The clearance of the burial site for Euston’s new HS2 railway station is the topic of a new exhibition that’s opened in Piccadilly.

The St James’s Burial Ground was an overflow site for St James’s Church on Piccadilly after it ran out of space, and when it finally closed, there were an estimated 50,000 burials, which had to be carefully excavated and moved.

A project of that sort is not just a sensitive removal of human remains, but also an opportunity to learn about the past, and some of the findings are going on show in the church that provided most of the bodies.

There are two phases to the exhibition, a temporary display open every day, and a couple of special days where archaeologists will unpack some of the objects they found and show them off.

The burial site was unusually rich for archaeologists, thanks in part to the soil being mostly clay, and so while coffins usually rot away quickly, leaving just echoes in the soil, here, once they got down deep enough, there was enough left to study the changes in coffin design over the centuries.

They were also able to trace the changes in burial customs from plain shrowds to people being buried with more conventional clothing. The clothes have rotted away, but the tiny buttons survived and more buttons tells them the clothes were more detailed than simple shrouds.

They’ve also been able to trace the changing fashions in the coffin decorations, from rich fabric covered to plain polished, and the engraving styles in the metal plates attached to the coffins. There are even suggestions in the different styles that some of the burials came from outside London.

With such a large and old site it really highlighted how fashion in death seemed to be as important as in life. However, with a usually slow to change church, more study is being undertaken to find out how fashionable a death could be. Were people being buried in out of date styles because the church was slow to adapt, or was it flexible minded?

During the two open days, a number of these artefacts that tell the story of London’s burials will be on show in St James’s Church and experts from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) will be on site to explain their significance.

For the rest of the exhibition, ghostly figures from the past are sitting in the pews amongst the parishioners.

These brown figures sitting in the brown pews are identified people who were buried at the Euston burial grounds and this exhibition tells their story.

There are explanatory boards, but you can also listen to their story through headphones.

Being just down the road from Fortnum & Mason food store, one of the people they tell the story of is Charled Fortnum, grandson of the founder who was born the same year that Fortnum’s invented the Scotch Egg.

Elsewhere in the church is Elizabeth Mercer, who at some point in her life lost her right leg, but unusually managed to life for some years after the amputation, and the archaeologists can tell from her hands that she used crutches to get around.

Each of the ghostly characters tells their own story, and the explanatory boards shows how the archaeologists are able to piece their lives together from just their burial site.

The exhibition is at St James’s Church in Piccadilly until 1st April and again from 10th to 23rd April. It’s free to visit and open Monday to Saturday between 10am to 4:30pm and Sundays 12 – 6pm.

The two special event dates are, and you need to book tickets for them.

Fittings for the dead: The coffins of St James’s Burial Ground

Tuesday 11th April


Display of the finds

Forget thee? No!: The Grave Goods of St James’s Burial Ground

Sunday 16th April


Display of the finds

The exhibition will later move to the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre between 27th April to 6th June 2023.


Be the first to know what's on in London, and the latest news published on ianVisits.

You can unsubscribe at any time from my weekly emails.

Tagged with: , ,

This website has been running now for over a decade, and while advertising revenue contributes to funding the website, it doesn't cover the costs. That is why I have set up a facility with DonorBox where you can contribute to the costs of the website and time invested in writing and research for the news articles.

It's very similar to the way The Guardian and many smaller websites are now seeking to generate an income in the face of rising costs and declining advertising.

Whether it's a one-off donation or a regular giver, every additional support goes a long way to covering the running costs of this website, and keeping you regularly topped up doses of Londony news and facts.

If you like what you read on here, then please support the website here.

Thank you

One comment
  1. Nigel Headley says:

    No mention here of Matthew Flinders. Surely the most important person in the graveyard.

    Let’s hope they touch on his exploits in Australia.

Home >> News >> London exhibitions