You could spend a ghoulish holiday in London searching out its plague pits and forgotten cemeteries – if you wanted to.
Good way to start would be to buy the book ‘Necropolis’ which is an excellent primer on where to find London’s dead from centuries past.
Basically, as you shop round the West End or walk round Westminster, they’re under your feet. Some are even in the walls of churches. And there are huge plague pits under office blocks and green parks.
London is full of dead people.
If you went to the Tower of London, you could take in the graves of the beheaded in the church by the scaffold within its walls. But after leaving, go past the Royal Mint and up a road called East Smithfield. You will already be tramping over the bodies of the dead from the 14th century Black Death. Most of this huge cemetery is underneath the courtyard of the Royal Mint.
These poor unfortunates succumbed to a massive attack of the bubonic plague, carried by rats, that devastated a third of the population of Europe. Some dispute the disease in question saying it was Ebola and was transmitted human to human. Recent research interestingly suggests that healthy people could survive this plague more easily than previously thought while those already a bit frail, were much more likely to die.
Charterhouse Square near Farringdon Station was also another site of a medieval plague pit. The dead would also have been buried around the City of London’s many churches or even within the walls. These churchyards were extended even further when many of the medieval churches were consumed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
However, by the 19th century, the overcrowded cemeteries were a health hazard and the Victorians built huge out of town graveyards. The previous cemeteries round the churches were gradually claimed by office buildings. So if you work for a financial institution in the City, you are more than likely sitting above hundreds of medieval dead.
The medieval dead, by the way, were more often than not buried in cloth wrapping or in the case of the plague dead, just chucked in to a pit wearing nothing but the clothes they died in. Exhumation to make way for new bodies was standard practice right up to the 19th century. There are horrible stories of bodies being ‘mulched’ to make way for the recently deceased. Underneath church floors, there was often an extremely tight squeeze – very cosy!
Other plague pits you could visit include one at 37-39 Artillery Lane excavated in 1976. There is a park in south London called Blackheath where there are undoubtedly plague dead beneath the lovely grass but the park does NOT derive its name from the Black Death – a common misconception among Londoners. The name was recorded two hundred years before the Black Death and probably refers to the colour of the soil.
One Londoner, Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote about a much later plague in 1665 that had an appalling impact on London. Defoe was a journalist and a writer and in his diary of the plague year, he described the great pits that consumed the dead:
I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug – for such it was, rather than a pit.
They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did: for, the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. I doubt not but there may be some ancient persons alive in the parish who can justify the fact of this, and are able to show even in what place of the churchyard the pit lay better than I can. The mark of it also was many years to be seen in the churchyard on the surface, lying in length parallel with the passage which goes by the west wall of the churchyard out of Houndsditch, and turns east again into Whitechappel, coming out near the Three Nuns’ Inn.