Search for 16th and 17th century plague victims ahead of London skeleton excavation

By Ben Miller | 03 July 2014

Up to 3,000 skeletons are expected to be discovered beneath Liverpool Street next year. Before then, these plague victims' stories are being unearthed

A photo of an archaeologist in an orange jacket and blue hat digging up a human skull
Around 400 skeletons were recovered beneath Liverpool Street in 2012© Crossrail
A search for evidence of the 16th and 17th century plague victims buried at London’s infamous Bedlam burial ground – the first not to be associated with a parish church, near the Bethlem Hospital which responded to the crisis – has been launched ahead of the excavation of thousands of skeletons beneath Liverpool Street.

Researchers are poring over parish records, held at the city’s Metropolitan Archives, in a hunt for the names of those buried. The burial ground did not keep its own records, but parish churches logged which of their parishioners were left at Bedlam.

“As so many of the records of time are likely to be missing we will only obtain a snapshot of who was buried at Bedlam,” said Jay Carver, the Lead Archaeologist for Crossrail, the contractors who removed around 400 skeletons in a preliminary excavation.

“But it will provide a unique record of the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th Century Londoners from the local area. We’re keen for anyone who may have family connections to the site, or anecdotes about the area to get in touch.

“The Bedlam burial ground is a unique site that spans a fascinating period of London’s turbulent past.

“What makes this exciting is that through the various records made by the parish clerks of the time we can gain a snapshot of the people who lived and died in the area and provide biographic details to supplement the excavated evidence.”

A soldier executed by Oliver Cromwell for leading a mutiny and John Lilburne, an English political Leveller before and after the mid-17th century English Civil Wars, are among the figures believed to have been buried in the cemetery.

“From what I’ve seen so far, there are so really intriguing stories, some really entertaining stories and some really tragic ones,” said Alan Cotterell, one of the 15 volunteers involved in the search.

“I’ve found records for people of all ages from infants to older people.

“Hopefully the work we do can help historians in years to come to get a clearer picture of 16th and 17th century London.

“I love the idea of unravelling the stories of the people buried at Bedlam and finding out as much as I can about their lives.

“If you live somewhere like London you know that you’re in a city with a really deep history.”

Geoff Pick, the Director of the Archives, predicted the research would provide a “very vivid picture” of London’s past. The dig is scheduled to begin in 2015.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a finger pointing at ancient black ink text on a page of yellowed paper
© Crossrail
A photo of an archaeologist in an orange jacket and blue hat digging up a human skull
© Crossrail
A photo of a man in high visibility clothing digging up human bones inside a brown pit
© Crossrail
A photo of a man in high visibility clothing digging up human bones inside a brown pit
© Crossrail
A photo of a woman looking at an ancient record book full of black ink writing in an office
© Crossrail
A photo of a man looking at an old record book in an office
© Crossrail
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Do you need any more volunteers to research? Ive always been fascinated by this!
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