The mass grave was discovered under the Geoffrey Chaucer Technical College (now Globe Academy) last year, when builders were digging foundations for an extension.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London, who assessed the site, judged it to be a 200 year-old burial pit for smallpox victims.
Derek Seeley, lead archaeologist, said it would have been very easy for a grave like this to be forgotten about and built over. “There were no markings, no headstones,” he said. “Two maps of the area exist from around that time, one from the 1790s and one from the 1850s, and neither show the site as a cemetery,” he added, concluding that the bodies are thought to have been buried sometime between these dates.
Southwark council health and safety officials oversaw the removal of the bodies, which were not considered a smallpox risk. The site was sheltered from the public eye to preserve a sense of dignity for those who had been buried there.
The remains have now been laid to rest in Canvey, Essex, in a raised area that the graveyard’s managers aim to use as a windbreak for the rest of the cemetery. T Cribb and Sons, who runs the graveyard and was contracted to move the bones, have said they occupy an area unsuitable for conventional burials but a memorial would be erected.
However, leader of Canvey Town Council David Blackwell has condemned the move, accusing London of using Canvey as a dumping ground for anything unwanted. He said: “I wouldn’t like the thought of my relatives being used as a windbreak. Many local residents have raised concerns about this matter with me; we don’t want Canvey turning into London’s boneyard.”
Spokespeople from Southwark council and the Museum of London both told The Platform a local burial site would certainly have been preferred, but in this case it was not possible. They were also keen to point out that the bodies were not dumped, but removed and re-interred by professionals according to the burial licence.