If you walk down Victoria Street in London on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, you’ll find dozens of picnickers sitting in Christchurch Gardens. Some will be suited up in jackets and ties, clutching briefcases in one hand and local supermarket sandwiches in another. Others will be tourists taking a moment to rest their wary bones before heading down the road to visit Parliament Square or Westminster Abbey. And then there are ‘the loungers’—youths sprawled out on bed sheets, iPods blasting in their eardrums, books pushed up to their noses.
Most if not all of these people will be unaware that they are sitting atop a 17th-century plague pit.
‘Death is all around us’ is not just a turn of phrase. It’s an actual fact, at least for those living in London. When the bubonic plague swept through the city in 1665, over 100,000 people perished. Those more poetically inclined might say these people ‘disappeared’ off the face of this Earth, as if by magic. But the truth of the matter is that they didn’t disappear. They suffered excruciating and agonizing deaths, and left behind thousands upon thousands of stinking, rotting corpses in the wake of their collective demise.
Where, exactly, did these bodies go?
Well, for starters, they were buried in Christchurch Gardens, and other areas of London which could accommodate burial pits in the 17th century. You can find them dotted all around the city, in places you wouldn’t expect because modern constructions like supermarkets, theatres and apartment buildings make it difficult to imagine a time when most of London was blissfully devoid of concrete structures. There are plague pits located in Vincent Square, Holywell Mount, and Knightsbridge Green—to name but a few. You can even find the remnants of one beneath Aldgate Underground Station. [For a comprehensive list, click here].
At first, those who died from the plague were laid to rest in churchyards, like the ‘ordinary’ dead. But as more and more people succumbed to the disease, the churchyards became overcrowded. On any given day, there could be as many as 300 deaths in a single parish. The poorer areas of London—where people were crammed together in terribly unhygienic conditions—were hit hardest. Even today, you can see the effects of the plague in Clerkenwell and Southwark, where the churchyards are above street level due to the number of bodies buried beneath.
The epidemiology of the disease contributed to the problem—something I discuss in detail in Episode 2 of Under The Knife. Plague is caused by a bacterium called yersinia pestis, and takes three forms: bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic. All three are highly contagious, though pneumonic is the worst since the bacterium is concentrated in the lungs which causes the victim to cough violently, spreading the disease to anyone in close proximity. Under the Plague Orders of 1666:
[I]f any House be Infected, the sick person or persons [shall] be forthwith removed to the said pest-house, sheds, or huts, for the preservation of the rest of the Family: And that such house (though none be dead therein) be shut up for fourty [sic] days, and have a Red Cross, and Lord have mercy upon us, in Capital Letters affixed on the door… 
In a period when the law dictated that you be literally shut up in the house where someone else had contracted a deadly disease, it is easy to understand how so many people perished so quickly.
At this time, funeral processions and other public gatherings were also suspended in a futile attempt to stop the spread of plague. In some parishes, people would come rumbling through the streets at night with large carts to collect the dead. Burials of plague victims were almost always done at night under the new regulations. This was done, again, to help control the spread of disease, as far less people would be out wandering the streets at midnight than would be at midday.
In the wake of this disaster, emergency pits were dug to dispose of the dead. Not only was this the quickest way to bury plague victims, but it was also the cheapest as many families were not able or willing to contribute to the cost of burial during this crisis.
In Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, he describes one such pit.
A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it. As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep; but it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards in one part of it, till they could go no deeper for the water… 
Mass graves were never dug in London outside of epidemics, and contrary to popular belief, the dead were not thrown into them haphazardly. Excavations reveal that bodies were laid out in a respectful, orderly fashion. Nor can we assume the land used to bury plague victims was unconsecrated. The lack of documents on this issue is probably symptomatic of the fact that these pits came about at the height of the epidemic, when mundane tasks like record-keeping were not at the top of anyone’s ‘to-do’ list. 
It’s worth noting that burial pits in London were born out of necessity and not purely as a way of segregating infected bodies from non-infected bodies, like in many European cities. In 1630, Florence banned the burial of suspected plague victims in the city, insisting instead that they be buried ‘in the countryside far from the high roads, a hundred arms’-lengths from the houses’. In Paris, those who died from plague were allowed to be buried in churchyards, but not the church itself. In one instance, a young man was dug up several months after he died (when the danger of infection had passed) and reburied in his ancestral chapel alongside his other kin. 
So, who was given the grisly task of burying these plague-riddled bodies in the 17th century? Well, it’s difficult to know. Undoubtedly, local gravediggers took on some of the work. Also, people who had contracted and survived the plague might perform these grim duties, as the job could be quite lucrative. That said, officials knew how high mortality rates were amongst gravediggers and sometimes withheld payment while still expecting service. In Montelupo, Italy, two gravediggers were tortured after they threatened to begin burying plague victims in the mayor’s front garden because they hadn’t been paid. When the mayor himself perished from the disease, they gladly buried him! 
Today, we know of 35 plague pits located in London. Some have been excavated; some we know about because of contemporary sources. The majority of these sites were originally on the grounds of churches, but as the death toll rose, pits were also dug in fields surrounding the city.
The truth is that the total number of plague pits could easily be in the hundreds given the number of people who died during the epidemic. Sadly, we’ll never know. Many of these burial pits are lost to history, much like the names of the thousands of people who perished during the Great Plague.
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1. The National Archives, London. Orders for the prevention of the plague, 1666 (SP29/155 f.102).
2. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics edition, 1986), p. 246.
3. Vanessa Harding, ‘Burial of the 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 parish 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 the Plague Dead’.
5. Joseph P Byrne, Encyclopedia of Black Death (2012), p. 166.