I bought a ham and tomato sandwich, a lemonade, and a bag of chips and then I made my way to King Square Gardens, a small park close to where I’m interning. There was nothing particularly unusual about my one-hour lunch break other than the fact that I was walking on top of thousands of bodies.
Before coming to London, I was browsing Buzzfeed UK and found an article about plague pits from the 1600s when the Great Plague wiped out a decent portion of the city. The creepiness of this article didn’t really hit me until I looked at it last week and saw that my internship site was less than a five minute walk from two of them. Okay, how could I resist?
The first pit was just around the corner from the Tesco where I always get lunch. So I was munching on salt and vinegar potato chips when I walked past the first pit without even seeing it. Realizing that I’d gone too far, I pulled up the Historic UK map and tried to find Compton passage. Here’s the plague pit description:
“One of three plague pits arranged by Edward III, Pardon burial ground (also used for criminals and the poor) was to the North of Old Street between St. John’s Street and Goswell Road. This one was huge and used for burials for many centuries.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would there be a sign? A memorial? A historical plaque?
Nope. Nothing. It was an alleyway where two runners brushed past me as I was getting my phone out. Anyone who hadn’t seen Buzzfeed’s article would’ve thought nothing of the alleyway. Obviously, these two runners didn’t. I snapped a picture and then looked for the next plague pit, which had a more goosebump-inducing description.
“Once the site of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Ground, the area was used as a large plague pit between 1664 – 1666. Reputedly a rather shallow grave, residential buildings on top of the site have only been recently constructed. From Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, ‘A piece of ground beyond Goswell Road, near Mount Mill…abundance were buried promiscuously from the parishes of Aldersgate, Clerkenwell and even out of the city.’ Thousands of bodies are thought to lie here.”
Thousands of people buried underneath a paved road. Once again, no marker. No sign. Nothing. The most disturbing part of finding these plague pits was actually not the mere fact that I was trying to find PLAGUE PITS but the fact that 99 percent of people walking over them would never know what (or who) they’re walking on top of. London grew over its own history.
We count on museums to preserve history and the oddities of the past. One of the top museums I wanted to visit, Wellcome, highlights these oddities. Unlike many collections like the Maritime Museum and the British Library, Wellcome doesn’t have a specific focus. The museum started with one (presumably rich?) man, Henry Wellcome, who collected bizarre artifacts and bought interesting objects at auctions. The museum showcased the uncanny art and artifacts that he found, creating weird, quirky, and often risque galleries that carried everything from artificial limbs to scar tissue to a sock karyotype.
A lot of the artwork not only had a science/medical focus, but it had a psychological component to it too, which fascinated me. An audiotrack I listened to featured the voice of a physician who was observing a class of medical school students dissect a human heart for the first time. While many students took their time, one worked abnormally quickly and when he finally detached the heart, he threw his arm in the air and cheered. The physician called it a “mad scientist moment.”
One of the more ostentatious pieces in Wellcome’s Body gallery was a sculpture of fat that undoubtedly takes you by surprise. The artist of I Can’t Help the Way I Feel said he wanted to show how obesity hinders people’s ability to see anything beyond their weight. Their face essentially disappears in a mirror. The psychological burden of obesity may hurt someone’s health in the same way it does physiologically. Wellcome brought together medicine, psychology, and art together in the strangest but most memorable museum I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.