Subterranean London is a very crowded space: there’s the London Underground, Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system, buried waterways like the River Fleet and the River Effra, and even the Churchill War Rooms. And then there are all the plague victims bodies tangled together in macabre mass graves.
In fact, under the city lies the remains of thousands of people who perished in the Great Plague of 1664 to 1666, the last major bubonic plague outbreak in London, the same one that reached the village of Eyam, which is quarantined by itself.
During this epidemic, which killed an estimated 100,000 souls (about a quarter) of London’s population in the space of two years, piles of bodies were tossed into deep pits in unconsecrated ground. Lot of job for plague doctors with their “beak mask” filled with lavender or other strong smelling substances which were thought to protect him from disease!
In any case, the corpses intended to plague pits were destined for anonymity, without gravestones, originally in the grounds of churches, but as the body count grew and the graveyards became overcharged with dead, then dedicated pits were hastily constructed around the fields surrounding London.
Initially, authorities wanted these pits left undisturbed. But as the centuries passed, when the city continued to evolve, the locations of the pits were transformed, built upon, and eventually forgotten.
Even though it may be difficult to believe today, this map reminds us that even the most mundane location may also be a burial ground. Try to imagine: popular picnic spots, like Islington Green, but also supermarkets like the Whitechapel Sainsbury’s, were literally the final resting places of heaps of bubonic plague victims. In the east London neighborhood of Hoxton, a sign on the grounds of a housing estate even requests that visitors keep off the grass due to the plague pits below.
Presumably, one former plague pit beyond Goswell Street, along the old lines of the City fortifications, became the first burial ground to be turned into a park in the capital and, during the construction of a new Crossrail station near Liverpool Street station, around 4,000 skeletons were uncovered, many of whom are suspected of being plague victims.
So, if you’re wandering around UK capital, to see whether you’re stepping on the remains of Black Death victims, you can take a closer look at this Historic UK’s interactive map, which reminds us that the past is closer than we think.
And, in this case, right underfoot….