One skeleton was selected as “the unknown parishioner”, and had a solemn funeral service at Southwark Cathedral, followed by burial with the others.
One poor Victorian Londoner has been buried in a style – after a cathedral service at Southwark, in a crimson-leather-covered coffin with a specially engraved brass plate – that he could never have dreamed of, in an unusual ceremony to give a permanent resting place to the bones of hundreds of individuals disturbed by the construction of a railway viaduct.
The remains have been reburied at a brand new cemetery at Kenmal Park in Chislehurst, on the south-eastern outskirts of London. Their common grave will be marked for the first time with a memorial: originally they were buried in the cheapest coffins in unmarked graves.
One skeleton was selected as “the unknown parishioner”, and had a solemn funeral service at Southwark Cathedral, followed by burial with the others. The dean of Southwark, Andrew Nunn, said he was pleased that the remains, originally buried so close to his cathedral walls, would be treated with the respect they deserved. “We have an ongoing duty of care for parishioners, past and present.”
Archaeological analysis revealed that the 331 individuals lived short, hard lives. Almost a third died before reaching the age of 18, only a handful made it to over 45, and none was older than 60. Evidence was found of scurvy and rickets, classic diseases of poverty in 19th-century England, some had deformed ribs presumed to be from tight-laced corsets, and others had permanently damaged teeth from perpetual pipe-smoking.
Analysis of the finds continues by Oxford Archaeology, but Chris Place, Network Rail’s archaeologist, said they had already fully recorded the bones. “We will eventually know everything there is to be known about these people – except their names,” he said.
It is unlikely that any individual will ever be identified. There are no surviving records for many of the small burial grounds in the district and no grave markers of any kind were found. They were, however, lucky to have remained in their graves: the area was infamous for “resurrection men”, grave robbers who dug up freshly buried corpses to sell to schools of anatomy.
Although the coffined burials found by excavators from the Museum of London Archaeology were undisturbed, they found evidence of many more that had been broken up once or even twice before. The viaduct was driven by Network Rail through Borough as part of the Thameslink improvement project, clipping the edge of the famous market. It runs through the heart of what was once the most densely populated district of London’s south bank, and the site of the old St Saviour’s almshouse burial ground, which opened in 1730 but was partly destroyed by earlier railway works. The archaeologists found pits holding jumbled bones reburied by the Victorian railway navvies who built the railway lines in the 1860s.
In Victorian London the area was, as it had been in Shakespeare’s day and right back to Roman times, a place where most people were poor and worked hard for a living, but also lived surrounded by myriad temptations to spend money in taverns, brothels, cock pits and theatres.
The unknown parishioner has gone to his new grave in a handmade ceremonial coffin, designed and made by Albin’s undertakers – a family firm based only a few miles away in Bermondsey – which has also donated and specially engraved an original 19th-century coffin plate from its archives.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010