From Beak Street to Vinegar Alley: London’s pesthouses and plague pits

Hello, again, loyal readers. The gap in my posting is due to us grasping the last of the summer and braving the high seas (well, the English Channel anyway) for a little break in Alderney. You would think that might encourage me to find maritime-themed street names, and I may do so soon; however, before our little jaunt I had a run of watching zomcom movies and one of them has inspired today’s theme. (I haven’t forgotten the spice theme, so more of that in the not-too-distant future.)

A plague doctor with the distinctive mask; the beak would be filled with herbs or other substances to keep out the odour of death and, hopefully, protect the wearer

During my zomcom session I came across a movie with the unlikely name of Cockneys vs Zombies, and I just had to watch it, partly because of the title, and partly because of the description: “A group of bank robbers, pensioners and a war veteran from London’s East End fight their way out of England’s zombie-infested capital as their ill-conceived attempt to save a retirement home goes awry.”

Who could resist? For those of you still doubtful, let me add that the cast included Honor Blackman and Richard Briers. Now, tell me you can resist the thought of seeing those two veteran actors effing and blinding and fighting off zombies.

The point of all this? Oh, yes: the zombies appeared when construction workers broke into an underground cavern sealed, so the inscription said, by order of King Charles II. Who knew that Charles had to deal with zombies? But onto the plague.

While the Black Death of 1348-9 and the Great Plague of 1664-5 are perhaps the best-known plague epidemics, London suffered several outbreaks of the illness from as early as 664. During an outbreak of 1499-1500 an estimated 20,000 people died; in 1603 nearly 3,000 people died in one week in London; and in 1625 another 35,000 people died. The Great Plague is estimated to have claimed between about 70,000 and 100,000 lives.

During the Great Plague, there were so many bodies that graveyards became overwhelmed and air was toxic with the smell of the dead victims. According to The London Encyclopaedia, “The authorities ordered that huge holes should be dug in vacant patches of earth, lined with quicklime, for mass graves of plague-pits. Even so, it was impossible to bury all the corpses within 24 hours of death, and some lay stacked like wax figures in the streets for two or three days.”

Those who escaped illness did not fare that well; if someone was diagnosed with the plague everyone in their household was quarantined inside for 40 days after the victim had either recovered or died. Conditions were appalling in the houses, which were guarded by armed men. If the guards were overwhelmed by loyal friends, there was little refuge outside of the city as watches were set to prevent Londoners from seeking refuge elswehere.

The Great Plague gave rise not only to plague pits but also to ‘pesthouses’ – buildings used to quarantine those who were infected. It was William, Earl of Craven, who recommended the use of pesthouses and plague pits rather than locking the healthy in with the infected. Beak Street, off Regent Street, is thought to be the site of one such pesthouse, and later a burial pit; the area was known as Pesthouse Fields.

The name of Beak Street, much as I would like to say it came from the depictions of plague doctors with their beak-like masks, first appeared in 1689 and takes its name from Thomas Beake, a Queen’s Messenger, who owned and developed land in the area.

Not far from Beak Street is Golden Square, which stands on the site of one of the plague pits. The 19th-century politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote a five-volume work entitled The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Of what is now Golden Square he says, “On the east was 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 statue of George II (or Charles II) in Golden Square

The name of the square has nothing to do with precious metal: the site was originally known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square began in 1675, by which time it would appear that the earth was no longer considered to be deeply tainted. The developers had applied for a building licence on the basis that there would be “such houses as might accommodate Gentry, and not being the least Charge upon the Parish, but be an advancement to the Poor”. Gelding gave way to Golden to fit in with this gentrified vision.

There is a statue in Golden Square of King George II (or King Charles II) bedecked in a Roman toga; opinions are divided, though most sources say it is George. The square’s famous residents include Barbara Villiers, later Palmer, one of Charles II’s mistresses; Angelica Kauffman, a Swiss artist who was one of only two female founder members of the Royal Academy; and Thomas Jefferson who, before he became president of the USA, stayed in Golden Square during his only visit to London.

Bunhill Row in Finsbury is not the site of a plague pit, though it was intended as such during the Great Plague. It takes its name from the nearby fields of the same name, originally Bone Hill Fields. The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there. The name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, including bones.

Although intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with non-conformists. The overcrowding of such burial places led to a series of Acts that regulated graveyards and allowed areas such as Bunhill Fields to be closed when they became full. The last burial was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl, Elizabeth Howell Oliver, was laid to rest.

Among the 120,000 other people who were interred in Bunhill Fields are John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. Perhaps fitting as Defoe wrote the book A Journal of the Plague Year; the book is written as an eyewitness account, though Defoe was only five during the Plague year. It vexes those who want to pigeonhole it: though clearly not a genuine eyewitness account, it is considered to be carefully researched and to have more detail than Samuel Pepys’s own eyewitness account.

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674. It was here that he wrote Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

Not far from Bunhill Row is Pardon Street; this takes its name from a churchyard established in the 14th century by Ralph de Stratford, Bishop of London, and is the site of a plague pit dating back to the Black Death. The good bishop was shocked at the fact that gravediggers, becoming overwhelmed by the number of bodies resulting from the plague, eventually refused to bury the bodies properly and dumped them unceremoniously into large communal pits. To rectify this situation, he bought a piece of ground called No Man’s Land, which was then consecrated and set aside for the bodies of plague victims. Still a communal pit, but at least a sanctified one. A small chapel was also erected for prayers to be said for the pardon of their souls, and the graveyard was thus named Pardon Churchyard.

The pit there had up to 200 bodies a day at its busiest times and, according to London historian John Stow, the grand total was finally reckoned at around 50,000. In the 16th century, when plague business was slower, the churchyard was used for suicides and executed felons (presumably without the benefit of the pardon).

In 2014 the Crossrail excavationsfor a grout shaft in the nearby Charterhouse Square disturbed the remains of a cemetery also created in response to the Black Death. Carthusian Street was built as an access route to the cemetery, in which as many as 20,000 could have been buried. Both the square and the street take their names from the Carthusian Priory in Clerkenwell; since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century the priory has served as a private mansion, a boys’ school and an almshouse, which it remains to this day . Charterhouse is the anglicised version of Chartreuse, from which the monks originated.

Hand Alley (now New Street) off Bishopsgate Street features in A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe writes: “The upper end of Hand Alley, in Bishopsgate Street, which was then a green field, and was taken in particularly for Bishopsgate parish, though many of the carts out of the city brought their dead thither also.”

The name could have come from a sign; in the days when few people could read, it was important for shopkeepers to have unequivocal signs (unlike taverns, where memorable and unusual signs were popular). The hand was often used in conjunction with other items: a hand with a coffee pot was the sign of a coffee house; a hand in a glove meant a glover; and a hand and shears was the sign for a tailor. (There were also occasions where the use of a hand on a sign had a special significance: according to the 19th century writer John Camden Hotten: “where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand in it ’tis a bawdy house”.)

Tothill Street, near Westminster Abbey, takes its name from Tothill Fields, which was a once burial ground; following the final battle of the English Civil War many of Charles II’s Scottish allies were buried here. During the Great Plague of 1665-1666, the area once more became a burial ground and Samuel Pepys noted in his diary with some dismay that, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in the open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere”.

There are a number of theories as to the origin of the name Tothill. The most likely is that, as the highest point in Westminster, it was a ‘toot’ or beacon hill. Another theory is that it was from the Druid divinity Teut.

We can end our look at plague pits with Vinegar Alley in Walthamstow. It is possible that the name derives from the fact that locals would use vinegar to sanitise the area after a plague pit was dug. It is likely that this would have been from the Black Death rather than the later plague.

For a more comprehensive look at London’s plague pits, I can recommend Historic UK’s interactive map.

7 thoughts on “From Beak Street to Vinegar Alley: London’s pesthouses and plague pits

  1. Thanks so much again I love reading your blog. I live in Australia, and my mother’s Jewish family came from the East End. I have a census record of some living in Bunhill Row, so I always love it when you write about the places they have lived. I love all English history and visited in 2008 but didn’t get to see too much of the East End, I know more of where they lived now so hope to get back and your blog gives me so much fascinating info. Cheers from South Australia. Vicki.

      1. Thanks Elizabeth, yes I love researching, used to work in our State archives in the State Library of South Australia. I am a mad history buff, so just love the research you have done and publish. I look forward to reading every post of yours. Kind regards Vicki

  2. Another very interesting blog post – I always enjoy reading them and find the history fascinating.

    Hope you had a good time in Alderney!

    Helen x

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