The recent unearthing of another mass grave at Liverpool Street is an apt reminder of how close we Londoners live to the capital’s dark past. As more city-dwellers take to the streets in search of the sun, history buff David Keevill looked into the capital’s best kept, nasty secrets to find out the best places to picnic on a plague pit.
Enon Chapel, St Clement’s Lane, near The Strand
WHAT’S THERE NOW: London School of Economics/Law Courts
WHAT IT USED TO BE: Chapel-slash-mass-burial-ground-slash-dance-hall
In the summer of 1839, horrific smells emanating from the crypt at Enon Chapel cause church attendees to vomit and pass out. Closer investigation from the Sewage Commission into the church’s WC capabilities reveals the source of the stink.
Turns out the priest of the church had crammed 12,000 cadavers into a 12ft by 59ft pit under his house of worship. Undercutting the extortionate rate typically demanded for burial, the priest offered his discount service to impoverished parishioners, who presumably felt happy not knowing the details of his discount service.
After the priest’s death, the building was claimed by a sect of teetotallers who turned this grotesque skeletal bargain bin into a dance hall. These tea dances played upon the mystique and history of the spot, advertising ‘Dancing on the Dead’ for thrupence, a scene which was caricatured by Hogarth-devotee George Cruikshank.
The building – which was renamed Clare Market Chapel and eventually demolished around 1914 – went forgotten until later in the twentieth century. In 1967, heaps of bones were discovered on the building of some facilities for the London School of Economics. Next time you’re browsing through LSE’s natty Waterstones, spare a thought for the thousands of souls who shared a resting place metres beneath your feet.
Suicide Burial, St George in the East
WHAT’S THERE NOW: Crown and Dolphin pub
WHAT IT USED TO BE: Final resting place of infamous Ratcliff Highway murderer
Suicide held a contemptible place in pre-secular England. Religious zealots who controlled access to burial grounds in London before the cemetery reforms of the Victorian era wouldn’t allow victims of suicide to be placed alongside those who had died ‘the Good Death’.
John Williams – the man fixed with committing the notorious Ratcliff Highway Murders – took his own life before he could face the executioner. As one of East London’s most notorious serial killers, his body was paraded past his victims’ houses on the now-called Highway, before being buried on the crossroads where Cannon Street Road and Cable Street meet. In typically gory fashion, Williams had a stake driven through his heart to stop his tormented soul walking the living world.
Williams’ remains were discovered in the early twentieth century by workmen and donated as relics to people in the area. His skull was given to the landlord of the Crown and Dolphin, where it sat in pride of place behind the bar. The pub was closed in 1992, and although it won’t be serving pints any time soon, the derelict shell of the building can still be found lurking beside the final resting place of John Williams – a testament to the grisly urban mythology of an area now swarmed by chic residencies.
Holywell Mount Plague Pit, Scrutton Street, Shoreditch
WHAT’S THERE NOW: Trendy office space, around the corner from VICE
WHAT IT USED TO BE: Plague pit
Unobtrusive by most standards, the intersection where Scrutton Street meets Holywell Row and New North Place sits on top of one of London’s notorious plague pits, which was used during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1665. Plague pits opened up like sores across the city as burial grounds failed to meet the swelling burial requirements, accommodating thousands of corpses.
As the pestilence died away, these pits were buried and forgotten about, only to be discovered years later during building work in subsequent territories. Work on Crossrail at Liverpool Street and the uncovering of the plague pit there might have hit the news recently, but it’s only a hint of what the likes of the relatively undisturbed Holywell Mount could be holding.
Tyburn gallows, Marble Arch, west Oxford Street
WHAT’S THERE NOW: Honeytrap for tourists
WHAT IT USED TO BE: London’s most notorious execution site
In the early days of the 1700s, public hangings in Tyburn were so popular that they often merited a public holiday.
The construction of the Tyburn Tree in the late sixteenth century marked a turning point for the spectacle. Tyburn, already associated with execution for 400 years, could now hang multiple criminals at once. In 1726, a hanging drew so many spectators that the stands collapsed beneath the combined weight of the crowd, killing and injuring hundreds of people.
The location of the gallows at Tyburn now lies buried beneath the commercial rat-run at the west end of Oxford Street. If you have the misfortune to ever end up at the Primark next to Marble Arch on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll get a pretty good rendition of the braying masses that used to swarm to public executions.
London Charterhouse, Barbican tube
WHAT’S THERE NOW: Almshouse
WHAT IT USED TO BE: Monastery built on blood
The Charterhouse rose to prominence as a Carthusian priory in the fourteenth century, but the land was originally acquired to house victims of the earliest incidents of The Black Death. In 2013, Crossrail workers discovered a mass grave on the edge of the square that dated back to the period.
The monastery flourished until the Tudor period, when it was forcibly dissolved under Henry VIII’s reformation programme. Resistance by the monastery’s Prior, John Houghton, meant he was dragged across London to the Tyburn tree and dismembered. His monks were left to starve in Newgate Prison.
A later resident of the converted Tudor mansion, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was found guilty for colluding in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and was also executed.
Present day Charterhouse is mostly overlooked, inconspicuously sat on a road that leads to another London landmark with a dark history, Fabric. As summer starts to hit the capital, workers will inevitably covet the Square’s luscious lawn as a prime lunchtime spot, without appreciating the centuries of blood that it’s been built on.
By David Keevill
Want more London history? Check out our gallery of Soho: then and now.