During medieval times, most people were buried in parish churchyards wrapped in sheets or shrouds – not in coffins. Eventually, the ground was reopened and re-used after the bones of previous deceased were removed.
In times of plague, however, separate plague pits were dug to deal with the high number of bodies that needed to be buried quickly. One of the earliest plague pits was created in 1348 at Charterhouse Square for victims of the Black Death, so named because the skin of victims turned black.
London’s first cemetery, New Ground, was established in 1569 on land belonging to the Bethlem Hospital. It was available to parishes who needed extra burial space, not only for plague victims, and continued to be used until 1720.
During the Great Plague of 1665, plague pits were also dug within several churchyards, for example at St Brides Fleet Street, St Botolph Aldgate and St Dunstans in the East, Lower Thames Street, which were quickly expanded to accommodate the high number of bodies. Plague victims were also buried in St Pauls churchyard.
Most parish churches within the City were destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, leaving only their churchyards remaining. Following the fire, the sites where the churches stood were used to extend the original churchyards, giving more space for burials.
Few of these extended churchyards exist today – many have been demolished to make way for buildings. However, you can see a remaining example at St Laurence Pountney in the City.