The Black Death and The Great Plague – Plague Pits of London

Table of Funerals form the Great Plague of 1665
Table of Funerals form the Great Plague of 1665 | Source

London Plague Pits An Urban Myth?

Are the plague pits of London an urban myth or are there really death pits under the city streets and parks that still contain the bodies of the victims of this terrible disease? There has been a human settlement on the site of the City of London probably since before Roman times and where you have large amounts of people living together in a community there is inevitably a need for burial grounds. Not only would the safe, hygienic disposal of bodies be a priority for the local government for public health reasons, but religious beliefs have always been important when burying the dead. In medieval times, England was a Catholic country and the dead were buried according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Most of London’s medieval citizens would have been wrapped in a sheet or shroud and buried in the consecrated ground of the local parish churchyard. After a suitable amount of time had passed the bones would be disinterred and the ground reused. Only royalty, the nobility and rich merchants would have been able to afford coffins or elaborate tombs in the church itself.

The Black Death

However, there were some catastrophic events that posed huge problems for the parish authorities who were responsible for burials and may have even caused the systems they used to break down and for chaos to ensue. Disease and pestilence were a way of life for people in the Middle Ages, but the year 1348 would bring a new and terrifying disease to Europe that would sweep through Britain like a forest fire and kill around one-third of the population. This new pestilence became known as the Black Death, because one of its symptoms was that the victim’s skin could turn black in patches, along with a high temperature, bad headaches, vomiting, swollen tongue and the distinctive inflamed glands in the groin known as buboes. London during medieval times was a large and densely populated city, and once the Black Death took hold in the uncharacteristically wet summer of 1348, people began dying very rapidly in large numbers. Contemporary chroniclers opined that ‘there were hardly enough left living to care for the sick and bury the dead’. Resources and manpower were very soon too badly stretched to maintain traditional burials in the parish churchyard even though they were extended, so plague pits were dug, where the victim’s corpses were unceremoniously dumped with nothing to mark their names or commemorate their lives.

The First London Plague Pits

One of the earliest Black Death plague pits was dug in Charterhouse Square and there was another dug in the vicinity of the Tower of London. These London plague pits were dug as long, narrow trenches and there is evidence that the bodies were placed in rows and in some semblance of order. It is perhaps inevitable that the London plague pits have attracted their share of ghost stories, and it is said that during the chaos and terror of the plague there were many poor people who were tossed into the plague pit while they were still alive, and that if you walk pass the site of the plague pit in Charterhouse Square you can still hear their moans and cries as they try to escape their ghastly fate. One of the more interesting skeletons excavated from the Black Death plague pits was that of a man who was found to have the point of a spear of an arrowhead lodged in his spine. The bone had fused around the projectile which showed that he had survived this appalling injury only to be claimed by the bubonic plague.

New Plague Victims Discovered Under London Street

The excavation of new tunnels below the streets of London for the Crossrail project has unearthed many exciting archaeological finds, including a pit 8ft below a the ground between Barbican and Farringdon tube stations that contains twelve carefully arranged skeletons. The remains are thought to belong to victims of the Black Death who died in 1348, although archaeologists are carrying out tests to date the remains. Scientists are excited by this discovery because they think that they may be able to extract DNA from the bodies that will settle the dispute of what was the cause of the Black Death. Other human remains also thought to date from the same era were discovered in nearby Smithfield during the 1980’s and it is estimated that that there could be as many as 50,000 plague victims in and around this part of London.

Charterhouse Square - site of the plague pit from the Black Death
Charterhouse Square - site of the plague pit from the Black Death | Source

Plague Pits of the Great Plague of 1665

The scourge of the Black Death fizzled out by 1350, but London continued to be swept by periodic waves of pestilence and in 1569 London’s first cemetery, called New Ground, was created from land donated by the Bethlehem Hospital, now part of the site of the Broadgate development, so that parishes could call on any extra burial space that they needed for plague victims. However in 1665 the bubonic plague once more swept through London, causing a huge amount of fatalities and stretching the resources of the local parishes to the maximum. This contagion, known as the Great Plague, started in the densely packed streets St Giles-in-the-Field and at first its spread was slow. The parish authorities tried to ensure that the victims received a decent burial in the local churchyard, but they were soon overwhelmed and the City government had to step in as in July and August of 1665 31159 Londoners perished of the plague. Plague pits were dug in several of the parish churchyards, including St Dunstan’s in Lower Thames Street, St Bride’s in Fleet Street and St Botolph’s in Aldgate. These plague pits were dug very deeply to try to stop the infection spreading, and because records were not always kept during these turbulent times, we still may not know the locations of them all. It was usual to use a plague pit for around forty burials, but the plague pit in Aldgate was known as the Great Pit and Daniel Defoe in his book ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ documented that it was used for around 1200 corpses.

Plague Orders of 1665

However, soon the number of deaths grew so large that the City authorities started digging plague pits outside the city walls, such as the plague pit in Vinegar Lane in Walthamstow, named after the huge quantities of vinegar that was spread around the plague pit to try and contain the disease. The royal court of King Charles II fled London for Oxford, and any of the city folk who had the means fled the city with their families. But the poor had no recourse but to stay, and were subjected to Plague Orders that would seem draconian to our modern minds in a vain attempt to halt the course of the plague. It was known that the plague took four to six days for the symptoms to appear and once a member of a household fell ill, the whole house would be sealed with the family still inside it. A red cross was painted on the door to mark it as a plague house, along with the words ‘Lord Have Mercy On Us’. As night fell, the plague carts would start their journey around the streets to the cry of ‘Bring Out Your Dead!’ and any victims who had died during the day would be flung into the carts and taken to the plague pit to be tossed in. Being shut in effectively condemned many families to death as well as having to bear watching the suffering of their loved ones, and any survivors were even banned by the Plague Orders from joining a funeral or a funeral procession. They then had to live with the fact that their loved ones were buried in anonymous, communal graves and that they could set up no memorials or commemorative stones for them.

Do The Plague Pits Still Cause Problems?

It is believed that the Great Fire of London in the following year helped to bring the Great Plague to an end. However, these plague pits from the time of the Black Death and the Great Plague can still cause problems today. When tunnels were being dug for the London Underground they sometimes ran into plague pits. During the construction of the Victoria Line in the 1960s there was a problem when the boring machine tunnelled into a long forgotten plague pit in Green Park, and it is said that the Piccadilly Line curves under Hyde Park in order to avoid a massive plague pit. There are also concerns that if plague pits are excavated, disturbing the remains could somehow release the plague and start a new epidemic. The plague bacillus would not have been able to survive that long in a buried and decomposed body, however anthrax has been known to survive for several thousand years. Due to the gruesome nature of the bubonic plague and the plague pits, they have featured in literature and horrors films. One of the latest books to use the Great Plague as the basis of the story is Zombie Apocalypse by Stephen Jones, which starts off with the removal of the bodies of plague victims from a 17th century churchyard triggering an epidemic where the bodies of the victims revive as flesh eating zombies that gradually go on to destroy the world.

So, the plague pits of London are not an urban myth, but really exist and there may still be some that are yet to be located. It is not thought that the plague pits pose any public health risks today, although every care is taken during any excavations that take place, and most of the remains are respectfully reburied in London cemeteries after they have been examined and recorded by the archaeologists.

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Charterhouse Square Image Alan Murray-Rust Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Licence

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