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HS2 triggers country’s biggest programme of grave exhumations

Historians are hoping that the grave of Matthew Flinders – the first person to circumnavigate Australia – might be uncovered.

09 February, 2017 — By Tom Foot

The Rev Anne Stevens conducts a mock funeral service for St James’s Gardens

HIGH Speed 2 is getting ready to bring out Camden’s dead during one of the country’s biggest exhumation programmes.

Archaeologists will move into St James’s Gardens in Cardington Street in the next few months after the estimated £63billion project cleared its final House of Lords hurdle last week.

The public gardens will be completely sealed off from June while a large tent is constructed around it “due to the sensitive nature of the work”. The gardens – which are believed to contain the remains of 40-50,000 people – will eventually be replaced by an entrance to a new HS2 station being built on the west side of Euston station.

Vicar of St Pancras, the Rev Anne Stevens, who has a legal duty to care for her parish’s dead, made a formal plea to the Lords saying HS2 was “needlessly disturbing those that lie there” and that her parish had acquired the gardens after it was closed as a graveyard to keep as a “public amenity”.

A HS2 train

The New Journal revealed in 2012 that the plans would lead to HS2 exhuming an estimated 40-50,000 bodies. History books list St James’s Gardens as an overflow cemetery for St James’s Church, Piccadilly, purchased through an Act of Parliament in 1788.

It is believed that a “wealthier strata” of residents are buried directly beneath the National Temperance Hospital, which is in the process of being demolished for the railway project. The cemetery was closed in 1853 and a chapel that used to stand on the consecrated site demolished.

Among the tombs and graves on the surface are the 200-year-old tomb of the Camden undertakers family Leverton, the church minister John Stebbing, the Christie family, including Captain Charles Christie, whose family tomb says died “in an attack made by a body of Russian Troops” in Persia in 1812, and Edward Christie, who died in Jamaica from a fever “contracted on board a slave ship”.

Historians are hoping that the grave of Matthew Flinders – the first person to circumnavigate Australia – might be uncovered. Unlike in the mid-1860s, when the author Thomas Hardy took charge of the excavation of St Pancras Old Church graveyard, during construction of the Midland’s Railways terminus at St Pancras, all artefacts and human remains will be treated with “respect and care”, say HS2.

A spokesman said: “HS2 will be Britain’s biggest archaeological investigation and St James’s Gardens is one of three key burial sites where we will be able to carry out analysis to further our understanding of our past. This will include scientific research methods to help uncover the story of the burial ground and the careful excavation of the remains of a cross section of local society from the late 18th to 19th centuries.”


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