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When I first moved to London eight years ago, I lived not far from where I do now, near Highbury Fields. It’s a lovely small park, almost exactly a mile around its perimeter; in the summer it fills up with young families playing frisbee and burning holes in the grass with those disposable barbecues. And, I was told by a relative, the park is on the site of a charnel-pit, where hundreds of people were buried in a mass grave after the Great Plague in 1665.
Since then I’ve tried to discover whether this is true, and I can’t, so it’s probably an urban legend. But it added an agreeably spine-tingling frisson to late evening runs, and acted as a reminder that London’s modern and (relatively) clean surface sits over centuries of mud and blood and bones and filth and death.
Two weeks ago, workers on the Crossrail project that has been carving a swathe through London – and which, as it happens, has blocked my route to work; I have to detour around it at Blackfriars – found the first of a large group of bodies, in Charterhouse Square in the City. More are being pulled from the ground each day. Thirteen have been found so far; they’ve been dated to the mid-14th century, when the Black Death swept through Europe, killing tens of millions of people – between a third and two-thirds of the population of the continent.
London is built on old bodies, everywhere. Catharine Arnold, in her book Necropolis: London and its Dead, claims that Liverpool Street station stands on an old plague pit, and that the Piccadilly Line curves dramatically between Knightsbridge and South Kensington to avoid “a pit so dense with human remains that it could not be tunnelled through”. Parish records at various London churches, including St-Dunstan-in-the-West, on Fleet Street, and St Botolph Aldgate, show that during the Great Plague hundreds of bodies were buried in mass graves after the deaths started coming too quickly to bury them separately. In August 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of walking home late one night when “to my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the plague, in the narrow ally”; two weeks later, he records that there were 6,102 plague deaths in the City.
A thousand corpses were slung into the Aldgate pit alone, according to Prof Vanessa Harding of Birkbeck College, London; St Bride’s, St Dunstan’s Fleet Street neighbour, reported 1,427 deaths from plague in 1665. “‘Tis certain they died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account,” reported Daniel Defoe, in his book A Journal of the Plague Year.
During the Black Death, at least according to Arnold, the bodies were treated with a bit more respect: still, often, in mass graves, but buried neatly in lines, their heads pointing to the west, awaiting Judgment Day. Like the Crossrail corpses, in their two neat rows.
The Crossrail project, with its 40 great excavations, has become Britain’s largest archaeological project; planning rules dictate that every dig has to first undergo an archaeological examination. At Liverpool Street, hundreds of bodies were found, on the site of the old St Bethlehem (“Bedlam”) insane asylum, as well as an old Roman silver coin, a denarius, from 225AD in the reign of Emperor Gordian III; a 55-million-year-old piece of amber, found beneath Canary Wharf; the remains of Roman and medieval settlements underneath what is now the City.
But fascinating as these finds are, it’s the plague pits that stoke my imagination most vividly. I don’t know if Highbury Fields is really built on the bodies of plague victims, and I don’t know whether the Underground swerves to avoid the dead. But there is a chills-down-the-spine sensation from the realisation that, sometimes, all that separates us from the dark times of London’s history is a few feet of earth.