This past week, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, announced that the construction of a high-speed rail link between London and the North of England, known as HS2, would go ahead. This decision was made despite spiralling costs—the estimated bill for the project is a hundred and six billion pounds, nearly double the amount budgeted for it five years ago—and amid concerns that the new tracks laid for the trains, which will travel at speeds of up to two hundred and fifty miles an hour, will cause environmental damage, cutting through wildlife reserves and ancient woodlands. “Yes, it is ambitious, but ambition frankly is what we have lacked for far too long,” Johnson told the House of Commons, on Tuesday. The project was part of his oft-stated post-Brexit goal, he reminded M.P.s, to “unite and level up across the whole country.”
The levelling began some years ago around what is intended to be the southern terminus of the rail line: Euston Station. It was London’s first intercity railway station, opening in 1837, to serve passengers to and from Birmingham, in the West Midlands. (In 1854, the novelist George Eliot recommended the 12:30 p.m. departure to a friend from Coventry: “I reached the Euston station as dusty as an old ledger, but with no other ‘incommodity.’ ”) In the more than hundred and eighty years that Euston has been operational, it has been remodelled several times. A grand neoclassical Doric archway fronting the original station was demolished in 1961 and replaced by a low, concrete, modernist arrivals-and-departures hall that stands today.
The demands of HS2 have already caused another transformation: the eradication of St. James’s Gardens, a former cemetery that lay immediately to the west of the station, and through which the train’s new tracks have been projected to sweep. The burial ground, which was established, in 1788, to serve the parish of St. James’s Church, in Westminster, resembled the city it served, in that it was populous and overcrowded: by the time the cemetery closed, in 1853, more than sixty thousand Londoners had been laid to rest there, according to parish records. As long ago as 1887, much of its footprint was sacrificed to make way for an expansion of the railway; Euston’s Platforms 17 and 18 now lie over what was the pauper’s ground, the cemetery’s most densely utilized area. (What happened to those remains during the station’s nineteenth-century expansion is unknown, but it’s possible that they were simply dug up or built over.) After the expansion of the railway, the remaining acreage of the cemetery was repurposed as a park, with headstones removed to the perimeter. St. James’s Park served generations of living Londoners, offering a small patch of leafy green space for local office workers on their lunch break or for travellers who arrived early for the 12:40 p.m. departure to Manchester.
Late last year, I went to the site of St. James’s Gardens to talk to Caroline Raynor, the project manager and principal archeologist for Costain-Skanska Joint Venture, the construction company engaged by HS2 to prepare the site for further development. The temporary roof that had shielded the excavation from the elements, and also from the gaze of curious onlookers, had recently been removed. All that remained of the gardens, and the cemetery that once lay beneath them, was an enormous pit, with heaps of shovelled-over earth, and the tracks of construction vehicles indenting the blue-gray London clay.
The scale of the project has little in the way of precedent, Raynor explained. According to guidelines issued by Historic England, the governmental body that oversees heritage sites, a large cemetery is generally considered to be one in which two thousand burials have been accommodated. “So obviously we have blown through and past that guidance quite quickly,” Raynor said. She and her team of two hundred workers on the site had disinterred and archeologically excavated slightly more than fifteen thousand individuals, of whom about a tenth have been identified, usually thanks to the information on lead plates with which they were buried. Coffins, which were commonly made of elm in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, have often been well preserved within the clay soil. “Elm is a really robust wood that lasts well in waterlogged conditions,” Raynor explained. “You can still find flowing Roman drains under London made from elm—that lasts thousands of years in the right conditions.”
The discoveries beneath St. James’s Gardens reveal the preoccupations and concerns of Londoners of the time, in life and in death. Prior to the Anatomies Act of 1832, which permitted and regulated the use of corpses for medical research, the threat of disturbance by grave robbers was a serious consideration for anyone actually hoping to rest in peace. For those who could afford them, coffins with complex sets of internal locks and bars were available in high-end funeral parlors, and two have been found on the site. Raynor’s team even uncovered a couple of large stone sarcophagi, of the sort which the ancient Egyptians developed for postmortem security.
The graveyard also reveals that it was possible to elevate one’s social standing even after death: the remains of family members of one tallow chandler were moved from the lower to the upper ground years after their original interments, the chandler’s business having become successful enough to supply the royal household. Information about age, stature, and cause of death being gleaned from the excavation will help shed light on how Londoners lived and died in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Raynor and her team have found evidence of syphilis, sarcoma, and rickets in the skeletons that have been examined, and have also gained insight into some of the brutal cures that were attempted for persistent ailments in a pre-antibiotic, pre-anesthetic era, such as trepanation, the drilling of holes into the skull, which was believed to reduce pressure on the brain.
There have been certain disappointments in the excavation: it has proved impossible to determine the precise burial place or discover the remains of Lord George Gordon, the eccentric aristocrat and Member of Parliament who, in 1780, led fifty thousand anti-Catholic protesters in a march upon Westminster that ended in several days of violent rioting. Gordon was tried and acquitted of high treason, but he was ultimately imprisoned on other charges, having been convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette while in France. He ended his days in Newgate Prison as a pious convert to Judaism, a faith he adopted in the mid-seventeen-eighties; he was interred in St. James’s Gardens in 1793. Unfortunately, the plot in which it is believed he was buried was itself buried again, by the incursion into the cemetery, in the nineteen-sixties, of a boiler house.
Boris Johnson is known for his fondness for spectacular infrastructure projects. As mayor of London, he championed an ill-fated “garden bridge” across the Thames, on which thirty-seven million pounds of public money were expended without a single pile ever being driven. He also called for the construction of an airport on a man-made island to be built in the Thames estuary, which the tabloids helpfully nominated “Boris Island.” More recently, he has floated the notion of building a road bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, a scheme routinely described by observers as “bonkers.” Tuesday’s high-speed-rail announcement came coupled with slightly more earthbound promises: a five-billion-pound investment in the funding of regional bus services and the construction of more bike paths. The first stage of HS2, linking Birmingham to London, is projected to be completed between 2028 and 2031. With an eighty-one-seat parliamentary majority at present, Johnson no doubt hopes still to be heading the government, and waving a flag on the platform, when the trains start rolling into the capital; though even he can barely hope still to be in power by 2040, which is when the line’s northernmost stretches, to Manchester and Leeds, are projected to be completed.
For now, what was once St. James’s Gardens remains a cordoned-off tract of muddy, scarred ground, awaiting the next stage in the area’s evolution from graveyard to city park to planned mass-transit hub. When I met Raynor at the HS2 offices, which are adjacent to the former burial ground, she pointed out that the site we were sitting on had once been occupied by the National Temperance Hospital. When the hospital buildings were demolished to make way for HS2, Raynor went on, she and her team discovered a pair of time capsules that had been placed there by the Victorian grandees who had built the establishment. Two large glass medicine jars containing business cards, newspapers of the day, and publications about the temperance movement had been carefully concealed within the foundation stones, with holes of just the right size having been carved by the stonemason in anticipation of the objects’ interment.
“What this tells us is that the Victorians built things to last, but they also expected that change would happen, and that those buildings would eventually come down,” Raynor said. “They put those time capsules there knowing full well that, while they hoped their buildings and their mark and their legacy would stand forever, in fact, it wouldn’t.” The Victorians were great proponents of change, Raynor remarked. Having razed part of the cemetery for their own station, they anticipated that further change would come—inevitable and unimaginable. “They looked to the future,” she said. “They wanted to build better, and to build better cities. But they recognized that while infrastructure is great, infrastructure is only great because people need it, and the need to do it is driven by human development.”