In 1789, struggling for space to bury deceased parishioners, St James’s Church in Piccadilly opened a new burial ground some 1.5 miles away in Camden. During its 64-year lifespan, the cemetery became the resting place of c.57,000 Londoners from across the social spectrum, their graves organised into four zones priced according to their proximity to the burial ground’s chapel. Then, between 2017 and 2021, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and Headland Archaeology worked together to excavate the site – which today lies beside Euston Station – ahead of works linked to the HS2 construction programme.
These investigations – the largest project of its kind ever carried out in the UK – uncovered more than 11,000 burials, ranging from grand vaults built for elite families to the rare remains of paupers’ graves containing flimsily made coffins with rope handles. The site’s waterlogged clay – which records attest was as much a trial for Georgian and Victorian gravediggers as it was for the modern excavators – provided perfect conditions for preservation, allowing the archaeologists to uncover evidence not only of the interred individuals, but of their coffins, coffin furniture, and the artefacts that they had been laid to rest with. Analysis of contemporary burial records has also enabled the team to put names to hundreds of people from the cemetery population, and to link this biographical information to the excavated evidence.
Now five of the identified individuals have taken their place in the congregation at St James’s Church once more, thanks to life-size representations that feature in a new exhibition running there through April. The figures were created by laser-scanning five obliging MOLA staff members clad in period costume; these images were then transformed into thin slices, like an MRI scan, and each layer converted into a precisely cut sliver of cardboard. These have now been fitted together to form 3D models. The seated figures can be found in pews around the church, and will remain in place during services and maintain a ghostly presence through the night.
Each figure is accompanied by a hand-held information board summarising what is known about the real-life person that they represent, as well as headphones through which visitors can listen to MOLA staff portraying the individuals, granting insights into their experiences and into the politics, culture, and scandals of their day. The past parishioners featured in the exhibition represent a broad sweep of society: Catherine Mahala Williams, who was buried with her pet parakeet; Charles Fortnum, grandson of one of the co-founders of Fortnum & Mason; stringed instrument-maker and composer Thomas Blomer Phipps; dressmaker Elizabeth Mercer, whose remains testified to her surviving for years after her right leg was amputated below the knee; and Hannah Turner, 72, whose skeleton had been dramatically shaped by a life spent in tight corsets. Their ‘return’ to the church that they would have been so familiar with seems poignantly fitting, and the presence of the figures offers a tangibly human approach to the wealth of archaeological information presented by the exhibition.
Further information Stories of St James’s Burial Ground runs at St James’s Piccadilly from 10 to 23 April, and will transfer to Camden later in the year. Entry is free. There will be two ‘activity days’, on Tuesday 11 April (10am-4.30pm) and Sunday 16 April (1.30-4.30pm), when visitors can meet archaeologists and see some of the artefacts from the site. See www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/archaeology/st-james-gardens-burial-ground for more about the excavation, and www.sjp.org.uk/about-music-arts-ideas/stories-of-st-jamess-burial-ground for more on the exhibition.