Necropolis: London and its Dead by Catharine Arnold

What's under your feet as you tramp the streets of the capital? Plague pits, forgotten graveyards, grisly scandals and more. Suzi Feay uncovers London's subterranean struggle to keep legions of unruly dead under control
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The Independent Culture

In times of plague and war, the dead definitely seem to be getting the upper hand. The victims of the plague of 1665 rapidly overflowed existing provision. A thousand people died in Stepney alone in one week; coffins ran out, then burial plots; soon cartloads of bodies were flung into pits, which could fill up in a couple of days. After the pestilence subsided, the land was swiftly reused; the foundations of a mansion in Bishopsgate cut through bodies which could still be identified as male or female by their flesh. Liverpool Street Station stands on a plague pit, and Arnold reports that "when a bookshop in Oxford Street was rebuilt in the early 1920s, numbers of human bones were found eight feet down, not in rows, but buried indiscriminately, as if the bodies had been flung in." The Piccadilly Line between Knightsbridge and South Kensington is said to curve around "a pit so dense with human remains that it could not be tunnelled through".

Overflowing cemeteries and the high price of real estate were not new issues, even in Pepys's day. In 1549, a chapel in St Paul's was demolished and 1,000 cartloads of bones from the vault and charnel house were removed to Finsbury Fields. Three windmills were erected on the rising ground. The Charterhouse was built in 1370 on a plague pit filled with victims of the Black Death. In Necropolis, Catharine Arnold conjures up an appalling vista of endless grinning skulls stretching back into prehistory.

Bodies are occasionally retrieved from the universal maw. Anne Boleyn, headless, bundled into a chest, was uncovered during Victorian renovations at the church of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower, and solemnly reinterred under the marble floor. In 1866 a body pierced through with a stake was dug up by a gas company in Cable Street; it was thought to be that of the infamous Ratcliff Highway Murderer, John Williams, who committed suicide after being accused of battering seven people to death.

Williams had been buried at a crossroads; Arnold relates that the last case of crossroads suicide burial was probably that of another murderer-suicide, John Mortland, in 1823, outside where Lord's Cricket Ground now stands. The custom may have arisen as a way of baffling a lingering ghost.

Arnold's book abounds in deliciously uncanny detail. Why are mourning clothes traditionally black? The fearful Romans believed that black rendered mourners invisible to vengeful spirits. (Though the actress Sheila Gish specified: "No black to be worn please (unless of course it's your best colour)." What does the carving of an urn draped in cloth, a familiar sight in a Victorian cemetery, signify? It marks the grave of the head of a family. The Courtauld fortunes were built on sales of black crape after Prince Albert's death rendered heavy mourning fashionable; there were four shops selling mourning in Regent's Street, including Peter Robinson's Mourning Warehouse, and department stores sold widows' outfits with names like "The Aesthetic" and, oddly, "The Houri".

Arnold occasionally gets herself in a bit of a knot, historically. There are a few repetitions and huge jumps in the timespan of the narrative (Romans to Anglo-Saxons to medieval times in a hop and skip, for example). In one paragraph she describes the medieval attitude to death as follows: "The concept of returning to the grave of a loved one, and communing with their memory, was unknown. The deceased were elsewhere, in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory..." But then in the very next paragraph, à propos the medieval habit of drinking, fighting and dancing on hallowed ground, she claims: "We should remember that the bond between the living and the dead was very different from today. It was an extension of the medieval belief that the dead were, in some sense, still close by, and probably grateful to hear the merrymaking." Close by, or in heaven - which?

Much of Arnold's information is readily available elsewhere, though the book works as a handy one-stop-shop for all things morbid from the fate of Cromwell's skull to the Necropolis Railway, post-mortem photography and beyond. There is one drawback to trawling quantities of other books to fill your own, though: you're a hostage to your anecdotes. Writing of the otherworldly atmosphere of Highgate, where lies London's spookiest Victorian cemetery, she appends a story from London by Day and Night, published in 1852 in New York. Keats and Coleridge were apparently wandering along Swain's Lane, deep in conversation, the younger poet just about to reveal the parlous state of his tubercular lungs, when "a wild-eyed Shelley bounded up, hallucinating on laudanum. Stopping to gaze upon the lovely scene spread out before him, tears streamed down his face as he exclaimed: 'I have seen this all before! In the past - in some previous existence - where? Where?'"

Irresistible as it may be to see Shelley as a prototype Pete Doherty, this is nonsense. Keats and Coleridge were not close friends; Shelley and Coleridge never even met. "I have often bitterly regretted in my heart that I never did meet with Shelley," confirmed Coleridge. When you spot an error like that, it diminishes your confidence in the whole book.

Shelley's cremation in 1822, vividly described by the eyewitness Edward Trelawney, is one of the most famous scenes in Romanticism - the skin dyed indigo! The brains seething and bubbling over the brazier! The unconsumed heart (probably liver)! Arnold usefully contextualises this: it was an exceptional end for a man who was exceptional in so many ways, but cremation for the masses was viewed with deep suspicion, not to say horror, until the end of the 19th century. ("Trelawney's grisly account of the scene might not have done the cremation movement any favours," she concedes.) The Cremation Society of Great Britain was founded in 1874, and in the face of legal challenges, enthusiasts for the practice were forced to improvise.

In 1884, the "Welsh Wizard", a self-proclaimed Druid, Dr William Price, was prosecuted for attempting to cremate the body of his five-month-old son in a barrel. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body proved a barrier to acceptance, although the Victorian historian Isabella Holmes briskly dismissed the religious objection: "The body returns 'earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust' whether the process takes 50 years or 50 minutes."

Isabella is one of the many compelling characters who haunt these pages. She was employed as a scout by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, founded in 1882 to campaign for more green spaces in London, desperately needed by the poor despite high land prices. The dank, deserted burial grounds which still scattered the city were prime targets for this transformation; Dickens famously exposed the scandal of these pestilential plots in Bleak House (1852-53), in which the disguised Lady Dedlock is conducted by the poor dimwit Jo to the place where her lover is buried. "Look at the rat! Hi! Look! There he goes! Ho! Into the ground."

The indefatigable Mrs Holmes was despatched to gain access to as many of these old graveyards as possible, equipped with old maps from the British Museum. Sent flying by vicious dogs, once pelted with mud for her pains, Holmes nevertheless succeeded triumphantly in her mission, commenting that, as it was invariably assumed that she was seeking the grave of a relative, "I have been hailed as a sister by the quietest of Quakeresses and the darkest of bewigged Jewesses, by the leanest and most clean-shaven of ritualistic Priests, and by the bearded and buxom Dissenter." She enshrined her discoveries in The London Burial Grounds: Notes on their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1896), a vital source for Arnold.

Another hero of the story is the horticultural writer, designer and campaigner for burial reform John Claudius Loudon, who introduced the plane tree to London's squares. An opium addict and prolific author, he also designed a prototype greenhouse, married a science-fiction writer, laid out Birmingham's Botanical Gardens and worked on Kensal Green, Norwood, Paddington and Brompton cemeteries, all despite being crippled with arthritis and losing his right arm after a botched operation.

Other poignant or dramatic figures crowd these pages, from swindling Victorian speculators to expiring infants, from the grandest of royals to the most pathetic of executed criminals. But strangely, no Dame Shirley Porter, whose sneaky attempts to sell off three cemeteries in Westminster Council's hands for 15p caused such a scandal in the late Eighties. This would have been a great way to bring the story up to date. (Porter's nemesis, the journalist Paul Foot, is buried in a cardboard coffin at Golders Green.)

The big set-piece with which Arnold ends her story is, of course, the overwrought funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Though by the time we get there, it starts to look less like a bizarre aberration and more a natural extension of all the eccentric, moving and ingenious ways Londoners have faced down the spectre of death.