The Chilling Plague Pits of 17th Century London

great-plague-pits-of-london-1665 (Image: Rita Greer; The Great Plague. Numerous plague pits exist beneath modern London)

In September of 1665, the epidemic that would later be called the Great Plague of London was in full swing. It was in that month that the death toll reached an unthinkable 8,000 people each week. And in the 17th century London, there was little in the way of disease control – and if there was, it was often just as disturbing.

Cats and dogs, rather than rats, were thought by many to be the source of the bubonic plague, and were often killed on sight. Edicts were issued around the city forbidding churches from keeping corpses on their premises during services, where they would come into contact with the faithful. Those who handled the dead couldn’t mix with the general population, while doctors lanced and bled plague victims in a bid to drain them of their affliction.

Meanwhile, the dead piled up.

london-plague-rat (Image: H. Zell; a Black Rat)

Historic UK has examined the locations of many of 17th century London’s chilling plague pits. Historians know that there were dozens – perhaps even hundreds – of plague pits dug across the city, but hard evidence as to their exact whereabouts has often been scarce. But by trawling through historic documents, including contemporaneous eyewitness reports, journal entries and newspaper clippings, they’re slowly reconstructing what plague-ravaged London looked like.

Many of London’s plague pits were dug on church grounds, but those filled up quickly, and England’s beleaguered capital needed to improvise. Additional pits were dug in the fields surrounding what was then the outskirts of the city. Simply knowing where they’re located can arguably make walking the streets of London a rather grisly experience.

great-plague-pits-of-london-1665-2 (Image: Wellcome Trust; the Great Plague of London, 1665)

One of those chilling, 17th century London plague pits can be found beneath Vincent Square, which is now owned by Westminster School. Some of the burial pits are now playing fields. Elsewhere, the pleasant park surrounding St. Dunstan’s church, Stepney, occupies land donated by the church for the burial of plague victims.

Not far away, between Shoreditch and Finsbury, the recently built residential developments of Seward Street and Mount Mills stand on a plague pit that’s reportedly very shallow. The warehouse apartment conversions of Gower’s Walk Pest Field are understood to stand on burial pits, and Vinegar Alley took its name from the vinegar that was used in an effort to contain the spread of the deadly bubonic plague.

In 1685, Lord Macaulay spoke of a grim place that has changed much over the years. He wrote:

…a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age. There, as in a place far from the haunts of men, had been dug, twenty years before, when the great plague was raging, a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores. It was popularly believed that the earth was deeply tainted with infection, and could not be disturbed without imminent risk to human life.

The location? Golden Square in Soho.

17th-century-london-map (Image: Wenceslaus Hollar; a map of London in the 17th century)

When the London Underground was being dug, running into old plague pits was a common problem. In the 1960s, the Victoria Line was carved directly through one, and behind the walls of an old tunnel at the south end of the Bakerloo Line lie entombed the remains of countless victims of the Great Plague. According to Underground staff, it’s a place where no one goes at night.

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