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  • T M Thorne

Plague Pits & Petunias

The Grave Secret of London's Green Spaces


I didn’t realise it at the time, but I used to have lunch every day sitting on top of a plague pit. That didn’t dent my enjoyment of my chicken mayo baguette and cappuccino, but it seems strange looking back on it now. Strange that I could have been so unaware of the history beneath my feet.


Golden Square: Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve only recently discovered that a great deal of London’s green spaces (not the huge ones like Regent’s Park, but the small ones that are dotted all over London) are actually old burial grounds.

My lunchtime spot at that time was Golden Square, a lovely tranquil public space just off Carnaby Street, possibly designed by Sir Christopher Wren and surrounded by listed buildings. Little did I know that during the 17th century it was a plague pit.


Lord Macauley described the spot in 1685:

'[it was] a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age. There, as in a place far from the haunts of men, had been dug, twenty years before, when the great plague was raging, a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores. It was popularly believed that the earth was deeply tainted with infection, and could not be disturbed without imminent risk to human life.'

I might have thought twice about eating my sandwich on top of hundreds of bodies, but then in London it’s likely you’re stepping on someone’s bones wherever you go.



Golden Square: Ardfern / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

And as I looked into this, I found that most green spaces in London once were burial grounds of some kind or another. Some were plague pits or ancient burial grounds, and some were abandoned churchyards of churches that were bombed out during the war. The pattern seems to be that whenever someone later wanted to build on these spaces they faced local outrage and the residents campaigned for the spaces to become public spaces. Hence all these little garden squares throughout the city.

It's strange to think that the tranquil square where you sit and relax could have up to 50,000 bodies buried underneath you, like St James’ Gardens alongside Euston Station which has been excavated as part of the the HS2 project.

I'll say that again: 50,000 bodies.

Makes you think doesn't it?


St James Square before it was excavated

Worse still the Sainsbury’s in Whitechapel is also said to be standing on a 17th-century plague pit. Sounds like a health and safety nightmare quite frankly. I bet they don't mention that on the in-store advertising!


But then when you think that London is a 2,000-year-old, city perhaps it isn't surprising. It has seen a lot of death during that time. From the Romans, through to present day it has seen plagues, the great fire, civil war, flu and cholera epedemics, the Blitz to mention just a few.


So while a law was passed to stop the dead being buried within the city limits in the 1850s, that still leaves a lot of dead beneath London streets. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people were buried while the Romans occupied London alone.


And while some burial grounds had their dead removed and reinterred somewhere else, others simply removed the headstones and covered over.


It just goes to show you never really know what’s beneath your feet...



You can see a list of the known locations of London plague pits here.


And if you want to find out more about the excavation of the St James' Gardens burial grounds as part of the HS2 project you can here.

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