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Stop by the new visitor centre at Brompton Cemetery’s Grade II listed North Lodge. You’ll find a friendly volunteer or two, some leaflets with information about a packed calendar of events, and a screen showing the amazing restoration work that’s recently been completed. What you might not notice in the middle of the newly laid stone floor is the inconspicuous metal outline of a manhole cover. Underneath lies a story that links directly back to the creation of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries.

“On the last pile foundation excavation, we discovered something that nobody knew was there” says Nigel Thorne, Brompton’s Project Manager. “It comprises a large circular York stone lid with an iron ring in it, sitting on top of a brick structure that went down to a depth of about two and a half metres and one and a half metres diameter at its widest point. It is the shape of a traditional Alibaba laundry basket.”

The secret pit

The beautifully crafted bricks date back to when the cemetery was established in 1839. “The unfortunate site agent thought he’d hit an underground tomb” says Nigel. “But we knew there were no burials in that area and never had been. We initially thought it could be a subterranean ice house that had belonged to a previous house or mansion, but again as far as we knew there were no such properties ever on or around the site.

"We then thought it could have been a discrete, perhaps illegal ashes pit for cremations (the first crematorium wasn’t built in England until 1878). That would have been exciting.” So an underground tomb, an old fashioned fridge, or an ash pit? The truth was more mundane but just as intriguing.

"We engaged an archaeologist from the Museum of London, and they determined…it was originally a cess pit servicing the original North Lodge foul waste disposal."

John Snow (no, not that one)

Dr John Snow discovered the cause of the cholera outbreaks that claimed thousands of lives in London in the mid-19th century. Before his study of the outbreak around a water pump in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, a particularly unsanitary area at the time, it was commonly believed that the disease was carried by air.

The real cause of the disease was contaminated water from the overflowing inner city burial grounds, inadequate sewage system and, yes, the city’s many cess pits. The Magnificent Seven cemeteries were built to cope with the overflow of dead bodies, many a result of cholera, and a classic example of the cause lies just beneath the visitor centre floor. But that’s not all.

“As fate would have it, John Snow is buried less than 25 metres away. The man who helped put a stop to the disease and will forever be linked with the cemeteries is right here” says Nigel. “Of all the amazing stories linked with Brompton, this is one of my favourites.”

The new Brompton Cemetery visitor centre is now open, stop by to learn more about the cemetery and our events. There’s also a lovely new café just across the way.

The Secret Pit

Dr John Snow
Dr John Snow, 1813-1858

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