Hans Sloane and the Pit

Headlines today: “‘Black Death pit’ unearthed by Crossrail project“. It’s all very exciting when London starts to dig deep under its surface, with various plague pits, Bronze Age transport networks and more being unearthed. I can’t help thinking, sometimes, that it’s only a matter of time before we have a Quatermass and the Pit situation!

In the eighteenth century, building on a plague pit was a matter of national concern. On 16 March 1723, The British Journal (iss. XXVI) reported that Richard Mead and Sloane had been consulted on the matter of Lord Craven wanting to build over the Pest-House Fields. As I’ve discussed before, Sloane–who was no less than a court physician and President of the Royal College of Physicians–and Mead had advised the government about preventing an outbreak in London during the Marseilles plague of 1720-22.

Human bones and skulls in a brick-built pit. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

During the plague of 1665, William, 1st Earl of Craven, stayed in London as a member of a commission to prevent the plague’s spread. The commission recommended isolating the sick by setting up pest houses and burying the dead in plague pits. A few years after the outbreak (1671), Lord Craven purchased land near Lancaster Gate, with a Pest House Field for the use of nearby parishes: St. Paul, St. Clement Danes, St. Martin-in-the-Fields and St. James.By 1700, however, London was growing rapidly and, without a recent outbreak of the plague, the unused land was increasingly seen as a problem. In any case, with so many people around, it could no longer serve as a place of isolation if an epidemic did break out.[1]

The answer to Lord Craven’s question in 1723 was “no”. The physicians had apparently

determin’d, that the Digging them [the land] up might be of dangerous Consequence, there having been many hundred distemper’d Bodies buried there in the Plague Time.

With the memory of the Marseilles plague still fresh in people’s minds, this was probably not the best time for Lord Craven to ask! The fact that the plague experts Sloane and Mead were called in for a consultation suggests that the disposal of Lord Craven’s land was a matter of national importance. If meddling with the land could cause a plague outbreak, threatening the health of people and the economy, it should not be done.

Eleven years later, the family had greater success in determining the use of their land. Although the government did not consult Sloane and Mead this time, their decisions still erred on the side of caution. The government specified that only a hospital could be built on the site.

By the 1820s, the family had divided and leased the land, but a curious clause was written into the leases: the leasees were required to turn over the land for use during a plague outbreak. The definition of ‘plague’ was a bit ambiguous: did this refer only to plague or to any infectious disease? This became a pressing matter during the 1833 cholera epidemic, but fortunately for the tenants, the lease remained limited to plague. With plague deemed unlikely ever to happen again, a wealthy neighbourhood soon spread across the area.

Then and now, London is frequently faced with the problem of its multitude of inconvenient corpses. The ghost of the plague that haunted eighteenth-century London’s plague pits still peeks its head out every so often, but we can greet it with curiosity instead of fear.[2]

[1.] A short history of the Craven Estate can be read here: http://www.corringham.eu/cravenestate.html.

[2.] UPDATED 16 MARCH 2013: Some of us, anyhow. A slightly strange article in The Telegraph has taken the angle of trying to scare readers about the possible dangers posed by old plague pits. Darin Hayton has also picked up on some media hyperbole and commenter anxiety about the discovery, which he discusses in his post “A Dozen Medieval Plague Victims?”

5 comments on “Hans Sloane and the Pit

    • Lisa Smith on

      Thanks! I only came to Quatermass as an adult, but it intrigues me on several levels. Not only does it neatly encapsulate post-war developments and fears, it touches on the primal fears of going underground and the past always hidden beneath an old city…

      Reply
    • Lisa Smith on

      Thanks, Brodie! I was overly optimistic when I wrote that line. In hindsight, I wish that I’d waited until the next day when it had played out more in the media to write it. I could have drawn some smart parallels between then and now…

      Reply

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