Modern Londoners Picnic On Top Of 17th Century ‘Plague Pits’

November 20, 2014 - Picnic Time

Great_plague_of_london 1665Public Domain

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If we travel down Victoria Street in London on a beautiful, balmy afternoon, you’ll find dozens of picnickers sitting in Christchurch Gardens.

Some will be matched adult in jackets and ties, clutching briefcases in one palm and internal supermarket sandwiches in another. Others will be tourists holding a impulse to rest their heedful skeleton before streamer down a highway to revisit Parliament Square or Westminster Abbey. And thereafter there are ‘the loungers’—youths sprawled out on bed sheets, iPods blustering in their eardrums, books pushed adult to their noses.

Most if not all of these people will be unknowingly that they are sitting atop a 17th-century illness pit.

‘Death is all around us’ is not usually a spin of phrase. It’s an tangible fact, during slightest for those vital in London. When a bubonic illness swept by a city in 1665, over 100,000 people perished.

Those some-more poetically prone competence contend these people ‘disappeared’ off a face of this Earth, as if by magic. But a law of a matter is that they didn’t disappear. They suffered painful and painful deaths, and left behind thousands on thousands of stinking, rotting corpses in a arise of their common demise.

Where, exactly, did these bodies go?

Well, for starters, they were buried in Christchurch Gardens, and other areas of London that could accommodate arise pits in a 17th century. You can find them dotted all around a city, in places we wouldn’t design given complicated constructions like supermarkets, theaters and unit buildings make it formidable to suppose a time when many of London was blissfully abandoned of petrify structures. There are illness pits located in Vincent Square, Holywell Mount, and Knightsbridge Green—to name yet a few. You can even find a ruins of one underneath Aldgate Underground Station. [For a extensive list, click here].

At first, those who died from a illness were laid to rest in churchyards, like a ‘ordinary’ dead. But as some-more and some-more people succumbed to a disease, a churchyards became overcrowded. On any given day, there could be as many as 300 deaths in a singular parish. The poorer areas of London—where people were congested together in terribly unsanitary conditions—were strike hardest. Even today, we can see a effects of a illness in Clerkenwell and Southwark, where a churchyards are above travel turn due to a series of bodies buried beneath.

The epidemiology of a illness contributed to a problem—something we plead in fact in Episode 2 of Under The Knife. Plague is caused by a micro-organism called yersinia pestis, and takes 3 forms: bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic. All 3 are rarely contagious, yet pneumonic is a misfortune given a micro-organism is strong in a lungs that causes a plant to cough violently, swelling a illness to anyone in tighten proximity. Under a Plague Orders of 1666:

[I]f any House be Infected, a ill chairman or persons [shall] be forthwith private to a pronounced pest-house, sheds, or huts, for a refuge of a rest of a Family: And that such residence (though nothing be upheld therein) be close adult for fourty [sic] days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have forgiveness on us, in Capital Letters merged on a door…1

In a duration when a law commanded that we be literally close adult in a residence where someone else had engaged a lethal disease, it is easy to know how so many people perished so quickly.

Plague_3National Archives (United Kingdom)

At this time, arise processions and other open gatherings were also dangling in a fatuous try to stop a widespread of plague. In some parishes, people would come rumbling by a streets during night with vast carts to collect a dead.

Burials of illness victims were roughly always finished during night underneath a new regulations. This was done, again, to assistance control a widespread of disease, as distant reduction people would be out erratic a streets during midnight than would be during midday.

In a arise of this disaster, puncture pits were dug to dispose of a dead. Not usually was this a quickest approach to bury illness victims, yet it was also a cheapest as many families were not means or peaceful to minister to a cost of arise during this crisis.

In Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, he describes one such pit.

A terrible array it was, and we could not conflict my oddity to go and see it. As nearby as we competence judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and during a time we initial looked during it, about 9 feet deep; yet it was pronounced they dug it nearby twenty feet low thereafter in one partial of it, compartment they could go no deeper for a water…2

Plague_4Daniel Defoe

Mass graves were never dug in London outward of epidemics, and discordant to renouned belief, a upheld were not thrown into them haphazardly. Excavations exhibit that bodies were laid out in a respectful, nurse fashion. Nor can we assume a land used to bury illness victims was unconsecrated.

The miss of papers on this emanate is substantially symptomatic of a fact that these pits came about during a tallness of a epidemic, when paltry tasks like record-keeping were not during a tip of anyone’s ‘to-do’ list.3

It’s value observant that arise pits in London were innate out of prerequisite and not utterly as a approach of segregating putrescent bodies from non-infected bodies, like in many European cities. In 1630, Florence criminialized a arise of suspected illness victims in a city, insisting instead that they be buried ‘in a panorama distant from a high roads, a hundred arms’-lengths from a houses’. In Paris, those who died from illness were authorised to be buried in churchyards, yet not a church itself. In one instance, a immature male was dug adult several months after he died (when a risk of infection had passed) and reburied in his ancestral chapel alongside his other kin.4

So, who was given a gruesome charge of burying these plague-riddled bodies in a 17thcentury? Well, it’s formidable to know. Undoubtedly, internal gravediggers took on some of a work. Also, people who had engaged and survived a illness competence perform these grave duties, as a pursuit could be utterly lucrative. That said, officials knew how high mankind rates were among gravediggers and infrequently funded remuneration while still awaiting service. In Montelupo, Italy, dual gravediggers were tortured after they threatened to start burying illness victims in a mayor’s front garden given they hadn’t been paid. When a mayor himself perished from a disease, they gladly buried him!5

Plague_6Wikimedia Commons

Today, we know of 35 illness pits located in London. Some have been excavated; some we know about given of contemporary sources. The infancy of these sites were creatively on a drift of churches, yet as a genocide fee rose, pits were also dug in fields surrounding a city.

The law is that a sum series of illness pits could simply be in a hundreds given a series of people who died during a epidemic. Sadly, we’ll never know. Many of these arise pits are mislaid to history, most like a names of a thousands of people who perished during a Great Plague.

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1. The National Archives, London. Orders for a impediment of a plague, 1666 (SP29/155 f.102).
2. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of a Plague Year (Penguin Classics edition, 1986), p. 246.
3. Vanessa Harding, ‘Burial of a Plague Dead in Early Modern London’, in Epidemic Disease in London, ed. J.A.I. Champion (1993), pp. 53-64.
4. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. MS Fr 32589 (extracts from bishopric registers of Saint André des Arts): burials on 5/11/1580, 15/9/1591 (exhumed and reburied 2/4/1592), 23/8/1606, 1/7/1628. Originally quoted in Harding, ‘Burial of a Plague Dead’.
5. Joseph P Byrne, Encyclopedia of Black Death (2012), p. 166.

This essay creatively seemed during The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Copyright 2014. Follow The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice on Twitter.

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