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Dr Margaret Clegg, Keeper of Human Remains

April 9, 2013
by the gentle author

“They were once living, breathing people – they are you.”

In Spitalfields, people often talk of the human remains that were removed from the crypt – nearly a thousand bodies that were once packed in tight during the eighteenth century, safe from resurrectionists and on their way to eternal bliss.

During the nineteen eighties, they were exhumed and transferred to the Natural History Museum where they rest today under the supervision of Dr Margaret Clegg, Head of the Human Remains Unit, who guards them both with loving attention and scholarly rigour, unravelling the stories that these long-ago residents of Spitalfields have to tell us about the quality of their lives and the nature of the human species.

“From the very first lecture I attended on the subject as an undergraduate, I became fascinated by what human remains can tell us about ourselves,” Dr Clegg admitted to me enthusiastically, “You can’t help but feel some kind of relationship when you are working with them. They were once living, breathing people – they are you.”

Dr Clegg led me through the vast cathedral-like museum and we negotiated the swarming mass of humanity that crowded the galleries on that frosty morning, until we entered a private door into the dusty netherworld where the lights were dimmer and the atmosphere was calm. Next week, Dr Clegg is making the trip to Spitalfields to deliver a report on the human remains – a venerable message home from these ex-residents in the form of a lecture at Christ Church – and thus our brief conversation served as a modest preamble to set the scene for this hotly-anticipated event.

“Dr Theya Mollison did the original excavation of the remains in the nineteen-eighties. There were more than nine hundred and for about half we know their age, sex, and when they were born and when they died, from the coffin plates. After they were removed, the remains were brought here to the Natural History Museum for longer-term analysis and study of the effects of occupation and the types of diseases they suffered. We had a large amount of information and could tell who was related to who. We could also tell who died in childbirth, and we have juveniles so we got information on childhood mortality and the funerary practices for children and babies, for example.

We have a special store for human remains at the museum, where each individual is stored in a separate box – it’s primarily bones but some have fingernails and hair. Any bodies that had been preserved were cremated when they were exhumed. The museum applied for a faculty from the Diocese of London to store the bones, the remains are not part of our permanent collection. The first faculty was for ten years and over time a second and third faculty were granted, but this will be the final one during which a decision will be made about the final disposition of the bones. During these years, the bones have been studied intensively. They are quite rare, there are very few such collections in which we know the age and sex of so many. They are probably our most visited and most researched collection. We have our own internal research and visiting researchers come from all over the world - for a wide variety of research purposes, including important work in forensics and evolutionary studies.

I am by training a biological anthropologist, and I am interested in the study of human archaeological remains from the perspective of how they grew and developed and what that can tell us about them.

In Spitalfields, you can compare families of the same age – one that ages quickly and one that ages slowly, which tells us something about the variables when we try to calibrate the date of remains at other sites. You can’t always tell what they did but you can tell, for example, that they used their upper body or that they developed muscles in their arms or legs as a direct result of their occupation. My dad was a printer and when he started out he used a hand press and developed a muscle in his arm as a consequence of using it. He’s seventy-nine and it’s still there. In those days, people started work at twelve or thirteen while the muscles were still developing and these traits quickly became established based upon their occupation. They were the ordinary working people of eighteenth century Spitalfields.

We get half a dozen emails a year from families who want to know if their ancestor who was buried in Christ Church is in the collection, but often I can’t help because they were buried in the churchyard or another part of the church. Occasionally, relatives ask if they can come and see them.”

Bonnet collected during excavations at Christ Church.

Shroud collected during excavations at Christ Church.

Cotton winding sheet collected during excavations at Christ Church.

Gold lower denture formed from a sheet of gold which was cut and folded around the lower molars.

Medicine bottle found in a child’s coffin during excavations at Christ Church.

Archaeological excavations in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, London, 1984-1986.

Excavation images © Natural History Museum

Portrait of Dr Clegg © Sarah Ainslie

Tickets for Dr Clegg’s lecture “LIFE & DEATH IN SPITALFIELDS: The human remains from Christ Church Crypt” on Tuesday 16th April are available from the Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival

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You may also like to read about

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

A Dead Man in Clerkenwell

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

6 Responses leave one →
  1. April 9, 2013

    Fascinating, I wish I lived near enough to attend.

  2. PeterC permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Fascinating article, but why was the crypt cleared? Was it just for research purposes on the bones? Can’t help thinking they should have been left in peace.

  3. Cherub permalink
    April 9, 2013

    I can remember this excavation from the 1980s as I worked in theCity at the time, I’d moved to London in 1984. They used to talk about it when I worked at the SPAB for a time and we had a book on it. We had an open evening once when Dan Cruikshank came with some people on a tour of Spitalfields and I was asked sit in the staff room, tell visitors something about it about it and show them the photos in the book! Think it was something to do with the fact I had a history degree :-)

    Happy days.

  4. Classof65 permalink
    April 12, 2013

    I’ve never seen a winding sheet before and it had never occurred to me that there would be a design on it. Little details like that we would never know without studies being made. I would never have thought to ask about winding sheets and just assumed that they were just plain bed-sheets wrapped around. And you say, “What difference does it make?” and I answer, “It means that someone cared once upon a time….” and that makes a lot of difference to me.

  5. April 1, 2014

    I’m sure these people wouldn’t be happy , knowing their remains had been disturbed. lets face it, they would have paid good money to prevent this in the first place. I think the dead should be laid to rest and left alone.

  6. Joan Chiles permalink
    May 22, 2014

    Shame on me Margaret. I have only just discovered this site although I have great interest in the subject. Still feel over-awed about the visit you kindly arranged for me to actually seeing the bones of my ancestor.

    I hope Hannah is behaving herself!

    Joan from Perth.

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