Are people buried beneath Blackheath?

Uneven surface, as if you didn't know...

A lot of people come to this blog hoping for an answer to this question. I really am not sure how best to approach it, as there seem to be many different answers. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of mythology about Plague victims being buried there, with little or no historical evidence to back it up, that is apart from this page from a Channel 4 TV programme about The Plague:

Plague Victims Blessed by Priest

The idea that Blackheath got its name from its use as a burial pit goes all the way back to the medieval period, when it was almost certainly used for the disposal of the dead during the ‘Black Death‘. Virtually every part of London has a local tradition about plague pits under, say, the local school or the bakers. Certainly there were pits dug all over the place. The sheer number of bodies meant that the traditional church yards became, as one contemporary put it, ‘overstuft’ very quickly.

Lewisham Council says completely the opposite:

The name ‘Blackheath’ is popularly but erroneously held to derive from its reputed use as a mass burial ground for victims of the Black Death in the 1340s. Less grisly, but more plausible suggestions for the origin of the name, which was recorded as early as the 11th century, are that it stems from Old English words meaning ‘dark soil’ (although the soil is not particularly dark except when wet), or that it is a corruption of ‘bleak heath’. The latter seems the most likely derivation.

I’m more inclined to go along with the Lewisham Council version of events, and also as there is nothing mentioning burial pits in the superb “Blackheath Village and Environs” Volumes 1 or 2 by Neil Rhind (I finally managed to find Volume 2!).

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people buried beneath the heath… It just means that they weren’t plague victims. When you look at how long the heath has been in existence for, and the number of battles, raucous fairs, duels, roman remains, highway robberies, murders, etc that have happened upon it, there can’t possibly NOT be bodies under there…

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Are people buried beneath Blackheath?

  1. Neil R

    Lewisham is right. There is much mention of the so-called Black Death in my volume called “The Heath“. The term Black Death was an early Victorian invention by a Mrs Markham, who wrote popular history books. The French called that particular bout of plague the “Blue Death”.

    Trenching of the Heath over many decades has revealed no remains of plaque victims; it is unlikely that the populace in 1349-50 would have dragged putrifying bodies up the hill to bury them in hard pebbly ground without much if any top soil. Soft ground near the river would have been quicker.

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  6. Ian

    Well I have to say I see a cleansing of history going on here. Seems like the elf and safety brigade from the council have rewritten history. I was born in Dartford and brought up in Sidcup. In the sixties when we went to scholl were absolutely told that Blackheath is so called due to the numbers of bodies buried there during the black death. This would make sense as it has never been built on. Further more we were told the same of Blackfen where I went to junior school, though Blackfen was built on. Lastly the bodies from this catastrophe were buried as far as but no further than Gravesend, which is why it is so called. It is only my opinion but I think I am right.

  7. Jon Lee

    Blackheath is a derivation of bleak heath-so called because it was big and overgrown and you were liable to get muggedwalking accross it. Loads of caves underneath maybe a reason it was never built on but I am no expert on this (..er Neil R perhaps..). Gravesend is about burial at sea. If you died on a boat in the Thames before Gravesend you were buried on shore, after that at sea.

    • Anonymous

      I am interested in your comments about Gravesend. Born and bred in Gravesend I have never heard this. I would love to learn more. Valerie

      • Jon Lee

        Somebody told me that ages ago. No idea who. But…looking at Wikipedia I see no mention of it. Looks like I was wrong and it’s just another urban myth.

      • VALERIE

        John, thanks for the reply. I now live in Waterloo Ontario Canada. Still find history of Gravesend a fasincating topic. Valerie

  8. Anonymous

    I lived in Blackheath and surrounding areas for many years, and I was always lead to believe that the heath was a burial site for the victims of the black death, as for Gravesend as far as I know the name comes from the fact that brges took people from London who died in the Plauge and buried them in Gravesend hence the name GRAVES END, it makes sence to me,
    hope this helps Mark.

  9. VALERIE

    Well, I was always told that at the time of the great fire of London, bodies were floated down on barges to Tilbury ( ‘until buried’) and then taken across to Gravesend.

    • Alan Burkitt-Gray

      Valerie, there were remarkably few bodies after the Great Fire. Traditionally the death toll was eight, though it’s more likely that a lot of bodies were just burned. Remember the fire took several days to progress across the city.
      But the old city was surrounded by fields — Smithfield, Southwark, Bethnal Green and Soho were all open spaces. Why should anyone be mad enough to ship bodies down the river to bury them when there was plenty of space all around? That goes for the 1665 plague too.

  10. VALERIE

    Thanks for your reply, I feel I should reiterate, bodies from the great fire of London were floated, on barges, down the River Thames Making it a little more feasible. Interesting subject! I love hearing peoples input. Valerie

  11. paul gearing

    To anonymous—I think you are right .Modern day interpretation of Gravesend,one would assume it was simply that But 5–600 years ago the word would have been completely different. I once overheard a conversation,supporting the fact that Gravesend is a corruption of wogravesend is urban mythGravesendd

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