A plague victim's body unearthed beneath London's Charterhouse Square in 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Yet more evidence of a city built on bones.

London's Crossrail network may not come into service until late 2018, but it's already throwing up some surprises. The new heavy rail service linking London to its exurbs promises to take some of the strain off London's overcrowded Tube. But it has also unearthed long-forgotten burial pits and, by accident, revealed the source of the Great Plague that killed 100,000 Londoners (roughly a quarter of the city’s population) around 350 years ago.

Last year, workers constructing a future new ticket hall at Liverpool Street Station unearthed a charnel pit adjoining the old Bedlam Hospital, in which 3,000 skeletons were interred. Now it turns out that some of these skeletons had the answer to a centuries’ old mystery, hidden away in their teeth.

The Bedlam Hospital itself had a ghoulish enough story in its own right. An asylum for the mentally ill, it was once a fashionable place of resort for London's 18th century smart set, who delighted watching the (probably orchestrated) ravings of the poor inmates. Now, the adjoining Bedlam burial pit (the resting place of ordinary Londoners as well as asylum inmates) has actually ended up revealing something yet more compelling. Lodged within its thousands of skeletons were many 17th century plague victims. Scientists at Germany's Max Planck Institute took samples from the teeth of 20 of these corpses, and this week confirmed what historians have long suspected but been unable to prove: London's Great Plague was caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacteria, exactly the same pestilence that killed around one-third of Europe's population in the 14th century, under the name the Black Death.

This diagnosis was in doubt because Yersinia Pestis, which still causes some cases of bubonic plague today, acts in a far less virulent, aggressive way on the bodies of contemporary sufferers than was apparent from historic descriptions of the Great Plague’s severity. Clearly, the bacterium’s power to cut humans down like daisies has diminished over the centuries, before being cancelled altogether by antibiotics.

It may seem a little odd that the event which finally unearthed this confirmation was the creation of a suburban rail network. The thought of thousands of bony, pestilential fingers scratching away at the earth beneath a new transit line might give anyone the shivers. In London, however, such thoughts are pretty normal, part of the city’s somewhat macabre lore. Discovering ancient bodies during construction work is actually quite common here. It's long been rumored (even by otherwise serious publications) that London's Tube lines swerve at times to avoid the sites of former pits into which the overflowing dead from the Great Plague were unceremoniously thrown.

As this excellent piece from the BBC makes clear, this is not actually the case, as most plague victims were in fact buried in established cemeteries. London's railways have nonetheless smashed their way through their fair share of hallowed ground over the years, and thousands more bodies were removed from inner city graveyards during Victorian times in the interests of hygiene. By the mid 19th century, remains from overcrowded burial sites in inner London were being shipped out by the thousand to new out-of-town cemeteries, mainly on the edge of the eastern suburbs.

There's a curious parallel here with the creation of Crossrail. The new link will likewise hoover up workers from the city's financial district (London's oldest section, though it doesn't look like it) and disgorge them once more in the commuter towns and fields of Essex. If the subterranean works are indeed shaking up the unruly souls long buried beneath London's core, then at least these souls will have a handy new route out to the suburbs if they fancy a little more space.

About the Author

Feargus O'Sullivan
Feargus O'Sullivan

Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.

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