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Archaeologists discover working on early 19th century burial site discover 'life of drudgery'



Skeleton of woman who was stabbed to death from behind, a bare knuckle boxer whose head was caved in and a malnourished baby reveal the drudgery of Charles Dickens' London

  • Wessex archaeology team is working on around 100 bodies at burial site
  • Discoveries were made at New Covent Garden market in south-west London 
  • They found evidence of people who had led 'a life of drudgery and just surviving'
  • 40% of the bodies they found were children consistent with infant mortality rate 
  • Skeletons had signs of malnutrition, physical deformities, syphilis and violence 

By Victoria Bell For Mailonline

Published: 06:23 EST, 5 December 2018 | Updated: 10:18 EST, 5 December 2018

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Evidence of the hardship and toll of life during the Industrial Revolution on Londoners has been uncovered by archaeologists.

The skeletons of a woman who was stabbed to death from behind, a bare knuckle boxer whose head was caved in and a malnourished baby were among the gruesome finds.

The discoveries were made as a team worked on an early 19th-century burial site located at New Covent Garden market, in the capital's Nine Elms district near Vauxhall, within which about 100 bodies were buried. 

The team found evidence of horrendous working conditions and environment, endemic diseases, physical deformities, malnutrition and deadly violence.   

They revealed three examples of burial remains in particular which offer a fascinating insight into the lives and stories of those living in the area. 

One woman had suffered lifelong congenital syphilis and had led a strenuous working life that involved heavy use of her upper arms and shoulders.

The skeleton showed the woman suffered a broken nose and a fracture to her skull indicating that she had been murdered.

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The skull of a female who died as a result of a stab wound to the head (pictured) Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the harshness of life between the 1830s and the 1850s during early industrial life. The findings showed endemic diseases, physical deformities and  violence
The skull of a female who died as a result of a stab wound to the head (pictured) Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the harshness of life between the 1830s and the 1850s during early industrial life. The findings showed endemic diseases, physical deformities and  violence

The skull of a female who died as a result of a stab wound to the head (pictured) Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the harshness of life between the 1830s and the 1850s during early industrial life. The findings showed endemic diseases, physical deformities and violence

Archaeologists believe that she was attacked, probably from behind and stabbed in the right ear with a thin blade.

A man, who was nearly six feet tall, was found with a flattened nose, a depression on his left brow and  'several violent lacerations' and signs of injury on his knuckles.

Archaeologists indicate that he may have been a bare knuckle boxer, a popular pastime before the adoption of boxing gloves.

The man also suffered from syphilis and had no front teeth, probably due to an enormous cyst on the roof of his mouth. 

One of the burials was more poignant as it had a coffin plate revealing the name of Jane Clara Jay, who died on 18 March 1847, just before her second birthday.

The south-west London site, uncovered by Wessex Archaeology, offers a glimpse into the drudgery of early industrial life between the 1830s and 1850s.

The findings draw a comparison with the themes in Charles Dickens classic novels detailing the harshness of life for the poor, who could be deemed the first modern Londoners.

The excavation of part of a cemetery is originally situated on the site of New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms.  

At the time, the area would have undergone dramatic changes from rural market gardens to a heavily industrialised environment in the space of a few years. 

The area, where most would have flocked for work, would have made for very poor working and living conditions. 

One of the skeletons’ hands showed signs of bare-knuckle fighting. A man, who was nearly six feet tall, was found with a flattened nose, a depression on his left brow and 'several violent lacerations' and signs of injury on his knuckles
One of the skeletons’ hands showed signs of bare-knuckle fighting. A man, who was nearly six feet tall, was found with a flattened nose, a depression on his left brow and 'several violent lacerations' and signs of injury on his knuckles

One of the skeletons’ hands showed signs of bare-knuckle fighting. A man, who was nearly six feet tall, was found with a flattened nose, a depression on his left brow and 'several violent lacerations' and signs of injury on his knuckles

'Most of those trying to survive in and around the area would have been classed as poor or very poor,' Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy from Wessex Archaeology based in Salisbury told Mail Online.

The bodies reveal high levels of chronic infections, including endemic syphilis and signs of malnutrition. 

The skeletal remains, showed that about 40 per cent of the burials were of children under the age of 12, reflected the high infant mortality rates of the time. 

A coffin plate reads ‘Jane Clara Jay. Died 18 March aged one year. Amen.’ One of the burials was notable as it had a coffin plate revealing the name of Jane Clara Jay, who died on 18 March 1847, just before her second birthday. 40 per cent of the bodies found in the burial site were infants 
A coffin plate reads ‘Jane Clara Jay. Died 18 March aged one year. Amen.’ One of the burials was notable as it had a coffin plate revealing the name of Jane Clara Jay, who died on 18 March 1847, just before her second birthday. 40 per cent of the bodies found in the burial site were infants 

A coffin plate reads ‘Jane Clara Jay. Died 18 March aged one year. Amen.’ One of the burials was notable as it had a coffin plate revealing the name of Jane Clara Jay, who died on 18 March 1847, just before her second birthday. 40 per cent of the bodies found in the burial site were infants 

Ms Dinwiddy, a senior osteoarchaeologist said there would have been hideous factories, noxious gases and a lot of construction work.

These were people who had led 'a life of drudgery and just-about surviving,' she said.

'At this time, this area of London would have seen dramatic changes from rural market gardens to heavily urbanised and industrialised environment in the space of a few short years.

Archaeologists indicate that the man may have been a bare knuckle boxer, a popular pastime before the adoption of boxing gloves. His skeleton also showed signs that he suffered from syphilis and had no front teeth, probably due to an enormous cyst on the roof of his mouth
Archaeologists indicate that the man may have been a bare knuckle boxer, a popular pastime before the adoption of boxing gloves. His skeleton also showed signs that he suffered from syphilis and had no front teeth, probably due to an enormous cyst on the roof of his mouth

Archaeologists indicate that the man may have been a bare knuckle boxer, a popular pastime before the adoption of boxing gloves. His skeleton also showed signs that he suffered from syphilis and had no front teeth, probably due to an enormous cyst on the roof of his mouth

 Archaeologists work at the site at Covent Garden Market. The team were surprised by the number of burials beneath what was a car park as they thought the site of the original cemetery had been cleared in the 1960s
 Archaeologists work at the site at Covent Garden Market. The team were surprised by the number of burials beneath what was a car park as they thought the site of the original cemetery had been cleared in the 1960s

 Archaeologists work at the site at Covent Garden Market. The team were surprised by the number of burials beneath what was a car park as they thought the site of the original cemetery had been cleared in the 1960s

'There are hideous factories and noxious gases. Gasworks, big railway depots, a lot of construction work.' 

She added: '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.'   

The team were surprised  by the number of burials beneath what was a car park as  they thought the site of the original cemetery had been cleared in the 1960s. 

Finds from the New Covent Garden project will be shown as part of Digging for Britain on BBC Four at 9pm on Wednesday. 

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