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Crossrail archaeologists excavate an apparent mass grave at the Bedlam hospital cemetery

Mass grave of possible bubonic plague victims excavated in London

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A mass grave of 30 possible bubonic plague victims is being excavated in London at the huge cemetery of Bedlam mental asylum that was discovered while workers were building the Crossrail subway system.

Authorities think the people buried in the mass grave may be victims of bubonic or some other plague because unlike many others buried at Bedlam Hospital cemetery, these people appear to have all been buried on the same day.

Jay Carver, the chief archaeologist with Crossrail, said : "This mass burial, so different from the other individual burials found in the Bedlam cemetery, is very likely a reaction to a catastrophic event. We hope this gruesome but exciting find will tell us more about one of London's most notorious killers."

A Crossrail news release said of the mass grave: “A headstone found nearby was marked ‘1665,’ and the fact the individuals appear to have been buried on the same day, suggest they were victims of the Great Plague. The thin wooden coffins have collapsed and rotted, giving the appearance of a slumped and distorted mass grave. The skeletons will now be analyzed by osteologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and scientific tests may reveal if bubonic plague or some other pestilence was the cause of death.”

The graveyard, which dates back to 1569 and operated until at least the late 1730s, was found in 2013 during excavations to construct the 13-mile high-speed Crossrail tunnel under Central London.

Adult skull of the Roman period, found at Liverpool Street

Adult skull of the Roman period, found at Liverpool Street ( Crossrail photo )

Officials building the huge cross-London underground railway are publishing 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. The database reveals the case of a woman who died October 17, 1581:

'a poore woman, which dyed in the streat, of the plague, what she was or from where she came, we know not. She is buryed in the New Churchyard, as we calle it.'

Another woman, Annis Johnson, died of sore legs, the Bedlam cemetery register says:

'who had lyen at Goodwyfe Cooleman as she confessed iii weekes, was brought into the cage an theire died. Being of the age of xxx yeares.' Wife of Thomas Johnson of Edmonton'

The remains of people buried in Bedlam burial ground, which may number 30,000, 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.

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.

About 3,500 skeletons have been disinterred so far and are being examined scientifically. 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,” Carver said earlier in 2015. “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.”

Slip-on flat shoe of the 16th century found by Crossrail archaeologists

Slip-on flat shoe of the 16 th century found by Crossrail archaeologists ( Crossrail photo )

Archaeologists have found more than 10,000 artifacts from a span of 55 million years at Crossrail's 40 London construction sites.

Featured image: Crossrail archaeologists excavate an apparent mass grave at the Bedlam hospital cemetery ( Crossrail photo )

By Mark Miller

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