Are you having a picnic above a London plague pit?

london-plague-pits

As you enjoy a picnic in a park, you could well be sitting above a London plague pit. The black death – thought to be a combination of bubonic, pneumonic and perhaps septacaemic plague – killed 15 percent of the population of London from 1665 to 1666. When churchyards overflowed, people were buried in plague pits in their hundreds.

Historic UK has divulged a map of plague pits derived from a number of sources that include Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Years, Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography and Basil Holmes’ The London Burial Grounds: Notes on Their History From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Historic UK has appealed to the masses for help it make the map complete. Here are some of the more notable features.

St Paul’s Church in Shadwell was one of Stepney’s five plague pits.

Christchurch Gardens in Westminster is now a public garden but was once a plague pit. It has another claim to fame in that Colonel Thomas Blood, who attempted to steal the crown jewels in 1671, is buried there.

Stepney Mount was possibly among the biggest London plague pits and would have encompassed acres of space. St Philip’s Church is now found there.

At least some of the playing fields at Vincent Square in Westminster, the property of Westminster School, are over the London plague pit that was known as Tothill Fields. Other nearby pits are beneath government buildings.

Marshall Street Leisure Centre is on a street once named Pesthouse Close. Infected people were confined to the pest-house where they were quarantined and studied. Bodies were buried between Marshall Street and Poland Street.

One London plague pit lies under the dog walking area surrounding St Dunstan’s church in Stepney.

What is now Seward Street and Mount Mills betwixt Finsbury and Shoreditch was a large London plague pit. The grave was reputedly shallow. Residential buildings now sit astride it.

Thousands of bodies are believed to have been buried around Goswell Street, close to Mount Mill.

Knightsbridge Green in Knightsbridge was a small London plague pit that was believed to be the final resting place of people who expired at the Knightsbridge lazarhouse (leper colony), which is found nearby.

The name of Gower’s Walk Pest Field, close to Aldgate East, is a giveaway. Thousands of victims of the plague were interred there but now you will find warehouse apartment conversions.

Daniel Defoe describes the London plague pit at what is now Aldgate tube station as “a terrible pit” which was at one point almost 20 feet deep. Digging went as far as it could go, stopping only when it hit water.

If you pick up your groceries at Sainsbury’s in Whitechapel, you’ll be standing where plague victims were buried.

As the church’s website proudly boasts, more than a thousand folk were interred in pits in the graveyard of St-Giles-in-the-Fields.

Golden Square in Soho is a most pleasant little square. In 1685, Lord Macaulay wrote that it was “a field not to be passed without a shudder” where “dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores.” People believed the earth to be tainted.

Charterhouse Square in Farringdon was the largest London plague pit of all, housing what is believed to have been about 50,000 corpses. In 2013, 14 bodies were unearthed there during building work for the USD24/GBP15/EUR19bn Crossrail project. The skeletons were unmarked, showing that they were among London’s poorer inhabitants.

37-39 Artillery Lane, Bishopsgate, was the location of a London plague pit and, before that, a sizable Roman cemetery.

It was stated that 149 plague victims were buried at All Saints Church in Isleworth in 1665.

Vinegar Alley in Walthomstow was so named due to the massive quantities of vinegar dumped around a plague pit there in a ploy to restrict the propagation of the afflication in 1665.

Cross Bones Graveyard in Southwark is more widely known as the unconsecrated gravesite of the thousands of sex workers of Southwark, but some evidence suggests it was employed as a plague pit.

Islington Green is a dinky little triangular fragment of land over what was a plague pit.

Although, whatever people might tell you, that wasn’t how it got its name, Blackheath was where victims of the plagues of the 14th and 17th centuries ended up.

It’s likely that a plague pit existed at the present-day Clay Ponds in Brentford.

Bones excavated at Green Park during the building of the Victoria Line in the 1960s suggest that this was a London plague pit.

Behind the wall of a tunnel at the London Depot of the Bakerloo Line near Elephant & Castle is a plague pit.

It has been reported that there was a London plague pit at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, however this has yet to be confirmed.

New Street in Bishopsgate once went by the name of Hand Alley. Defoe wrote that “many of the carts out of the City also brought their dead thither.”

Hoxton’s Pitfield Street is another with a giveaway name: once a plague pit, and a big one, too.

Many sources, Wikipedia for one, claim that many office blocks of Houndsditch in the City don’t occupy full plots because there were so many plague pits in the vicinity. The name comes from the Roman practice of disposing of dead dogs there.

There was a huge London plague pit north of Old Street, between Goswell Road and St John’s Street. It was used for burials for centuries.

Burials at the London plague pit at what is now the Royal Mint in East Smithfield were, unusually, highly systematic.

It has been said that many bones were unearthed at the current location of Queen’s Wood in Highgate in the 19th century.

Legend has it that planning applications for new properties on Shepherd’s Bush Common are often turned down for fear of disturbing the plague pit that lies beneath.

While there is no hard evidence to support the claim, local history forums hold that there was a plague pit at Gypsy Hill.

Source: The Telegraph

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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