Plague Pits

This is a Guest Post from Marianne MacRitchie. Marianne and her partner, Jonathan Lovett, run Tales of Plague.

A ‘living history’ company which runs theatrical, guided walks around the city of London focusing on places of historical interest relating to the Black Death and the Great Plague.

For more details go to their website:
Tales of Plague.

[I]n March of this year, the discovery of up to 3,000 human remains near Liverpool Street station reminded Londoners of the fact the ground they daily walk on has a rather grisly, yet fascinating history. This enormous grave of skeletons is believed to contain former residents of Bedlam, and the favourite explanation for whenever a largish group of skeletons are found together in London? A plague pit.

Ah yes, the London plague pit. From Blackheath to Bunhill Fields, from Hounslow to Houndsditch, from East Smithfield to West Smithfield (I think you’re starting to get the picture here . . .) there are very few parts of the capital city and its environs that do not have the folklore of London plague years attached to them.
And no wonder . . .


The plagues of 1348-50 and 1665 were catastrophic for London with huge swathes of the population being cut down by the terrible disease epitomised by the deadly swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes of its unfortunate victims. In the first plague to hit London (1348-50, most commonly known as ‘The Black Death’) there are some estimates which claim that up to 50 per cent of London’s population died. By the time the 1665 (‘Great’) plague comes along, London – which had been intermittently hit by plague over three centuries – has a population of about 500,000 but it’s believed up to 20 per cent of them died in what turned out to be last plague epidemic to hit our city.

This 1665 plague is especially known to us thanks to some of the written evidence history has left behind. Samuel Pepys’ diary of 1665 is a daily discourse on the creeping onset of the dreadful pestilence, telling us – in-between his entries revelling in liaisons and lobsters – how London was slowly developing into a ghost town due to deaths and desertion. In his book ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ Daniel Defoe tells of the doomed people ‘shut up’ in their houses; going on to describe how the dreaded red cross was daubed onto these doors with the infamous inscription: ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. He vividly writes how dead carts, trudging up and down streets with the drivers crying ‘Bring out your dead’, would be heaving under the weight of piles of plague bodies ready for burial.

And here was the major problem: where do you bury an ever growing amount of bodies, huge not just in number but in potential contagion to those left behind? Most people in London in 1665 did not understand plague or what was causing it. The approximate 130 parish churchyards in the city were (literally) bursting at the seams and new areas had to be found to dispose of the unfortunate victims.

Plague pits were the answer for many areas of the city. Huge holes in the ground were developed to seal in the bodies, often with quicklime to neutralise the plague threat. The massive death toll rendered these pits absolutely essential as most parishes in London succumbed to plague.

Our Tales of Plague guided tour takes the walker to St Olave’s church – the resting place of 365 plague victims – and the site of a pit at St Botolph’s church, next to Aldgate tube station. Defoe tells us of the latter’s location and the horror of the hundreds of bodies being tipped in by the cartload. It is likely this ‘dreadful Gulph’ would have been same blueprint for the majority of pits which were dug in London’s deadly year of 1665.

In fact, when Aldgate tube was being built in the 1870s, workmen uncovered many remains of bodies, just as those at Liverpool Street’s Crossrail project did this year. Both discoveries would have been a grave reminder to tube-travelling Londoners – it’s not just the gap you need to mind – it’s the plague pit!

Photos: St Olave Hart Street church © Anna Gordon
Painting of burials in the time of the Black Death

The stone which built London

It is London’s stone of choice.

If you have been to the city you will have it etched on your memory.

A golden, graceful stone which works with sunlight to create a haze of sanguine assurance in the streets of this debatably civilised centre of the Western World.

Smoke and smog layered it with grime, but it comes up a treat with sand blasting.

[I]t is Portland Stone: it made the Tower of London, the first Palace of Westminster, the first stone London Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Banqueting House where Charles I was topped, amongst myriad other places.

And it was all hacked from one island. I mean, not even an island, but a tied island. A great lump of limestone jutting out of the sea off the coast of Dorset. They’ve been taking stone from that island to other places since the Romans took up residence. Archaeologists found more than 500 Roman sarcophagi under the soil on the hills outside Fortunes Well, the island’s main town. All, of course, hewn out of Portland Stone.

And the thing is, they’re still taking it out today.

Portland has a magic, but you need rose-tinted spectacles to find it. It is a working island, a business island, covered in operational quarries with huge blocks of stone piled up higgledy piggledy waiting for someone to pay £230 a cubic metre. The stone’s pricey, because it is hard enough to resist weathering, but workable enough for masons to create beautiful things with it.

To find Portland, drive along the spit of shingle from Weymouth until you hit Fortunes Well.

Named after the spring which supplied ancient communities there, Fortunes Well is Ankh Morpork-on-sea, a twisty turny village on a steep gradient they call Underhill, socio-economically at odds with the picture we all have of affluent, thatched little Dorset. Yet many of its old houses are built in Portland stone; not the worked, flat, gracious kind, but hunks taken centuries ago out of the ground and mortared together. Some of the stone is crumbling back to the sand it once was. Touch it and the first millilitres of the surface disintegrate. Clearly those stone merchants hundreds of years ago were not willing to let the best stone go to the workers.

Travel south-west on the island, taking the stunning coastal paths which look down on Portland-stone cliffs,  and you find the oldest building known to have been built in Portland stone: Rufus Castle, first thrown up on the cliff at Church Ope Cove in 1080, though the walls one sees today date from the fifteenth century.

Any walk passes quarries. Glance to the left and to the right, and there are the telltale blocks of stone.

Look at the houses: and you will see that wherever Portland’s wealth has gone, it has not stayed on the island. It is an anti-advert for capitalism. This island’s streets are paved with gold, yet the rich men have taken what they wanted and left.

Bits of the island pepper not just this country but countries far afield . The UN building in New York is made of the island of Portland. But the money made by gargantuan transactions such as this is not evident there.

It is a working island. A no-nonsense depository of some of the most magical, golden stone the world has ever known.

Reproduced by permission of Kate Shrewsday blogger and professional voiceover artist. Her professional site can be found here.

The Black Cab Coffee Company

The days are past of seeing quaint old cabs on London’s streets since Transport for London imposed their 15-year limit on the working life for these iconic vehicles.

Their use in public transport might have expired but some enterprising individuals know their value and have given a new lease of life and purpose to these old workhorses.

In this occasional series we feature some of the most innovative conversions of the Cab.

[I] went to Penshurst in Kent recently and met Graham Buck who has converted an old FX4 into a mobile coffee outlet. He didn’t have much time for me as punters queued to sample his barista expertise while the more traditional vans selling coffee were crying out for customers.

The company maintains a fleet of Black Cabs and boasts among its customers the BBC and Hackett. In additional to making hot beverages they are licensed to make cocktails and can provide marquees, DJ’s and lighting solutions all the while maintaining a cool focal point – the London Cab.

Black cab coffee-2

The conversion is quite elaborate. The boot lid and rear screen has been removed and a sturdy shelf has replaced the boot. Upon that a espresso coffee machine has been installed. The rear has now a hatchback type door giving access to the coffee machine while at the same time giving protection from the elements to the barista.

Soon Graham hopes to replace the head lining with brown leather which will smarten the cab up although it occurred to me sitting inside could feel like you were driving a coffee bean.

Black Cab Coffee Co claims to be the first mobile coffee and portable cocktail bar working in London and around the UK from an iconic London Black Cab. They can be contacted here.

Fit for purpose?

This week I was reading my Sunday paper. Usually the financial pages are littered with tales of people losing their life savings, the result of Ponzi schemes, junk bonds, or just fraud. So it came as a surprise to find nearly a full-page devoted to the demise of the London Licensed Cab Trade.

Most passengers have, at some time of another, received a tirade of the woes from their driver.

[I]n fact one common expression ‘The game is finished’ much repeated was actually written into Jack Rosenthal’s play The Knowledge. The demise of what is by some distance the finest cab service in the world has been predicted way before I joined the ranks. Reassurance from a Government minister as to the trade’s future were given in Parliament before most of our passengers were born:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr Dennis Vosper): The Home Secretary has, in fact, already made clear, in Answer to a Question on 15th March, that according to advice he has received, a procedure under which a vehicle could be hailed in the street and thereupon engaged for an immediate journey by means of a booking placed over a radio-telephone installed in the vehicle, amounts to plying for hire; and if that vehicle is not licensed as a taxicab an offence would be committed.

I am advised by the Commissioner that, so far as the Metropolis is concerned, if evidence is forthcoming that this procedure is being operated by unlicensed vehicles prosecutions will be brought. It is recognised that “plying for hire” is nowhere defined by legislation, but there is ample judicial authority which shows what kind of activity is within the meaning of this expression.

. . . ‘Nevertheless, it has been represented that the expected large increase in the numbers of these vehicles on the streets of London following the entry into this field of a major proprietor later this month will result in an undesirable state of affairs. It is argued that the licensed taxi service will inevitably suffer from such competition; that the presence of these additional vehicles on the streets will gravely accentuate traffic problems; and that their presence on parking sites in the central area while awaiting further instructions from their headquarters will result in a substantial withdrawal from the private motorist of the parking facilities at present available.

. . . My second qualification concerns the possible impact of the minicabs on the taxi service. The Government acknowledge that the taxi service bears a burden in the standards which are required in the construction of vehicles in the interests of the safety and convenience of passengers and the standards of knowledge which are required of drivers, and that; in return, they are entitled to some protection. This protection is provided by the ban which the law imposes on unlicensed vehicles plying for hire.

Hansard 7th June 1961
Col. 1352

This year is panning out to be the worst for business, whether you are a black cabbie or a licensed private hire driver. Every week you say to yourself it will get better with business booming (or so we were told in the run up the election) and with tourists flooding into London.

It wasn’t until last week, according to Vicki Owen in her Mail on Sunday article that the rumours circulating around the trade seem to have been confirmed.

Boris Johnson, concerned about traffic flows for his precious cyclists and not the livelihoods of tens of thousands of drivers (both black cab and private hire), garages, ancillary services, radio circuits, confirmed to LBC Radio a 18 per cent increase in licensed minicabs. Transport for London is allowing 250 extra minicabs on to London’s streets every week; and in addition Uber is recruiting 1,200 new drivers a month.

We had heard rumours of many drivers returning their badges and leaving the trade, in fact taxi license renewal applications are down 20 per cent on last year. It would seem even Transport for London employees are not immune from the cut-backs. The number of applicants looking to commence The Knowledge has fallen more than two-thirds this year, therefore fewer examiners are required in the future.

It would seem that the hon. R. J. Mellish, MP was correct when he opened the Commons debate with these words:

The subject which I wish to raise is of paramount importance to many thousands of men who earn their living as taxi-drivers in London. We expect that the Minister when he replies to the debate will make a statement which will relieve them of their anxieties. I think that there may well be a serious position on the streets of London unless the right hon. Gentleman is clear about what he has to say.

I will explain the story for the benefit of those who have taken the trouble to stay and listen. I speak for over 10,000 taxi-drivers in London and I am also putting forward the views of many owner-drivers. I speak, also, on behalf of proprietors of taxicabs. It is unusual for me to speak on behalf of employers, but I am doing so on this occasion. There is a united view on this matter, not only among the owners and drivers but also among many hundreds of thousands of workshop staff and clerical workers and people employed in ancillary industries associated with taxicabs.

It just seems to have taken over half-a-century for his predictions, with a little help from Transport for London, to come to fruition with the demise of London’s cab trade.

The London Grill: Lee Jackson

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.


[L]ee Jackson runs the website an encyclopaedia of primary sources about life in 19th century London. He has written a series of Victorian historical crime novels, and is currently researching the history of leisure in the Victorian metropolis. He has an obsession with historic street furniture – he claims credit for uncovering the long-lost Clifford’s Inn Passage urine deflector – and spends a worrying amount of time on Twitter (@victorianlondon). His most recent published book is Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (Yale University Press, 2014).

What’s your secret London tip?
Pay a visit to the local history libraries / archives run by the older London boroughs. These archives all contain astonishing collections, including many historic images, which few people ever see – and they are all open to the public. What are you waiting for?

Dirty-Old-LondonWhat’s your secret London place?
The café at Stoke Newington reservoir, on a hot day in summer. Cabbies – you can park there, too.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
People sitting on the aisle seat on buses, who don’t move when you try to get past them (whether to get out of the window seat, or get into it). See also people who ‘reserve’ adjoining bus seats with their knees, handbags or other accoutrements. They will be first up against the wall, come the glorious public transport revolution.

What’s your favourite building?
Post Office Tower. I blame the Goodies and 2000AD. It somehow dominated my 1970s (not in London) childhood.

What’s your most hated building?
Like many people, the 20 Fenchurch Street ‘Walkie Talkie’ / ‘Death Ray’ building. A vile, bulbous excrescence that ruins so many views of the City – not least from the south-eastern side of Tower Bridge. It is remarkable how anyone could design a skyscraper that looks so ugly from so many different angles; but they managed it. Congratulations, City of London.

What’s the best view in London?
Looking east, from Waterloo Bridge, pending the arrival of the ‘Garden Bridge’ which, however pretty, will fill me with inexpressible anger, whenever I see this ridiculous contemptible vanity project/tourist trap. Did you know they’ll have to tear up numerous trees along the South Bank to build it; and we’ll end up paying for part of it, in perpetuity, as ‘transport infrastructure’? I’m tempted to smash my Sapphire and Steel* box–sets in protest. [*Joanna Lumley reference. Bizarrely, it was all her idea.]

What’s your personal London landmark?
Very fond of St. Mary’s (New) Church, Stoke Newington. Beautifully illuminated at night; by George Gilbert Scott.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Sorry, but I really live in the 19th century, so Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens. It’s as much about the city, as the man. Alternatively, albeit still Victorian, Lynda Nead’s Victorian Babylon, which conjures up a lost gaslit world.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
All my oldest favourites have now closed but the Blue Legume on Stoke Newington Church Street is a proud exception (you may begin to discern an N16 theme emerging here).


How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Walking the streets with my camera. I love wandering, looking for odd sights, ancient and modern. You can see my best pictures here, if you like . . . [pdf ebook – free to download]