The Plague Pits of Blackheath and Greenwich: myth or legend?

Updated: Jan 12

(Main Monarchs: Edward III and, much later, Charles II – although the plague was persistent over many reigns and years)

Bring Out Your Dead, The Great Plague in London / Credit: English School / © Look and Learn
Bring Out Your Dead, The Great Plague in London / Credit: English School / © Look and Learn

Search Google, and there is a plethora of information (and debate) as to whether plague pits lurk beneath the heath and whether these pits were behind Blackheath's name.


Without getting into the science and detail of the Black Death and Great Plague, it's helpful to note that these two events occurred in entirely different centuries. Yet, these events are often merged into one when considering the plague pits and how Blackheath earned its name.


Lewisham Council’s website states: The name 'Blackheath' was recorded as early as the 11th century. It is often believed to come from its reputed use as a mass burial ground for victims of the Black Death in the 1340s. But this is wrong.[1]


I thought I'd explore the evidence.


The Black Death (1348-1349)

(Monarch: Edward III)

Black Death / Credit: Unknown / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images
Black Death / Credit: Unknown / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images

"In the year of Our Lord 1349, a violent pestilence broke out beyond measure in the whole of the Kingdom of England, and especially in the City of London, where the people superabounded."[2]


What was it?


Medieval society called it the Great Pestilence. The Victorians dubbed it the Black Death.[3]


The early symptoms included vomiting and the sweats, which soon turned to uncontrollable spasms and losing muscle function control. Black bruising developed under the skin, and black pus-filled buboes (large swellings) grew in the groin or under the arms (where the lymph nodes are). These black marks gave the foul disease its name.


It has generally been thought that the plague was transmitted by rat fleas (rattus rattus — so good they named it twice). Rats travelled around the world (lucky things) on ships, so their fleas went with them.


The question, in modern times, has been how rats and their fleas could spread a disease so quickly, particularly as rats have to die for their fleas to then seek out a new host — the human — and­ especially because the plague spread to places like Iceland where it was too cold for rats to live.


Scientists suggest that the disease mutated into a different strain — an airborne one called the pneumonic plague — a plague that no longer needed rats and fleas and could be passed from human to human; a human transmission of pandemic scale — imagine that. While researching, I have come across several different scientific and historical theories; all are interesting but beyond the story this blog wants to tell.


From the official records, around 30-40% of the English population[4] died during this pestilence time, but this figure is thought to be much much higher, with some historians claiming the death rate was roughly 60%.[5]


The Black Death, which had been spreading across Asia and Europe since 1346, entered London in 1348.[6]


With this in mind, the question has to be asked, when did Blackheath get its name and why? Was it really because the heath was a mass burial ground for the Black Death victims?


What’s in the name?


Blackheath was first recorded as Blachehedfeld in 1166 in the Pipe rolls (the annual financial records of the Crown). The name is from the Old English spoken words of ‘blæc’ and ‘hǣth,’ which mean a ‘dark or black heath field.’ More can be found here on Blackheath's name.


In their typical way, the Victorians came along and gave the pesky pestilence a label — the Black Death. Unfortunately, this didn’t help history in some ways because it not only confused everyone as to the origins of Blackheath’s name but searching primary sources using the Victorian label leads to zero results!


So, as much as it might be morbidly interesting or gruesomely quirky to suggest there is a Black Death connection, it’s a myth that Blackheath is called so due to plague victims lurking beneath.


That’s not to say they aren’t there, though (read on).


The Pesky Pestilences


England was plagued (had to be done) by a cycle of pestilence where it seemed to come and go fairly regularly (a cycle of ten to fifteen years[7]).


Pestilences dominated English life for three centuries, from 1348 to 1679, and was so persistent in London that, according to the Bills of Mortality, only in four ‘widely separated years’ had the city been entirely free of it.[8]


Bills of Mortality were weekly mortality statistics to monitor deaths — undertaken by the parish clerks. The one below is a summary for London in the year 1665. I'm not too keen on the 'Teeth and Worms' entry near the bottom of the list, and what on earth is the 'King's Evill'?

Bill of Mortality for 1665 / Credit: Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. p.302
Bill of Mortality for 1665 / Credit: Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. p.302

So much focus has been on the Great Plague of 1665-66 that it is often forgotten England, and especially London, were used to the plague coming and going over the years. Below are a couple of examples of how the plague was dealt with locally over these years.


1530

Henry VIII gave money to the poor who were expelled from Greenwich because they had the plague (a common practice and a bit mean considering these people were dying and had nowhere to go).

To dispose of the kingꝭ Charite to such pou folke as wer expelled the towne of the grenewiche in the tyme of the plage.[9]

1630

King Charles I issued a proclamation that limited travel into and out of London – a bit of a local lockdown. As a result, he postponed court business.

England and Wales. Sovereign Charles I, 1632
England and Wales. Sovereign Charles I, 1632

1636

In 1635, concerned for his pregnant wife and consort, Henrietta Maria, Charles I ordered the construction of a pest house (pesthowse) on the heath.


Charles wasn’t just concerned for his wife and unborn child; Greenwich Palace (The Palace of Placentia) was also used as a place to receive guests; in 1636, the newly arrived Spanish Ambassador stayed there for more than a week.


So, Charles wanted the plague victims removed from the community and contributed £40 to building the pest house (around £7,000 in 2021 — a bit shameful, all things considered).[10]


The Pest House

1810 copy of Samuel Travers’s 1695 map of the Royal Manor of Greenwich / Credit: Greenwich Historical Society
1810 copy of Samuel Travers’s 1695 map of the Royal Manor of Greenwich / Credit: Greenwich Historical Society

From the map above, we can see the pest house is just left of the centre. Its entrance was on what is now known as Blissett Street[11] , and the pest house was on Maidenstone Hill. In the top left of the map, the bowling green is where the old Green Man pub once stood.


Below is the full map so you can get your bearings.

Pest houses were not uncommon — they acted as isolation hospitals and were used within many of the poorer communities. Local parish accounts describe the materials used to build the pest house but not what it looked like.[12]


From these records, we can tell that it was built from brick and wood and was heated by coal. The accounts also suggest that only six to seven patients were cared for at one time (based on the costs entered).[13] Below is what a similar pest house looked like in London.

Pest house. Illustration for A Journal of the Plague Year (SPCK, 1878)

Each pest house had to abide by the Pest House Rules and Orders.

National Archives: Orders for the prevention of the plague 1666 (SP29/155 f102)
National Archives: Orders for the prevention of the plague 1666 (SP29/155 f102)

If you’d like to read the full translation, click here but for our purposes, Rule 13 states that:

None dying of the Plague be buried in Churches, or Church-yards (unless they be large, and then to have a place assigned for that use (where other bodies are not usually buried) Boarded or Paled in Ten foot high) but in some other convenient places, and that a good quantity of unslakt Lime be put into the Graves with such bodies, and that such Graves be not after opened within the space of a year or more, less they infect others.

This is an important rule to remember as we move on to the next notorious outburst of infection.


The Great Plague (1665-1666)

The Great Plague / Credit: George Routledge & Sons 1890. Printed in colours by Kronheim
The Great Plague / Credit: George Routledge & Sons 1890. Printed in colours by Kronheim

The Great Plague was the next worst outbreak in England since the Black Death of 1348.


According to statistics, London lost roughly 15% of its population.[14] Unfortunately, it’s fairly difficult to provide accurate figures on just how many people that 15% represents — some historians try, but no statistic can be accurate when the records themselves aren’t. That said, some of these estimates will be quoted here.


Around 70,000 deaths were recorded in London alone. However, the true number according to historians, is estimated to be nearer or over 100,000.[15]


The first recorded case was in spring, 1665, in St Giles-in-the-Fields and by September, deaths in London hit a peak of over 7,000 in just one week.

Tis certain [people] died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account.[16]

Contemporary reports detail that the sheer numbers of dead prevented Christian burials from being undertaken ‘so great a multitude eventually died that all the cemeteries of the aforesaid city were insufficient for the burial of the dead. For this reason, many were compelled to bury their dead in places unseemly, not hallowed or blessed; some, it was said, cast the corpses into the river.’[17]


Again, this is an important point to remember — that christian burials were becoming almost impossible.


Plague Pits

Plague Pit / Credit: Taken from Defoe’s Cheap Repository. History of the plague in London in 1665
Plague Pit / Credit: Taken from Defoe’s Cheap Repository. History of the plague in London in 1665

Why did they happen?


Plague pits are scattered across London and its surrounding areas. There are tens, if not hundreds of them.[18]


As the body count grew, so did the need for places to bury the dead. Church graveyards became overwhelmed, and dedicated pits had to be created in open fields. Victim’s corpses were unceremoniously dumped with nothing added to provide their names or commemorate their lives.


The pits were usually dug very deeply to stop any infection from spreading, and lime was used to cover them over. Although most pits were dug for around forty people, the plague pit in Aldgate was documented as holding around 1,200 corpses.[19] When the London Tube tunnels were being built, they would divert around what they believed to be plague pits to prevent releasing the contagion.

London - view from the North - by Hollar - 1665
London - view from the North - by Hollar - 1665

Blackheath and Greenwich

Greenwich in 1637 by Wenceslaus Hollar
Greenwich in 1637 by Wenceslaus Hollar

We were hit almost as badly as the towns and villages closer to London. Blackheath was on the main road to the great city, while Greenwich was on the main shipping and naval route. This meant we weren’t going to get off lightly!


Luckily, from a historical viewpoint, Samuel Pepys, the English diarist and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty (and a member of parliament), moved the naval HQ to Greenwich because it was thought to be a safer place — away from the contagions. He moved his wife to Woolwich while he had a bit of a wild time in his Greenwich pad (another story).

Samuel Pepys / Credit: Godfrey Kneller – Royal Society of Arts
Samuel Pepys / Credit: Godfrey Kneller – Royal Society of Arts

Before the plague, Pepys was a regular visitor of Greenwich and knew it well. It was a ‘resort’[20] for Londoners — somewhere to go for an outing — and in the year of the Great Plague, Pepys enjoyed living here so much that he wrote:

I have never lived so merrily as I have done this plague time.

Lucky man — Greenwich, for most, was ‘miserable and so was the food.’[21] Yet Pepys gives us a first-hand account of life in Greenwich during the Great Plague year — albeit a somewhat fortunate view.


Many historians consider the Great Plague a ‘poor plague’ because the wealthy did a runner to their country homes. This is inevitably true, as it often is, and the poorer communities suffered far greater than those in the classes above them because conditions were ripe for a bit of unsavoury germ spreading.


That said, the plague itself didn’t discriminate, and Pepys gives accounts of friends and colleagues that were lost to it too.


What’s also important to acknowledge is that other major historical events were happening. The world and its sensibility were imploding. Charles II hadn’t long been back on the throne after the English Civil War, and the Anglo-Dutch war was at its peak.


These events were important to Greenwich.


During the Civil War, Greenwich Palace had been a ship’s biscuit factory and a prisoner of war camp. It was in such a bad state that Charles II had to restore it. Yet Greenwich was the gateway for London, and the world, which meant through traffic and the number of foreign visitors were high.


Pepys often wrote what he saw, visually describing how things looked in those times.[22]



But this protection from the 'violence of the contagion' didn’t last. Ships coming from Amsterdam and Hamburg were put into quarantine for thirty days. The plague ‘raged fiercely at Deptford, accounting for 374 burials’[23], but this figure increased in the following year. In Greenwich and Woolwich, the plague began to ‘grow very great’[24].



Pepys goes on to say that he witnessed ‘the madness of the town following a corpse all the way to the grave, in flagrant defiance of the law. The innate desire for ceremony and finality was not to be set aside.’ Along with his navy colleagues, he tried to stop the practice, using his authority as ex officio magistrates of the dockyard town.[25]


Greenwich / Credit: Samuel Owen / Peter Jackson Collection
Greenwich / Credit: Samuel Owen / Peter Jackson Collection

Trying to visualise what was happening in Greenwich and Blackheath at this time can be difficult.


With the Anglo-Dutch wars, press gangs went on the hunt (not just in Greenwich, but around the country). Crew were needed for the ships — the war — and the plague didn’t stop the gangs from doing their shameful deeds.


Press gang boats would scour the Thames looking for crew from non-naval ships; one master of a ship, to protect his men, made them dress in rough grave clothes and lay still on the decks so the press gang wouldn’t go aboard.[26]


In Greenwich, the Navy Office didn’t escape the contagion either; it was overwhelmed by numbers of sick seamen ‘lying before the office doors all night and day, wretched souls.’[27] So many surgeons died with the plague that the Navy couldn’t be staffed adequately.


It got so bad that Charles II issued an order that no goods should be carried up and down the Thames from London and all infected houses should be sealed so no occupants could escape.[28]


At the peak of all this, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a licence ‘for burials in the parish of Greenwich in a churchyard not yet consecrated, being part of Blackheath adjoining to the pesthouse.’(22 August 1665).[29]


The Plague Pits of Blackheath and Greenwich: myth or legend?


Coming back to the purpose of this blog, we can see that plague burials in Blackheath were officially authorised — by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The location was just west of the pest house (top right of the map below).

Burial Ground Location 1737 / Credit: Justin Watson from the Greenwich Historical Society (Morden College Archives)
Burial Ground Location 1737 / Credit: Julian Watson from the Greenwich Historical Society (Morden College Archives)

But does this make the area a plague pit?


Without recorded evidence, there is no way of knowing how many bodies were buried near the pest house. What makes a plague pit is volume — the mass burials.


We know the burial ground wasn’t consecrated and was used for plague victims, especially from 1635 onwards, but this still doesn’t tell us whether Blackheath or Greenwich had what can be defined as plague pits, and it seems there is no answer to this question — yet.


Historic UK has been working on finding and mapping the pits; currently, they state:

Blackheath
Contrary to popular legend, the name ‘Blackheath’ is in no way related to the Black Death! However, it is thought that this area was used to the disposal of plague victims during both the Black Death in the 14th century and the Great Plague in the 17th century.


National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (unconfirmed)
Frommer’s 2012 guide to London reports that a giant pit lies below Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum, although this is unconfirmed.

Let's think about this logically for a moment:


Would the Archbishop of Canterbury authorise burials on unconsecrated ground unless the parish churchyards were overwhelmed?


It seems unlikely plague victims from Blackheath would be carted down the hill to Greenwich — a cart of festering boil-popping bodies rattling along the road. It’s also unlikely that Greenwich victims would be carted up the hill either. This leads to the assumption that there must be a least two burial areas — one of which we do know of at the pest house where skulls and bones have been found.

West Kent Guardian - Saturday 17 December 1842
West Kent Guardian - Saturday 17 December 1842

What happened to the pest house?


The pest house on Maidenstone Hill was eventually demolished, and the land was used to build a new workhouse by the Greenwich Guardians. By 1840, this new workhouse had become redundant, and another new one was built on Vanbrugh Hill.


Today's land and layout are shaped very differently but right in the centre of the map (kindly provided by David Whittaker, who is working on the Maidenstone Hill project) is where the pest house and burial ground used to be.


Where the pest house used to be / Credit: David Whittaker
Where the pest house (blue) and burial ground (green) used to be / Credit: David Whittaker

Many questions remain unanswered, but what we do know is that Blackheath did not get its name from the bodies buried below during the Black Death or Great Plague, even though bodies lurk beneath the ground we walk on. A cheery thought ...

 

If you’d like to subscribe to keep updated, scroll to the footer and sign up. If you’d like to get in touch about anything you’ve read or have more information you’d like to share, please contact Julie at blackheathandgreenwichhistory@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.


The website is a continuous work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me while I do the research.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://lewisham.gov.uk/inmyarea/openspaces/parks/blackheath/the-history-of-blackheath [2] “Translation of the Register of Charterhouse in St John Hope 1925, 7.” [3] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17223184-000-did-bubonic-plague-really-cause-the-black-death/ [4] https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Black-Death/ [5] Dr Eyal Poleg (Queen Mary University of London) How and Why: History – The Black Death [6] Inwood, Stephen. A History of London. London: Papermac, 2000 [7] https://urbanrim.org.uk/plague%20list.htm [8] Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. London: Bracken, 1994 p.5 [9] The Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII from November MDXXIX, to December MDXXXII [10] Plague in the Hundred of Blackheath. By Frances Ward [11] Greenwich Historical Society – https://www.ghsoc.co.uk [12] Greenwich Parish Registers 1615-1666, Greenwich Local History Library [13] Ward, Frances. Plague in the Hundred of Blackheath [14] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/great-plague/ [15] Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. London: Bracken, 1994 [16] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics edition, 1986), p. 246 [17] Sloane, B., 2011. The Black Death in London. The History Press, Stroud, UK [18] https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/LondonPlaguePits/ [19] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics edition, 1986) [20] Aslet, Clive. The Story of Greenwich. Fourth Estate, London. 1999 p. 122 [21] Aslet, Clive. The Story of Greenwich. Fourth Estate, London. 1999 p123 [22] Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. New York: Random House, 1893 [23] Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. London: Bracken, 1994 p201 [24] Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. New York: Random House, 1893 [25] Abraham Braude, Charles Davis, and Joshua Fierer, eds., Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology (Philadelphia, 1986 ), 338 . [26] Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. London: Bracken, 1994 p201 [27] Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. New York: Random House, 1893 [28] State Papers (Domestic) 1664-65 p. 513 [29] Archbishop’s Papers 1664-1667. Gilbert Sheldon. Lambeth Palace Library

Sources


Some excellent local sources for further information are:


  • Plague in the Hundred of Blackheath by Frances Ward found here

  • The Pest House by David Whittaker in the Greenwich Visitor found here


I would also like to thank Mary Mills and Julian Watkins from the Greenwich Historical Society, and David Whittaker, for helping me find the maps and guiding me in the right direction.


  • Abraham Braude, Charles Davis, and Joshua Fierer, eds., Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology (Philadelphia, 1986 ), 338

  • Archbishop’s Papers 1664-1667. Gilbert Sheldon. Lambeth Palace Library

  • Aslet, Clive. The Story of Greenwich. Fourth Estate, London. 1999

  • Bell, Walter George. The Great Plague in London. London: Bracken, 1994

  • Brown, Kevin. Poxed and Scurvied: The Story of Sickness & Health at Sea. Barnsley: Seaforth Pub., 2011

  • Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics edition, 1986)

  • Greenwich Parish Registers 1615-1666, Greenwich Local History Library

  • Holmes, Basil, Mrs. The London Burial Grounds. Notes on Their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York (State): Macmillan and, 1896

  • Inwood, Stephen. A History of London. London: Papermac, 2000

  • Moote, A. Lloyd, and Dorothy C. Moote. The Great Plague: The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006

  • Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. New York: Random House, 1893

  • Sloane, B., 2011. The Black Death in London. The History Press, Stroud, UK

  • State Papers (Domestic) 1664-65 p. 513

  • The Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII from November MDXXIX to December MDXXXII

  • Translation of the Register of Charterhouse in St John Hope 1925, 7

  • Ward, Frances. Plague in the Hundred of Blackheath (found at https://www.ghsoc.co.uk/2020/04/plague-in-the-hundred-of-blackheath-by-frances-ward-ma/)

  • www.historic-uk.com

  • www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

  • www.newscientist.com

  • www.workhouses.org.uk/Greenwich/



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