Three Plagues and a Jubilee

London’s biggest ever archaeological project was a new railway line that was delayed by three pandemics.

This weekend is the Queen’s platinum jubilee, celebrating 70 years on the throne. One of the marketing events attached to the jubilee is the opening of the Elizabeth line.

The Elizabeth Line is a new railway line running from commuter towns west of London and Heathrow airport, right under central London, and out to commuter towns in the East.

The project, originally called Crossrail, wasn’t supposed to be attached to this year’s jubilee. The line was supposed to open in 2018, but it has been beset by engineering problems, financial problems, and then, once it was already late, by the coronavirus pandemic.

Crossrail has been a colossal engineering project, with seven-metre diameter tunnels running for 21 kilometres under London. Along with the usual problems you’d expect with a project on this scale, London presents special challenges. Whenever you dig a hole in London, you’re guaranteed to find something interesting.

Sometimes it’s a 1,000 lb bomb, like this one dug up in Bermondsey in 2015.

Sometimes it’s the mosaic floor of a Roman villa, like this one uncovered at the site of The Liberty in Southwark.

Sometimes it’s a graveyard full of seventeenth-century plague victims, like this one excavated at the new entrance to the Elizabeth Line’s Liverpool Street station.

The Elizabeth line wasn’t just a huge engineering project; it was London’s biggest ever archaeological projects. The new stations are clean, airy, and modern. This is Farringdon station, a major London hub, with connections to the Underground, north and south via Thameslink, easy access to mainline stations Kings Cross and St. Pancras International, and direction connections to Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted airports.

The first pandemic to hold up construction of the Elizabeth line was the Black Death. In the fourteenth century, the site of Farringdon station was just outside the city of London and provided a convenient place to bury victims. From 1348 through three waves of the plague, an unknown number – probably thousands – of people were buried in what’s now Charterhouse Square. Some of these were uncovered during excavations for Farringdon station’s eastern ticket hall.

Liverpool Street is another major Crossrail interchange.

The entrance to Liverpool Street is in what used to be the grounds of St. Mary Bethlehem hospital, a.k.a. “Bedlam”, the infamous lunatic asylum. The grounds of the hospital were also used as a burial ground for plague victims, this time in the 1665 bubonic plague.

A huge number of plague victims were buried in the New Churchyard at Bethlem, perhaps up to 20,000. Around 3,500 bodies were exhumed from the site of Liverpool Street station.

Excavations were carried out by MOLA, the Museum of London Archaeology. Teeth were tested for the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague. Various other analyses investigated the diet and health of the people buried here.

After the research was complete, the exhumed remains were reburied at the Willows cemetery, Canvey Island, in Essex.