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.

13 Comments to “Black, Bleak or Bubonic?”

  1. bats says:

    Noooooo, my only interesting fact turns out to be incorrect. Gutted!

  2. Bugs says:

    The story that it was a mass burial area for plague victims gave justification to the fact it was never built upon.

    As this is clearly not true, how has it managed to remain undeveloped? It is not a “park” and one would have though that the land grabbing Victorians would have covered it in villas.

  3. Bugs – It’s actually still owned by a couple Lords of Manors, but was protected as open land under the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1871

  4. Oh, come on, this is just such a ridiculous myth. Put yourself in the position of 14th century Londoners (in the City, the Square Mile). People are dying every day in their hundreds. What do you do with their bodies? Do you put them in carts and trundle them across the narrow, congested London Bridge, then six miles down Watling Street, across Deptford Creek, up Blackheath Hill, and dig graves there? Where there is almost no one to actually dig the graves, because Blackheath is rural.
    No, of course not. You take them to the nearest open space beyond the City walls — Smithfield, maybe. Or somewhere round Mile End. Or just use the graveyards in City churches.

  5. Abigail says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments – and thank you Phantom for posting my email.
    Alan – that has always been another arm of my argument, indeed why wuould horse and carts come up hill from the City of London to bury the dead. I know there was a huge pit in Charterhouse Square (just behind Smithfield meat market)

  6. Nick says:

    As I understand it, Blackheath was originally not flat at all, but more like the area between Vanburgh Park and Charlton Way. Blackheath has been used as a dumping ground for all sorts of rubbish over the years – don’t worry about the dead bodies – allegedly one part of the heath was infilled with thousands of electronic capacitors which had been stockpiled for military radio sets, and are a rich source of lead and other heavy metals ! Try looking at Blackheath on Google Maps satellite view, and look at all the strange shapes lurking under the flat grass.

  7. Nervous around Onions says:


    Bits of it were encroached. The Captains Houses on Shooters Hill Road just west of Stratheden road where built open common land – I think by Angerstein but I’m at work so can’t confirm that. He had to pay a yearly fine to (again I think) the church. I have more details at home so will look them up when I get home if I remember.

  8. Abigail, you’re right. See — note 3 at the end. The monastery at Charterhouse Square was founded to pray for the victims buried in London’s biggest plague pit.
    Nick — I’ve looked at the shapes too, but don’t forget that much of the heath was used for allotments in WW2 and then temporary housing afterwards. All that will have left their marks (as will the lines from football fields which make grass grow differentially for years afterwards).

  9. Nick (more) — There was a radio factory in Blackheath in the 1920s and 1930s — Burndept, behind Grotes Buildings. It was originally based in Deptford (which is where part of the name comes from). But you’d need an awful lot of capacitors to fill even a small hole in Blackheath. Even in the days of valve (vacuum tube) radios, they were rarely more than an inch or so across. They would have had a bit of lead in the soldered joints, but not much more than that.

  10. Nick says:

    Andrew – I wonder if the Burndept factory became the AEI Research Laboratories ? I worked there for a brief time (before I started my apprenticeship with them) in the mid-1960′s, and I can’t remember what they looked like from the outside ! The capacitors allegedly dumped on Blackheath were large 2mF types used in power supplies, and these were about 4 inches by 2 inches by 1 inch, and if you frequented the surplus stores in Tottenham Court Road in the 1960′s, you could buy them for pennies.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Hum I am also guessing that the other related myth that Gravesend was called that because that’s where the graves of those killed by the plague ended (presumably having started on blackheath) – is also untrue.

  12. Abigail says:

    I thought Deptford got its name as there was literally a Deep Ford there? Another question for the Phantom !?

  13. Neil Rhind says:

    I didn’t mean to get involved (as Mr Know-all) but the place name Blackheath for our bit of south east London was well-established in the 9th century – the so-called Black Death was not evident until the period 1349-1350. No trace of burial grounds have been found on the Heath despite trenching over the last 150 years or so.

    We must also remember that Blackheath ah originally stretched from Deptford to Kidbrooke and encompassed the whole of Greenwich Park. Humfrey of Gloucester encroached part of Blackheath in 1432 for his private use; after his detah it was not returned to the Heath but remained as now – Greenwich Royal Park.

    Two extra points:

    The terms “the Black Death” was coined by Mrs Elizabeth Markham who write popular history books in the early to mid 19th century. Beofre her time the BD was known simply as the Plague and, in france, as The Blue Death.

    Nexb boring point: Blackheath is owned by HM The Queen (roughly north of the A2) and the Earl of Dartmouth (roughly south of the A2). It is not common – more correctly it is designated “Manorial Waste”

    Sorry to go on. I must get out more.