Graveyard returns to life

East End primary pupils find they have been playing on top of a Victorian burial site, reports Nick Hilborne.

Beneath a primary school in London's East End archaeologists have found hundreds of bodies, many of them children.

The 19th-century burial ground was uncovered during preliminary building work to convert the playground of St Mary and St Michael Roman Catholic primary, Stepney, to form part of a pound;30 million "learning village", due for completion in 2007.

Dave Lakin, the archaeologist managing the excavation, said the graves all date from the early 1840s to 1854, when the Metropolitan Burials Act closed the central London graveyards and burials moved to suburbs such as Hampstead or Kensal Rise.

During these times wealthy adults were buried deepest, with children interred nearest to the surface.

"The graves were left open, and four or five coffins were stacked on top of each other. Children were always buried near the top which meant that when new graves were dug, their remains were much more likely to be disturbed,"

Mr Lakin said.

As a result, in many London graveyards it has been impossible for archaeologists to estimate the number of dead children.

However, the graveyard beneath the school was in use for only a few years.

There was little need to reuse land, so the graves of the children were well preserved. Traces of wood from the coffins and some handles and coffin plates have been found.

Mr Lakin said the finds would be studied at the Museum of London and the human remains reburied at a cemetery in the north-east of the capital in a service supervised by a priest.

After the graveyard was closed, headstones were removed and the area was turned into a public park. It became a playground when St Mary and St Michael school was built. Pauline De Freitas, the deputy head, said parents and children had been told about the excavation, and the fact that the site had been used for burials.

Paul Barber, director of education at the diocese of Westminster, said the whole area was being redeveloped. The primary school and a new nursery would be combined with two new secondary developments for the Bishop Challoner boys' and girls' schools, and a sixth-form college.

"This area is special to us," Mr Barber said. "The Catholic community in the East End has a tremendous history, and was built up from very poor beginnings."

However this slice of Victorian life, or rather death, is caught up in an ownership dispute between the diocese and a group of parishioners from St Mary and St Michael's Church.

Mr Barber said he was optimistic that the excavation, and the land dispute, would not delay completion of the learning village beyond 2007.


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