The City is a place of fascination and intrigue. I wonder if any other square mile on this planet has experienced such changes as the heart of our City has? From the first Roman settlement near the present Tower of London, to being the world’s premier financial and business heartland: the City has undergone a metamorphosis which has seen it transform from a place where people lived and slept to a place largely inhabited between office hours. Yet relics from the past remain which offered solace and contemplation for generations of lost Londoners.
St Olave Hart Street is an example of such a place. Built on the site of the Battle of London Bridge in 1014 and also the local Parish Church of diarist Samuel Pepys, its small and beautiful Churchyard hides a shocking truth. Thousands of people were interred here and much like Postman’s Park its ground level is significantly higher than the pavement of the street as a result.
Mother Goose was one of those people, as were three hundred plague victims. St Olave Hart Street was the resting place of many Londoners. Unlike what was happening on the Continent where those who died were buried far away from the living to stop infection, plague-dead were permitted to be buried in Churchyards. A covering of quick-lime was spread over the corpse to speed up decomposition and help make room for the next poor unfortunate soul.
Its embattled history captivated the attention of Charles Dickens, who was rather ensconced by the macabre doorway which enclosed the churchyard where centuries of Parishioners were forced into upon their dying breath. Dickens, a well known flâneur, often walked miles at night and it was this Church and its over-saturated graveyard that he immortalised in ‘The Uncommerical Traveller’:
‘It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes atop of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight.’
The Churchyard now has very little that betrays its former use. Nestled in the corner is what I presume to be a watch-house, where sextons would live as on-site security to stop body-snatchers from digging up the recently deceased. Even in an overcrowded City like London where plenty of eyes would have patrolled the streets there was a very real threat of bodies being stolen. Its despicable to think of now but the contents of this open space would have made rich-pickings for any such opportunist.
The five skulls act as guardians to this repository for the dead. Underneath the trio of skulls reads the inscription ‘Christus Vivere Mors mihi lucrum’, which means ”Christ lives, death is my reward’. In a City that has seen as much death as it has change, these three skulls saw Plague sweep the City, witnessed the flames of the Great Fire almost lick the walls of the Church itself and seen Charles Dickens peering up at them in the soaking rain. They still gaze down on us, as we scuttle up and down Seething Lane and will be doing so for many more years to come.