July 7, 2014

"London is one giant grave"

London and Its Dead

In her excellent and morbidly fascinating book Necropolis: London and Its Dead, Catharine Arnold describes in detail how parts of the London Underground were tunneled, blasted, picked, and drilled through a labyrinth of plague pits and cemeteries.

To no small extent, she makes clear, the subterranean presence of corpses can be found throughout the British capital. Dead bodies were basically buried everywhere, to the point that, as Arnold pithily states, "London is one giant grave." The city is saturated from below with the dead.

In one of my favorite examples of this from the book, Arnold explains how the London Hospital maintained its own burial ground from 1849 to 1854. Somewhat astonishingly, however, we learn that housing projects for the medical staff were then built over these old graveyards—and the coffins were not very far below the surface.

As Arnold describes it, this led to some rather unsafe ground conditions:

The remaining part of the burial ground became a garden for nurses and medical students, complete with tennis court, "where they are in the habit of capering about in their short times off-duty, and where it sometimes happens that the grass gives way beneath them—an ordinary occurrence when the subsoil is inhabited by coffins!"

In other words, these tennis-playing nurses "capering about" on their grass tennis courts would occasionally and literally fall through the surface of the earth only to find themselves standing in a maze of rotting coffins hidden just beneath the soil, an infernal honeycomb of badly tended graves like something out of Dante.
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All of which finally brings us back to the real reason I started writing this post, which was to tell the story of how these corpses—the city absolutely littered with burial grounds and plague pits—came to influence the construction of London's Underground train system. It's a brief anecdote, but it's both ghoulish and interesting……

But to put that another way, the ground was so solidly packed with the interlocked skeletons of 17th-century victims of the Great Plague that the Tube's 19th-century excavation teams couldn't even hack their way through them all. The Tube thus had to swerve to the side along a subterranean detour in order to avoid this huge congested knot of skulls, ribs, legs, and arms tangled in the soil—an artificial geology made of people, caught in the throat of greater London.

London's Tube thus sits atop, cuts around, and tunnels through a citywide charnel ground of corpses, its very routes and station locations haunted by this earlier presence in the ground below.

Posted by Jill Fallon at July 7, 2014 3:06 PM | Permalink