Experts explore identities of 5,000 buried in Bedlam psychiatric hospital graveyard
Officials building a huge cross-London underground railway are starting to publish the identity of some of the thousands of people buried 400 to 500 years ago in Bedlam cemetery. After researching parish records, the Crossrail project has released a fascinating database online giving names, occupations and causes of death.
The database of names, identities and occupations of about 5,000 people who were buried there can be read here: http://www.crossrail.co.uk/bedlamregister. It includes details about who lived in London and what they did.
Parish records are being combed by 16 volunteers to reveal who was buried at Bedlam cemetery (Crossrail.co.uk photo)
The graveyard, which dates back to 1569, was found in 2013 during excavations to construct the 13-mile high-speed Crossrail tunnel under Central London.
The database reveals the story of a woman who died November 8, 1577:
a poore woman who dyed in the streat, whose name we know not, neyter from werre she was, but as we suppose she was a mayd and thought of some to be a Welsh woman of one born thereabout. She is layd in the New Churchyard, or plane of buryall [ground] made by Sir Thomas Rowe, late knight and alderman of this City and free of the worshipful company of the tailors.
People in the database are described as sons, wives, daughters, poor men, servants, strangers, apprentices, bachelors, householders and by various occupations. Sometimes the cause of death is named or the relationship of one person to another by blood or employment.
James Lawson, date of death October 13, 1584 “died of thys new disease (Plague?),” the database says.
Workers uncover the skeleton of a Londoner from centuries ago in Bedlam burial ground underneath Liverpool Street. (Crossrail.co.uk photo)
“The list is not exhaustive; some parish records were destroyed, lost or damaged during the Great Fire and World War bombings. Others have poor legibility. With a few exceptions, parishes outside London have not been researched due to resource constraints,” says an article about the project at the Crossrail website.
The 20,000 or so people buried in Bedlam burial ground were mainly from the lower echelons of society and could not afford proper burial or were interred there when churches were overwhelmed by deaths from the Black Plague. Some buried there did not adhere to a religious faith and so were not buried in regular churchyard graves.
About 3,000 skeletons began to be disinterred and examined scientifically in March 2015. After the work is complete the bodies will be reburied in consecrated ground.
“This research is a window into one of the most turbulent periods of London’s past,” said Crossrail’s chief archaeologist, Jay Carver. “These people lived through civil wars, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the birth of modern industry, plague and the Great Fire. It is a real privilege to be able to use Europe’s largest construction project to uncover more knowledge about this fascinating period of history. Our heartfelt thanks go to the volunteer researchers, who have contributed immensely to Crossrail’s legacy.”
The volunteers Carver mentioned are 16 people who are examining parish records from across London to create a database of people buried in Bedlam cemetery during the 1500s and 1600s. About 3,000 skeletons will be disinterred and will undergo scientific examination. As many as 20,000 people were buried there.
Some of the graves are especially strange. A 2017 excavation, for example, found a sand-filled coffin with heavy stones on it. Archaeologist Robert Hale explained to Newsweek that those were actions taken against body snatching. He said, “We realized immediately this burial was something highly unusual. Archaeological evidence associated with body snatching is extremely rare. Our subsequent historical research has exposed a truly fascinating and illicit side to this burial ground.”
In addition to the graves, archaeologists working on the United Kingdom’s largest archaeological project have found about 10,000 artifacts, some dating back 55 million years, among the remains of the bodies. Many photos of artifacts of the burial ground can be seen here.
A decorated floor tile with stars and a fleur-de-lis from 1350 to 1390 A.D., made at Penn in Buckinghamshire, found at Farringdon (Crossrail.co.uk photo)
Bedlam burial ground was the first cemetery in London during the Christian era not affiliated with a local church. The people who managed the burial ground did not keep records of who was buried. But some parishes who had their deceased members buried there did keep records, which are now held at the London Metropolitan archives.
Established in 1247, the notorious Bethlem (“Bedlam”) Royal Hospital was the first dedicated psychiatric institution in Europe and possibly the most famous specialist facility for care and control of the mentally ill, so much so that the word bedlam has long been synonymous with madness and chaos. In August 2013, archaeologists uncovered the asylum’s ancient graveyard right in the heart of London.
Featured image: Bethlem Hospital. Oil painting. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller