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 . . .

Black-Death-burials

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

2 thoughts on “Plague Pits”

  1. A most interesting and enjoyable piece! Just one comment. I know it says on the plaque outside St Olave Hart Street that 365 victims of the Great Plague of 1665 are buried in the churchyard. But the official tally in the Parish Clerks’ Bills of Mortality” is either 160 or 190 (impossible to read).

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