Every day hordes of commuters have unknowingly passed into the City of London over the bodies of thousands of their predecessors, buried a few meters under the roaring traffic and rumbling trains of Liverpool Street and which are now being exposed for the first time by the Crossrail construction project.
The bodies include those of patients from Bethlem, the mental health hospital from which the word “bedlam” entered the English language. Bodies that were never claimed — often those of beaten, starved and exploited inmates — would have ended up in the burial ground alongside rich and poor, old and young, victims of plague and war, from across London.
Jay Carver, lead archeologist on the Crossrail sites — the largest archeology project in the UK on the largest infrastructure project in Europe — said the site was exceptionally interesting.
“Because of its history, we know that this is one of the most diverse burial grounds in London, a real cross-section of its people across two centuries. Bone preservation is excellent in the finds we have already made and we are expecting many important discoveries when we get into the main phase of the excavation,” he said.
The trial trenches have already yielded the first treasure from the 40 archeology sites on the route of Crossrail’s tunneling: a thumbnail-sized golden coin from Venice, pierced so it could be stitched onto garment about 400 years ago.
Archeologists have also found a stretch of a superbly engineered Roman road that probably led to a bridge across the Walbrook, one of London’s lost rivers.
Builders laid logs and brushwood on the boggy ground before building it up in layers, finishing with gravel and rammed clay still so solid and sound it looks modern. Embedded in the road surface was a human bone and a horse shoe. More Roman finds are expected.
The walled, 0.8-hectare burial ground was opened in the mid-17th century by order of the mayor of London. It was the first built away from the city’s parish churches and their bursting, overfilled graveyards and was known as Bedlam because it was on land formerly occupied by the mental hospital. The hospital survives today as the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Kent.
From the start, because it had a preaching pulpit, but no church, the burial ground was associated with dissenters. Carver hopes to find evidence of two particularly interesting characters known to have been buried there: “Freeborn John” — John Lilburne — and John Lockyer.
The first was a radical campaigner and pamphleteer for the rights of the common man who greatly influenced the Levellers, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, exiled twice and died while on parole from his final jail term.
John Lockyer was a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army who was executed for his involvement in the Bishopsgate mutiny, when the British army defied orders to leave London. His funeral terrified the authorities because it was attended by thousands wearing the Levellers’ green ribbons.
The victims of several outbreaks of plague were also buried there and as the cemetery filled, there were appeals for more top soil to keep the bodies decently covered. By the time it closed in 1714 it held a 2m-deep layer of corpses.
Because the bodies came from all over London, those buried there are unusually diverse socially. This poses a problem for Carver as it means there are no surviving burial records for the cemetery, instead names are scattered through thousands of records.