1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: Plague Pits

We subtitled LondonThe Haunted City” for a variety of reasons. It’s haunted by its past, the events that have shaped it continuing to resonate through to the present. Roads follow ancient Roman routes. There’s pubs that have been serving since they brewed their own ale out back and kings still took the name of John. London’s culture is similarly overshadowed by its past. There’s songs in the music halls that have been around for generations, that everybody grew up with and make a jolly singalong because the whole crowd knows them. Traditions such as the Crown’s visit to Parliament, the denial of entry, the hostage being left at the palace, have been going on so long they’ve become formalised rituals that don’t vary so much as a syllable or a step from year to year.

But London is haunted also by the spirits of its past. With the return of magic, not just the psychics can see them. The apple seller died a year ago, and yet there she is, still in apparent business, although only the daft would buy an apple from her now. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street visits her namesake every morning, the ghost of the woman who gave the Bank of England’s main branch its nickname turning up as visible as you or I, and forming part of the duties of the floor manager.

London’s got reason to be haunted. Oh, yes, every European city has had millions of people die within its boundaries. Some have had massacres, been pillaged and their population slaughtered, had pogroms roll through and genocide committed, there’s enough atrocities in any given city to blacken its soul for generations. London, though, London is still hearing the echoes. Let’s talk a little bit about what those set those echoes in motion, and why they’re still heard.

The plague pits might be a good start. Bubonic plague, a terrible disease with disgusting symptoms and massive lethality, swept through Europe for hundreds of years. The greatest of the pandemics, the Black Death, hit in the 1300s and nearly depopulated the continent, entire villages vanishing as there was nobody left to maintain the houses. London wasn’t spared. But London got an extra helping. In the 1600s, the Great Plague of London took a fourth of London, a hundred thousand victims, in a matter of months. That left a horrific number of bodies. Between the sheer volume of corpses and the fear of contagion, the plague pits were created, mass graves where those who died of the plague were unceremoniously shoveled, oft without so much as a prayer, never mind the presence of a priest. A lot of them died too, along with everyone else, there were shortages all round.

So London’s got charnel pits scattered about, some of them still down there, some forgotten, others marked so that nobody digs into them trying to lay a new water-pipe or Tube line. There’s four of them in a line marching up from Grange Tower Bridge to Old Spitalfields Market, on the border between the City and Whitechapel. One got cleaned out and relocated to make way for Aldgate Station, think about that the next time you’re on the Underground. There’s one in Houndsditch, which got its name for where the Romans used to bury their dogs, lovely bit of respect the plague victims got there. Hand Alley, off Bishopsgate Street, has got a small mountain of corpses under the cobbles. And then there’s Artillery Lane, where the plague pit was dug right next to an old Roman cemetery, putting the unhallowed dead cheek by jowl with the pious of a previous civilization.

The West End wasn’t spared either. Oh, yes, there’s more in the East End, always easier to put such things amongst the poor who don’t have the political clout to object, so there’s pits in Shadwell, and Stepney, and Wapping. But there’s one in Christchurch Gardens right slap in the midst of Westminster. Nearby, the old Tothill Fields plague pit extends out from under Vincent Square below the foundations of the nearby government buildings. Imagine the astral corruption of the area, and you’ll maybe understand the political corruption a little more readily.

And that’s just from one event. We haven’t even touched on the purge of William, when the Bastard of Orange swept in with fire and sword, and cemented his rule with mortar half lime and half blood. Or the actions of Edward Longshanks, who was of legitimate birth but a right bastard nonetheless. And then there was Cromwell, who deposed and executed a king. The symbolic value of that ought to be obvious to anyone who’s read even a little in magic theory. The shock waves are still rippling.

So yes, London is haunted. And we were barely able to scratch the surface of why in the London sourcebook. Do a bit of research. Your gaming group could find oh so many nasty secrets in the Smoke.

Tally Ho!