The original suburbs were places of marginality, madness and death. The Romans laid out their cemeteries here, in the edgelands of Spitalfields and Bishopsgate. Toxic, noisome industries such as leather-working were often pushed out here too, beyond the boundaries of the city, along with plague pits, playhouses, brothels and asylums. In 1602 Sir Stephen Soame called the liberties of London ‘the very sinke of sinne, the nursery of nawghtie and lewd places’.
The concourse of Liverpool Street station was dug out on the site of the thirteenth-century Bethlehem Hospital, the ur-madhouse which has bequeathed to us the contracted name ‘Bedlam’. It is remembered today by a blue plaque on the wall between McDonald’s and the Andaz hotel. This accretion of uses – asylum, rail terminus, fast-food restaurant – manifests as a kind of double vision, a hallucination in which the frenzy of rush-hour commuters appears as a scene from the terrifying imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.
I am walking south towards London Wall – that stretch of highway between Bishopsgate and the Barbican that follows the line of the original Roman boundary. The left side of Blomfield Street is dominated by building works for the new Crossrail station, but its gentle meander is unmistakably the course of the Walbrook; the pronounced camber of the road and the numerous manholes sunk into its surface are further signs of our hidden waterway.
[I] follow the slight incline into Finsbury Circus and find [myself] in a crescent of tall, neoclassical buildings surrounding an enclosed garden. Today the garden has been colonized by works for the new railway. With its whale-grey Portakabins and giant mechanical diggers, it has all the grace of an abandoned terraforming installation.
In the 1980s a Roman cemetery was discovered on the north side of Finsbury Circus: 132 burials, including some cremations. Osteoarchaeologist Natasha Powers once described the scene to me as ‘CSI Walbrook’. Two bodies were found crouched in pits, as if they had been interred alive. One body was unearthed without its head, presumed decapitated. Two corpses were found with leg rings, and evidence of de-fleshing (the removal of flesh and organs from a body before burial). In one burial, a woman and a young man were lying prone, as if they had been holding each other when they went in. It seems a strange place to bury the dead, in the soggy northern margins of the city. When the Walbrook flooded, as Powers explained, the cemetery would have turned into a swamp. The bloated stream carried such force that stone sarcophagi were raised from their beds and scoured clean of their cargo, sending fractured skeletons and decomposing corpses cascading downstream like so much unwanted river-junk.
In the 1860s the pioneering archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers discovered a massive hoard of crania in an alluvial channel of the Walbrook near Cannon Street. Conditioned by his long career in the British Army, Pitt Rivers thought these skulls the remains of Roman legionaries decapitated by Venedoti fighters from Gwynedd (an alternative theory has them as victims of Boudicca’s annihilation of London in AD 60/61). Powers disagrees; the skulls, she contends, were washed downstream from the Roman cemetery at Finsbury Circus. According to her research, bodies disturbed by flooding might easily have been carried by a swollen stream, breaking up in a predictable sequence: first go the hands and wrists, then the feet. Next comes the head, and the mandible (the lower jaw). The legs and arm begin to separate, and you’re left with a floating torso. The river sifts each body into its composite parts, much as it does to any flotsam and jetsam, depositing each body part in a different spot along its course. The skulls, she told me, being round and heavy, were carried the furthest. They ‘bounced’ along the riverbed all the way through the city, where they gathered in an underwater spoil heap – awaiting Pitt Rivers’s grand reveal.