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I grew up in Wells, Somerset, on the Keward Estate which looked out over rolling fields to a delightful sewage farm. Behind this stands the imposing Hay Hill (http://www.streetmap.co.uk/streetma...144500&zoom=3&isp=200&ism=1000&arrow=y?151,86)
We had a pet Chichuahua at the time, Pabby (no, I don't know why he was called that, either) and he would point blank refuse to go up Hay hill, or even enter the fields at the bottom of its slopes. On chatting to a local (memory says he was the farmer who owned it, but I can't be sure) we were informed that no livestock would stay in there, even cows would jump hedges to get out, and the reason for this was that the hill contained huge plague pits where hundreds of victims of the last great plague were buried, and the animals sensed this.

Our next dog would trot about the place quite happily, but I've always wondered about this - The corpses were supposed to be from London, but this seems like an awfully long commute, Bristol or Bath would seem more likely. Anyway, as always, further info welcome! (I haven't been back for 10 years, so it's probably a housing estate now!)


Yeah, it does seem an awful long way to haul a lot of ripe old corpses.

I wonder if there is a tendency in the retelling of plague folklore to centre every story on the event everyone knows, ie. the 1665 visitation of the plague in London, whereas outbreaks of plague were a fairly constant hazard in many areas over a long period of time.

There is a fair bit of plague-pit folklore out there. I've been told that the open area of Blackheath in London was never built on because of the mass burials situated there and I used to stay with a friend in Tottenham whose terraced road had a very strange lay-out due, so he said, to the builder's desire to avoid the burial pits situated in the area.
I can think of a number of places claimed to be plague pits & even with the ones in church yards their seems to be a local belief that you shouldnot dig on the site. Often it seems to explain why a prime grave spot remains unused. But, how truthful is this oral tradition? There semed to be a time when every abandoned village was a plague village, in some cases we now know this is not the case. I sometimes wonder if in at least a few cases if a few bones are found, of any period a tradition springs up to explain their presence!!!!!
I've just (well, not just, but earlier), been up to the Plague Market at Merrivale on Dartmoor. The story is that this is where the non-plague-ridden villagers would leave food for the more unfortunate, banished to the moor to live out the last of their days; but the Plague Market is actually a group of standing stones and ceremonial pathways supposedly predating the plague. Was this a case of reuse of an ancient ceremonial site, or are the stones more modern? There are obvious signs of quarrying in the area.
I was told by a professional archaeologist that there are (or were, this was some time ago,) some fairly tough regulations regarding the excavtion of plague pits. This was because no-one knew how long the infective agents stayed around
I'm sure I heard a similar story recently about animals which refused to enter a field because it had been used as a burial pit in the 1967 Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak.
I'm pretty sure the explanation would be to do with the pits having an effect on the integrity of the field e.g. You make a huge hole, don't fill it in properly, and you're left with an area of ground that's almost hollow.

Most cows/horses don't like walking on hollow ground, and don't like bridges either as the odd feeling spooks them as bridges sway, and thin ground sinks under their weight.

I know for a fact that I don't like walking over swaying bridges as they make me feel all woozy, cows are silly beasts and are far more likely to act belligerently :rolleyes:

TBH I don't know if medieval burial pits would remain hollow as successive layers of soil would soon fill it in, but if you have a podzol or iron pan deposited pretty soon after, you would basically have a hole with a few feet of soil covering it.
Maybe it wasn't a hill to begin with, perhaps it was just a pile of bodies laying on the ground with dirt thrown over them.
Xanatic said:
Maybe it wasn't a hill to begin with, perhaps it was just a pile of bodies laying on the ground with dirt thrown over them.

That's exactly how I imagined it as a kid! - Judging by Marion's post, it's not quite as impressive as I remember it, but it'd still be a lot of bodies!


I don't think that effluant & the polution of water courses was a idea that would have occurred to your average pre 19th Century person Marion.

Even in the early 19th C. Dr Snow's suggestion that cholera was spread by cross contamination from cess pits to wells built next to each other was highly controversial, after all everyone had known for at least the last two thousand years that infections were spread by bad air, (malaria=mal air=bad air).:cross eye
Yeah well probably , just thought of something else - maybe the hill is part of the Glastonbury Zodiac ! That is much more likely isn't it ?? There - solved . Man . Like . I can't find a map of it though .
David said:
I don't think that effluant & the polution of water courses was a idea that would have occurred to your average pre 19th Century person Marion.

Judging by the number of churchyards and cemeteries built on hills I think you are probably right.

Incidentally wasn't it Dr Snow who developed his theory after studying water from a pump in, of all places, Soho?
Yup Spook that's the right Dr Snow, but it wasn't by studying the water. Infact, he noted the places cholera victims died during a localised outbreak & found that they all had drunk the water from the same pump. Then when no one would take notice of his findings, he took the handle off of the pump & the outbreak died out.

The trouble was that it wasn't until late in the 19th Cent. that microbes were conected to disease & infection, so Dr Snow was forgotten for many years & I suppose he was lucky he didn't get arrested for the theft of a pump handle:blah:
Originally posted by Marion
Yeah well probably , just thought of something else - maybe the hill is part of the Glastonbury Zodiac ! That is much more likely isn't it ?? <

Well , I was wrong , the Glastonbury Zodiac doesn't go much further North than Glastonbury ( pause to assure everyone I don't believe in it anyway ) . Interesting there is an area called Battlebury to the South West of Hay Hill complete with a tumulus . It is an interesting area round there , to the West there is a hamlet called Panborough ! Very pagan , it has a small conical hill next to the road , more noticable than on the map . Further West towards Cheddar is another conical hill called Nyland , a corruption of it's original name of St.Andrew's Land , a place connected with Arthurian legend.
It is possible there is a mass grave on Hay Hill - maybe from an earlier time than the plague ridden middle ages !
The main street in Conwy, N. Wales, UK, is called Berry Street. It is apparently a corruption of 'Burial' street, the road being, it is believed locally, dug up and used as a plague pit when residents were too weak to take their dead any further. If true, it's a horrifying idea.
Queen Street in Hitchin Herts, used to be known as Dead Street, as supposedly during the plague of 1665, some say also that of 1350, there was a 100% mortality.

Convenient for burial, as the church yard is just over the other side of the River Hiz from there!!!
Does anybody know, or is there documented proof of where plague pits are in London? If so have they been built upon or are they left as parks or open spaces?
Dunno about London, but there's one in Bristol right under the House of Fraser in Broadmead (my grandfather worked opposite when it was being built, and confirmed all of this: when it was uncovered they evacuated the immediate area for a while til declared safe - unusually for the time, they didn't blame it on a UXB but just told the truth :)).

When it was still Lewis's, years ago, the basement was the food hall :eek!!!!:
I can look out of my office window and see Bunhill Fields just north of the city. Part of it is a very picturesque cemetary containing many interesting graves eg. William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. The other part was a plague pit from 1665. Its name (Bunhill = Bonehill) and location may mean that burials have taken place in the area back to Roman times.
I heard that the reason there are hardly any tube lines south of the river is because of all the plague bits there, and the Victorians and later tube-builders didn't want to dig up the plague.

Sounds quite unlikely to me - not enough population sounds far more credible a reason, but maybe someone out there knows more.

I remember hearing about some plague pits under Charterhouse Square in the City (was it Guttersnipe's Ghost Walk?). And I'm sure Peter Ackroyd's Biography of London mentioned some too.

Apparently according to this site there were pits at Aldgate and at Finsbury Fields.

On the other hand this site goes into the whole plague burial thing in much more depth. This part is perhaps the most relevant:

One of the most popular elements in the mythology of London is the plague pit, and especially the idea that many pits were dug in unconsecrated ground and afterwards forgotten. The site of any discovery of plentiful human remains in a location no longer used for burial tends to be identified as a plague pit, unless a more reliable history is quickly attached to it. There were undoubtedly some temporary and irregular plague burial sites, but though few are well documented, their overall number may have been quite limited. Defoe is our main source for new or temporary burial grounds opened in 1665... He mentions 'the great pit in Finsbury Fields', and lists sites or grounds (not necessarily pits) near Goswell Street, in Shoreditch, at Moorfields, and off Bishopsgate Street, and eight in the huge parish of Stepney... the scarcity of evidence for them in parish records may suggest that these were late and desperate expedients, invoked when record-keeping had already broken down. W.G. Bell ... suggests another group of new burial sites, those attached to pest-houses. The pest-house in the parish of St Martin in the Fields (which also served a number of other parishes) had a fenced burial ground, used by a number of parishes at the height of the epidemic; dead from the pest-house at Westminster were probably buried in a marked-off part of Tothill Fields, along with plague dead from the parish of St Margaret's as a whole. The City pest-house returned separate numbers of dead from the parochial totals in the Bills of Mortality, but it is not clear where they were buried; possibly the nearby 'great pit in Finsbury Fields' accommodated them.
If I recall correctly, the Jubilee tube line between St.Johns Wood and Swiss Cottage goes below an undisturbed plague pit, hence passengers on a train feel their ears 'pop' at that point from pressure change. Dunno if that's true though.
Interesting stuff on the Plague and Plague pits here:



The idea that Blackheath got its name from its use as a burial pit goes all the way back to the medieval period, when it was almost certainly used for the disposal of the dead during the 'Black Death'. Virtually every part of London has a local tradition about plague pits under, say, the local school or the bakers. Certainly there were pits dug all over the place. The sheer number of bodies meant that the traditional church yards became, as one contemporary put it, 'overstuft' very quickly.

There is a church next to the nursery school my mother teaches at in deptford that is allegedly a plague pit. It has two gigantic stone skulls over the gates of the churchyard, they used to be real but they got replaced in the 1900's. Interestingly it is also the last resting place of Christopher Marlowe, there is an uninentionally funny plaque on the wall that reads "the remains of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, lie somewhere in this churchyard" they don't actually know - he wasn't a very popular man when he died so they just hurled his body into the nearest hole in the ground.
If I recall correctly, the graveyard with Marlowes body also contains the remains of many pirates and criminal sailors as well as the bodies of prostitutes who died in the stews of Southwark. Annually, local activists try to commemorate the "Bishops Geese" (prostitutes) buried there, preserving the graveyard by tying thousands of ribbons to the gate to represent the gals.

Or something like that - I heard about it on BBC Radio London.
not sure if I've ever seen that, but it is the place where they put the disruputable dead. Hence marlowe. Very eerie place although if you are there at night you're generally more bothered about being mugged than being attacked by ghosties.
I've got a couple of books on London cemetaries. When I get home I'll have a browse and see what I can find...
There us plague pit underneath Finsbury Circus in London (CITY), just between Moorgate Tube & Liverpool St Station.

Its is now a boules green and bar.
the place is called St Mary's it was partially destroyed during the sceond world war, has a big wooden screen designed by Grinling Gibbons. I don't like the screen I just love the name almost as good as Marmaduke Prickett.