Some archaeologists have recently examined a burial site of the first half of the nineteenth century discovered in the parking lot of New Covent Garden, in the south-west area of London, where about 100 skeletons of men, women and children were recovered. These included difficult working conditions, a life in harmful environments, endemic diseases, physical deformities, malnutrition and deadly violence.
The discovery of the remains allows a snapshot of the life of the first industrial London, in a period between 1830 and 1850. Bone testimonies are evidence of what Charles Dickens wrote in his classic novels, including A Christmas Carol, and recount the inhumane working conditions in what is today one of the richest cities in the world.
About 40% of the burials concerned children under the age of 12, a reflection of the high infant mortality rate of the time.
The remains of what might be considered the “early Londoners” were discovered during the excavation of a cemetery originally located on the New Covent Garden market site. The cemetery was attached to the church of St George the Martyr. The site had been partially cleared in the 1960s, just before the new market was built, having relocated from its original setting in central London.
The osteopathologist responsible for Wessex Archeology, Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, explained to the Guardian (the principal source of this article) the rapidly changing world these people lived: “These were people who had led a life of drudgery and just-about surviving. This part of the capital saw a particularly dramatic change from rural market gardens to a heavily industrialised and urbanised environment over just a few years. All of a sudden, the world changes and there are hideous factories and noxious gases… Gasworks, big railway depots, a lot of construction work. The surrounding assortment of noxious, dangerous and labour-intensive industries would have made for very poor working and living conditions, although great numbers of people continued to flock to the area to take advantage of work opportunities. Most of those trying to survive in and around the area would have been classed as poor or very poor.”
Burials reveal high levels of chronic infections, including endemic syphilis.
Three burials in particular offer fascinating insights. One of these reveals a woman who suffered from congenital syphilis throughout her life, and led an intense working life that involved a massive use of her upper arms and shoulders. She had a broken nose and a skull wound, a trace that made it clear that she died murdered. From the marks on the skull we can see that it was attacked from behind, pierced in the right ear by a blade as thin as a stiletto dagger.
Another burial is of a man almost 1,80 meter tall, a characteristic that made him distinct at that time. The nose is flattened and on the left side of the forehead there is a bony depression, which suggests the violent life led by the man. The bare-handed combat was then a popular hobby (before the Queensberry rules that provided for the introduction of boxing gloves) and his hands show the hard signs of these fights. The man was missing the two front incisors, which were probably lost as a result of the formation of a huge cyst on the palate, and was ultimately also affected by syphilis.
The last burial is emotionally moving. The tag reveals the name of the little Jane Clara Jay, who died on March 18, 1847, just before her second birthday. The child was the daughter of Sarah and George James Jay, two workers of Nine Elms, who probably could not keep it and the child died of hunger.