Plagues, pardons, and skulls

Skull detail 2
Memento mori of St Mary at Hill

This day in London history: on 4 June 1900, 264 cases of plague had been reported in Sydney, Australia, a country that suffered greatly from the effects of bubonic plague in the first two decades of the 20th century. London has suffered greatly from plague over the centuries, and that is reflected in many of its street names.

Pardon Street in Clerkenwell takes its name from a churchyard, established in the 14th century by Ralph de Stratford, Bishop of London. During the ravages of the 1348 Black Death, victims of the diseases were treated somewhat cavalierly: grave diggers eventually refused to bury the bodies properly. Corpses were then dumped unceremoniously into large communal pits, such as that in Golden Square.

The good bishop was shocked at this unsanctified treatment of bodies; he bought a piece of ground called No Man’s Land, which was then consecrated and set aside for the bodies of plague victims. 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.

St Mary at Hill cropThere was also once a pardon churchyard in the Billingsgate church of St Mary at Hill, which gives its name to the street on which it is located. The church dates back to at least the 12th century and was called ‘on the hill’ because of the steep ascent from the Thames. It was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by Wren.

Over a passageway on the south side of the east end of the church is a skull and crossbones or memento mori. These reminders of death were a feature over the gateways and entrances to many medieval graveyards. The best example in the City of London is at St Olave Hart Street over the Seething Lane churchyard gate and is mentioned by Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller (“I shall call this church St Ghastly Grim”).

This passageway was originally designed for a former entrance into the north transept of the church, where the graveyard, now a paved churchyard garden, was sited (now a paved churchyard garden). There is another relic from the graveyard in the church vestibule on the north wall, a resurrection panel in the form of a bas-relief showing bodies climbing out of their graves on judgment day.

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A king, the plague, and Dickens

This day in London history: on the 10th of November 1683 George II, king of England from 1727 to 1760, was born. In Golden Square there is a statue of him decked out in a Roman toga.

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Golden Square with George II in his toga

The site upon which Golden Square stands was known as Gelding’s Cross in the early 17th century when the land was used for farming. Building work on the square was begun in the 1670s and, as it was designed for the gentry, a rather more refined name was needed.

During the Great Plague of 1665/6, the site played an important, albeit somewhat gruesome, role.

Originally dogs and cats were blamed for spreading the plague. They were therefore killed off, leaving the real villains – grey rats – without any predators. The rats were thus able to wreak even more havoc with the disease, and it is estimated that around 15% of London’s population died of bubonic plague. At times the graveyards could not hold all the dead bodies and victims of the plague were dumped into large pits and communal graves. Golden Square stands on the site of one such pit.

Famous residents of the square include Thomas Jefferson; surgeon John Hunter, considered to be the founder of scientific surgery; Sebastian de Carvalho, Portuguese statesman and ambassador; and Nicholas Nickleby’s rich but unpleasant uncle, Ralph Nickleby.

Photograph: Fin Fahey