deputy manager of the mortuary at the new St George's Hospital in Tooting, said nowadays the dead were "still classed as patients".

"Deceased patients are handled with dignity and respect. It's a lot more clinical and everything's clean and tidy and all the bodies are refrigerated which preserves them prior to being collected by the undertaker."

Dr Richardson added: "One little Dickens footnote has got its resolution. It's a small thing, but it's also a big thing because it's about the care of the dead, the bereaved and it's about nursing."

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