Exploring the lives of London’s 19th-century poor

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One of the women buried at New Covent Garden Market. She probably suffered from congenital syphilis and may have been a victim of violence. A small puncture wound is visible on the back of her skull. (IMAGE: Wessex Archaeology)

A cemetery excavated on the site of New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms, near Battersea, is illuminating the lives of some of 19th-century London’s poorest inhabitants. The investigation, which uncovered nearly 100 burials, was carried out by Wessex Archaeology as part of modernisation work on the site by the VINCI St Modwen, in partnership with the Covent Garden Market Authority.

During the 19th century, this burial ground was attached to the church of St George the Martyr in what was then an extremely deprived area. Now post-excavation analysis of human remains recovered from the site is shedding light on the harsh working and living conditions that its inhabitants faced.

‘The study of these remains helps us to understand the harshness of existence of the first modern Londoners, living in a rapidly transforming world,’ said Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, Senior Osteoarchaeologist at Wessex Archaeology. ‘This part of what was to become the metropolis saw a particularly dramatic change from rural market gardens to a heavily industrialised and urbanised environment over just a few years, largely thanks to the construction of the nearby major railway depot.’

She continued, ‘The surrounding assortment of noxious, dangerous, and labour-intensive industries would have made for very poor working and living conditions, although great numbers of people continued to flock to the area to take advantage of work opportunities. Most of those trying to survive in and around the area would have been classed as poor or very poor.’

The high number of infants and children under the age of 12 buried in the cemetery – accounting for 40% of all interments – attests to these harsh conditions, and excavated adult skeletons also speak of poor health and strenuous lives. One older woman’s bones showed signs of congenital syphilis, contracted either in the womb or soon after birth. Despite having suffered with this chronic illness throughout her life, her skeleton also testified to a life of tough physical labour – and of being a victim of violence. In addition to a healed broken nose and a missing front tooth, she also had a small puncture wound on the back of her skull, just behind the right ear, which most likely occurred at or around the time of her death. The examining osteoarchaeologist believes that she may have been stabbed with a thin bladed weapon, like a stiletto.

The remains of an older man also bore witness to several bouts of violence – his nose had been completely flattened, and he had a depressed fracture on his left brow. Like the woman mentioned above, he also suffered from syphilis, though more likely of the venereal variety. After his death, his skull had been cut open by medical practitioners – a procedure that was becoming increasingly common during the mid-19th century, the start of the ‘golden age’ for autopsy.

This article appeared in CA 348.

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