Unearthing Victorian skulduggery

BY TOBY PORTER
toby@slpmedia.co.uk

Archaeologists have found the skeleton of a Victorian man who had been in a series of fights.

The dig in Nine Elms has found the body of a male skeleton who showed signs of having been in a considerable number of scraps during his life. They also found a woman with a stab wound to the head.

The remains of the first modern South Londoners reveal the harshness of existence for the industrial poor.

Archaeologists excavated a cemetery originally on the site of New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms, from the 1830s to the 1850s, as part of the complex’s modernisation programme.

The remains of nearly 100 burials were uncovered on the site of the cemetery attached to the church of St George The Martyr, which had been partially cleared in the 1960s just before New Covent Garden Market was built, as the market relocated from its central London site.

Remains of 6ft man,

Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, senior osteoarchaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “The study of these remains helps us to understand the harshness of existence for the first modern Londoners living in a rapidly transforming world.

“This area 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.

“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, and within a few decades of the closure of the cemetery, Booth’s London Poverty Maps show nearby streets to be the realm of the very ‘lowest class, vicious and semi-criminal’.”

Three burial remains give a picture of those living in the area. The first is an older woman who, despite a lifelong chronic illness, had a strenuous occupation using her upper arms and shoulders.

She had congenital syphilis – a serious infection contracted while in the womb or soon after birth – a broken nose and the loss of a front tooth.

She also had small puncture wound to her skull, from around the time of her death, which was inflicted by a thin blade like a stiletto dagger behind her ear, so she was likely to have been attacked from behind.

The second is a man, nearly 6ft tall, with a completely flattened nose and a depression on his left brow, possibly caused by bare knuckle fighting. He was also badly injured in an accident, probably a fall, that broke bones in his spine and hip.

Both front teeth had been lost, probably due to the enormous cyst on the roof of his mouth. He also suffered from syphilis, though probably the venereal form.  After his death he had been subject to a cranial autopsy.

The final story is of the remains of Jane Clara Jay, who died on March 18, 1847, just short of her second birthday. She was the daughter of Sarah Jay and her labourer husband George James Jay, of Nine Elms, Battersea and was a little sister. There is no evidence as to the cause of her death.

Losing children at such a young age would not have been unusual at the time. Of the 95 excavated burial remains, 40 per cent of them are of children under 12.

New Covent Garden Market is undergoing a major transformation to create a wholesale market for the future. This is a long-term project which will see new market buildings for the 175 businesses, and a new food quarter for London, starting with the recently-opened Food Exchange.

Tim Seddon, property director South-east, St Modwen, said: “This has been a fascinating insight into the history of the site. “We are always keen to respect the heritage while delivering a lasting legacy in the next chapter of this important London market.”

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