August 3, 2019

Thousands of Bodies Beneath Your Feet: The Plague Pits of London

What you might not realize when you walk the streets of London, is that beneath your feet, there are probably hundreds of plague pits scattered throughout the city. Bodies piled in their thousands into each of these pits, which the parks and buildings people frequently visit now stand on.

Around 100,000 people in the space of two years were wiped out in London (15 per cent of London’s population between 1665 and 1666), and all those bodies had to go somewhere, and at the rate in which they were dying, they had to go somewhere fast. As the body count grew so rapidly, church grounds were at full capacity, so any ground available became a prime location for the dead. No ceremony, no caskets, just buried.

Quite morbid to think, that if you’re out eating your lunch on a park bench in London, you might unwillingly be eating on top of a plague pit.

Historic UK have tried to map out the locations of the plague pits, as so little is known about their exact location. Although they’ve managed to map out a few, the whereabouts of most is still unknown.

Engineers in London who opened the world’s first underground railway in 1886, had designed the tracks as to avoid going through the plague pits. It’s often reported that during the construction of the London underground, they often hit graves and had to remove and relocate bodies in the construction process. This is said to be why the tracks don’t follow straight lines which would make for the fastest route. Instead, they curve as to try avoid the plague pits.

“The Underground system passes through many burial grounds and plague pits,” – Peter Ackroyd in his book, London Under.

Catharine Arnold in her book Necropolis: London and Its Dead, describes how “the tunnel curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park.”

Despite these reports however, it’s also claimed that the reason the tracks curve is due to the cost of construction, as any private property had to be bought, and that which could not be bought became an obstruction.

If you enjoy a good ghost story though, the London underground has a lot to offer. It’s said to be haunted by multiple spirits, probably due to the amount of bodies disturbed in it’s development, as well as those discovered after.

Plague pits such as the one found at Artillery Lane, Bishopsgate, was previously a 2nd century Roman burial ground. Now add that to becoming a more recent plague pit, and it makes for quite a few bodies to be packed in there.

Although morbid, the pits are a reminder of times gone, and the horrors faced by London’s citizens. As a thriving metropolis now operates above ground, London’s dark past still lingers below.

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