There’s always synthetic outrage and hypocrisy surrounding Hs2, none so more than around the issue of old graveyards being built on and the dead being exhumed and reburied.
Anyone would this this is somehow unique. In fact it’s very common. Many stations were built on old graveyards – including Euston itself. Between 1887 and 1892 the station was extended Westwards. This meant diverting Cardington St over the burial ground of St James’s, which had closed to 40 years earlier. Each corpse was provided with a new coffin and reinterred at St Pancras cemetery, Finchley, at the expense of the London and North Western Railway. This was done sympathetically due to the furore over an earlier graveyard clearance at nearby St Pancras in 1866 which rather puts today’s building into perspective.
During the first half of 1866 several thousand houses in Agar Town and Somers Town were demolished to make way for St Pancras. some 10,000 people were evicted (without compensation) and crowded into adjoining slum areas, making conditions even worse. Meanwhile, a corner of the graveyard of the old St Pancras Church was cleared. Like most old graveyards, it was packed with bodies to a considerable depth. Working conditions were appalling and the disinterred remains were treated with scant respect. Bones were left lying around and open coffins could be seen on the worksite. A furore arose in the newspapers and influence from high quarters led to more care being taken. The problem was twofold. The sheer amount of bodies buried in poor conditions and the fact the graveyard was making way for a cut and cover tunnel for the link between the Midland and the Metropolitan railway.
Nowadays, this has let to one of the more unusual local tourist attractions; the Hardy tree. The work of removing gravestones was delegated to one Thomas Hardy (yes, *that* one) and he arranged them in a rather interesting art installation. Here’s how it looked a few years ago.
You can read more about it here.
When Broad St station was built in 1864-66 similar problems occurred. Excavations revealed layers of human remains several feet thick. This was thought to be either a plaque pit or the burial ground of the old Bethlehem hospital.
The same problem was encountered when nearby Aldgate station was built in 1875. This was described by Daniel Defoe in his book “A Journal of the Plague Year” As an aside, did you know several London parks are old plague pits – including Green Park?
When the viaducts on the approach to Charing Cross station were being constructed in 1863 well over 7,000 corpses were removed from the College Burial Ground of St Mary, Lambeth and reburied at Brookwood, on of the seven great satellite cemeteries established by an Act of Parliament between 1832-41 because London’s dead were buried in small urban churchyards, which were so overcrowded and so close to where people lived, worked and worshipped that they were causing disease and ground water contamination.
It’s not just something that happened in London either!
Manchester Victoria occupies Walker’s Croft which was once a 19th century church and graveyard linked to a nearby Victorian workhouse. As recently as 2013 remains were found when the station was being rebuilt. They were removed and reburied. A plaque at the station records this.
Of course, nowadays, exhumations and reburials are conducted with far more care and attention than our Victorian forebears did, which rather puts the fake fuss into perspective, also, building Hs2 has archaeologists and historians genuinely excited as 1000s of them will be working on the course of the railway for the next two years. You can learn more here.
If you want to learn more about London’s plaque pits, visit this link.
Since I wrote this blog, John Bradley (@flypie) has been in touch via Twitter with this interesting link to an 1828 road widening scheme in Liverpool that led to the exhumation and reburying of several thousand bodies.
5th October 2020.
HS2 Ltd has now announced that the bodies from the Euston cemetery are to be reinterred at Brookwood cemetery near Woking.
Here’s a story that slipped in below the radar but that helps put HS2 in perspective. In 2014 a road scheme in Hull meant that an old graveyard had to be dug up, affecting up to 16,000 bodies. The Yorkshire Post billed it as “one of the country’s biggest ever mass exhumations”. But, as it wasn’t HS2 there was no outcry!