We interviewed the man who found 4,000 plague-riddled skeletons under a Crossrail station

I see dead people. One of the graves at Liverpool Street Crossrail station. Image: Crossrail.

The discovery of a mass grave at an east London Crossrail site was headline news last week. With around 4,000 skeletons interred there, the find was significant for its sheer size, but also because the most likely suspect is one of Europe’s all-time deadliest killers – the black death.

The 1665-6 plague outbreak in London, called the Great Plague, killed an estimated 100,000 people, around a quarter of the city's population. If the Crossrail skeletons do turn out to be from that time, the dig could end up being a groundbreaking one, both for historians, and for virologists working on the virus today.

When I call Crossrail’s lead archaeologist Jay Carver to ask more, he seems exceptionally calm for a man managing the hand excavation of several thousand bodies.

"The whole process is quite methodological," he tells me. "This particular discovery had a very obvious edge from it from the first days when we arrived at that level. It’s a case of very carefully lifting each individual skeleton out, defining its coffin edges as you go."

Finding a plague pit where you’re attempting to lay building foundations may at first sound a bit unfortunate, to put it mildly. Actually, though, the find is a lucky one.

"We know, right across London, there’s many, many, many former burial grounds and areas identified as specific burial grounds for plague victims. A lot of those are mapped.

"But of course, most of the time we try utterly to avoid disturbing them. It’s only this coincidence — the Crossrail ticket hall has to go in this particular location, to line up with the rest of the lines — that means we’ve really had to excavate the site."

Understandably, people can be a little sensitive about graves being disturbed: there are stories of tube station tunnels stopping dead where their builders rerouted them around burial sites. One historian even claims the Piccadilly line curves so much between Knightsbridge and South Kensington because 19th century tunnellers couldn’t get through the mass jumble of bone under Hyde Park.

"Coffins only came in in the 17th century, really. Prior to that you were more likely to be buried in a shroud."

This find is slightly more organised. Carver tells me that layout of the grave at Liverpool Street differs from what historical accounts, and the popular imagination, might lead us to expect. "We know that there was a great deal of panic during those plague years. Accounts of the time describe huge piles of corpses being loaded into pits."

Here, though, "everyone’s buried in a coffin. Which would suggest there was time to properly inter these people, as their relatives would no doubt expect. Perhaps London was better prepared to cope with something like the Great Plague – perhaps they were simply more able to cope with the number of dead".

The fact the skeletons have been interred in this way also helps date them. "Coffins only came in in the 17th century, really. Prior to that you were more likely to be buried in a shroud. We think this particular find dates from the latter half of the century."

There seem to have been a lot of these finds in London recently. Would this be the case in any European city, I ask Carver? Or is there something specific about London?

"No, not really," he replies. If anything, we have a morbid obsession with the events of 1665-6, precisely because it stands out as unusual. "The Great Plague of London has a place in the history books, particularly the school books, because it was really the last major outbreak of what was then described as plague.

"We’ve been looking for something like this: a very obvious, catastrophic grave, where multiple burials have been made on the same day. That points to the classic moment in the summer of 1665, where so many people were dying."

"Well, doctor, I've felt better." Image: Crossrail.

So what happens now? "The thing is to do the tests. This is the best candidate for a plague pit, but of course we don’t know precisely the date of these burials yet". It will take up to twelve months for carbon dating and the sequencing of the human bone to reveal the exact date, "but in terms of where we found these things, it should be then".

It’s not just historians who are excited about the find. The Crossrail archeologists also hand over samples — taken from the teeth of the dead – to scientists working on the history of disease, and the way that bacterial genomes have evolved. "Each new sample we give them helps determine how the bacteria developed over thousands of years," Carver explains. "And what potential mutations it may make in the future."

This means the skeletons found at Crossrail could help scientists who are working on the plague today. Those of us schooled in England tend to associate the plague with rats stowed on ships, jars of vinegar and a certain Monty Python sketch, but the disease hasn’t been eradicated. Outbreaks of plague have occurred in Africa, India and Madagascar in the recent past; several people contract it every year in the US. The large sample in this find could help determine whether this was the result of a single pathogen, or whether the bacteria has mutated.

In the meantime, though, the team has to clear the site. This is standard practice for historic burial grounds – "people don't accept mass machine excavation" – but it’s still a huge task. As we speak, the skeletons are currently being lifted up, bone by bone, shovelful of soil by shovelful of soil, into buckets, to be moved from where the ticket hall will stand.

By 2018, when Crossrail opens, this won't be a grave at all – and we may be a little closer to understanding one of the worst pandemics in historical memory.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.