Archaeologists create public database of thousands of plague victims buried at Bedlam burial ground

By Ben Miller | 09 February 2015

Public given searchable database of victims from burial ground built as 16th century churches struggled to accommodate plague victim bodies

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Archaeologists investigating more than 5,000 skeletons at London’s infamous Bedlam burial ground believe they have found the body of a royal advisor who was stoned to death by an angry mob and a plague tombstone from a female victim of the Great Plague.

Dr John Lamb, an astrologer and confidante of the First Duke of Buckingham, was murdered outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Volunteer researchers who cross-referenced records at the London Metropolitan Archives have identified his body alongside Sir Ambrose Nicholas, who was Lord Mayor of the city in 1575, and the victims of the Fanatiques riots noted in Samuel Pepys’ diaries of January 1661.

Buried beneath Liverpool Street Station but under excavation as part of the vast project to create a new east-west railway line by 2019, the bodies have been added to a new, searchable online public database with the help of careful detective work overseen by Museum of London Archaeology.

“We know from historic records that probably up to 10,000 individuals were buried here,” says Jay Carver, the Lead Archaeologist for contractors Crossrail.

“But because this burial ground was outside the confines of a local church we don’t have a single parish register.

“We’ve got a fantastic contribution from a group of volunteers who are helping literally look through thousands of pages of burial registers so we can piece together as big a picture as we can of who was actually buried in the burial ground.

“Within the archives are some of the original registers for churches in the City of London and what we’re looking for are references of people buried at Bedlam.

“We’re trying to find out as much as we can about who was buried here.

“The opportunity to match an individual to a biographic record is there, but it’s likely to be quite a rare event because what we found in the trial excavations is that very few coffin plates naming individuals survive.

“On a more general level, though, the register will give us a very good snapshot of socially who was buried.

“It gives us a sample of the age, the gender, where these people were coming from to be buried here. And we know that was hugely diverse and involved a lot of people coming for different reasons to be buried at Liverpool Street.

A photo of a grey gravestone from 1665 with an inscription to a woman engraved on it
Mary Godfree's stone is one of thousands of artefacts found to date during one of Europe's largest railway developments© Crossrail
“One of them might have been political – it was a non-conformist ground which had a reputation among people who weren’t following the standard church of the day.”

The gravestone was found to have been placed in honour of Mary Godfree, a September 1665 victim of the most commonly-listed form of death, the plague.

Infant mortality and consumption were also widespread at a burial ground established to help parishes cope with overcrowding in 1569.

“This research is a window into one of the most turbulent periods of London’s past,” says Carver.

“These people lived through civil wars, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the birth of modern industry, plague and the Great Fire.”

More than 10,000 artefacts covering 55 million years have been found across 40 construction sites since the project began in 2012. The skeletons will be reburied on consecrated ground.

“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,” says Carver.

“Part of Crossrail’s legacy which is so important to the project is to bring the history of London as we're discovering it to the public.

“This is a great way to do that – to engage members of the public on a voluntary basis.”

Scheduled to begin next month, the next phase of excavations is expected to reveal 3,000 more skeletons, as well as a range of medieval and Roman artefacts.


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More from Culture24's coverage of the Crossrail project:

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

Skeletons buried beneath square were malnourished London victims of Black Death

Picture Gallery: Skulls, tools and cremations from 9,000 years of London archaeology
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