Black, Bleak or Bubonic?
Abigal asks (heading her email with the endearing phrase ‘to whom it may concern’ which made me smile)
When I was at school I was always taught that The Plague / Black death victims were buried at Blackheath.
I have also heard this on walks and on numerous television programmes.
My mother and I have always believed this to be untrue, to the extent that my mother went to Manor House Library and sought clarification from a local historian.
The friend I am currently debating this issue with is adamant that Black death victims were buried on Blackheath.
I have understood that the reason Blackheath got its name was Bleak Heath – due to dark soil.
Please can you help?
The Phantom replies:
I can but refer you to the definitive Neil Rhind on this subject:
“In modern times it has been easy to fall into the trap of believing that Blackheath took its name from its use as a mass graveyard for victims of the Black Death, despite the name being well established in records before the 12th Century…
…Blackheath derives its name rather mundanely from two old English words meaning black and heath. Black being the colour of the soil, not the gloomy appearance of the surrounding country.”
That’s not, of course, to say that there aren’t mass graves to 14th Century Black Death victims somewhere on the heath – there might be, though Neil Rhind only says it’s ‘widely believed’ and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for the rumour, save that in a later bout of plague, in 1635, ‘the clothing of local victims was burned on the Heath at the expense of Greenwich Parish.’ Of course I only have the original 1987 version of Neil’s book The Heath, not the revised edition, so new evidence could have pitched up, but I’ve not heard anything to that tune.
Greenwich was relatively free of the later epidemics – Sam Pepys sent his wife to Woolwich to get out of central London in summer 1665, though we know from pretty much the only mentions of Westcombe Park in his diary that the area wasn’t entirely free of pestilence:
I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it; but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing: this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.
Not that that seems to have dimmed his day – by the afternoon Pepys had wangled his way into poor old Bagwell’s house and done things with the heavy-hearted cuckold’s wife that even Shameless Sam had to write in Latin.
So, Abigail, you and your mum are right in the name-thing – it’s ‘Black Heath’ for the colour of the soil (presumably if you can find a bit of it that hasn’t been in-filled with WWII rubble it still is that colour) and has been since before the Bubonic Plague was even a twinkle in the eye of a ship’s rat.