Skip to content

In The Rotunda At The Museum Of London

April 5, 2020
by the gentle author

Have you ever wondered what is in the dark space beneath the rotunda?

I remember the first time I visited the Barbican, it was to see the newly-opened Museum of London and, as I walked up from St Paul’s Cathedral, I was astonished by the towering brick rotunda that confronted me. Only by passing across a bridge over the road could you enter this secret enclave, and within I found a hidden garden spiralling down to a large closed door, just as implacable as the blank walls upon the exterior.

Only recently I discovered the use of this vast construction is as a mausoleum to store the fourteen thousand human remains in the Museum’s collection, sequestered there in their dark castle in the midst of the roundabout. Thus it was the fulfilment of more than thirty years of curiosity when I walked over to London Wall and paid a visit to the interior of the rotunda.

My hosts were Rebecca Redfern & Jelena Beklavac, two Bioarchaeologists who are Curators of Human Osteology at the Museum and my particular interest was the more than ten thousand ex-residents of Spitalfields who now rest in the rotunda. “We look after them,” Rebecca reassured me. “We make sure that anyone who wants to see them is a bona fide researcher,” Jelena, explained as we sipped tea and nibbled chocolate biscuits in the subterranean office of the Department of Human Osteology, prior to visiting the rotunda.

Spitalfields was the largest cemetery ever excavated in an urban centre, I learnt, and is thus of enormous scholarly and human significance. All the skeletons were recorded spatially and chronologically when they were removed over three and a half years, at the time of the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, to create a database of unrivalled scale – permitting the study of human remains from the eleventh century, when the Priory of St Mary Spital was founded, until the Reformation, when the Priory was closed. As well as residents of the Priory, mass burials were found from times of crisis, such as the Famine, when parish churchyards could not cope.

“It’s incredible, they tell us so much about Medieval London – everyday life, the arrival of new diseases, pollution, diet and immigration,” Rebecca revealed, as if she were conveying direct testimony. “It’s a snapshot of people through time,” she added fondly.

I was struck by the use of the word ‘people’ by Rebecca and the phrase ‘such lovely people’ by Jelena, in describing their charges, yet it became apparent that this work brings an intimate appreciation of the lives of the long-dead. “We see the things they suffered and what’s remarkable is that they survived,” Jelena admitted, “People were super-tough and a lot more tolerant to pain.” Rebecca told me of a child afflicted with congenital syphilis who had survived until the age of eleven, evidencing the quality of care provided by the infirmary of St Mary Spital. Equally, there were those with severe, life-threatening head wounds who had recovered, and others with compound fractures and permanent injuries who carried on their lives in spite of their condition. “There must have been quite a lot of interesting looking people walking around in those days,” Jelena suggested, tactfully.

“If you didn’t do what you needed to do, to get food, heat and shelter, you would die,” Rebecca added, “We’ve lost that resilience. Children in Medieval London were riddled with tuberculosis except most recovered.” The outcome of the catastrophies that came upon the City was the genetic transformation of Londoners and, even today, those who are descended from Black Death survivors possess a greater resistance to AIDS and certain cancers. Medieval Londoners were more resistant to infection than their present day counterparts. “People lived in vile conditions but they became hardy and, if you survived to the age of five, you were pretty robust,”Jelena informed me, “Whereas the contemporary culture of cleanliness has disconnected us from our environment.”

Once I had grasped a notion of what is to be learnt from the people in the rotunda, it was time to pay them a visit. So Rebecca, Jelena and I left our teacups behind to trace a path through the Piranesian labyrinth of concrete tunnels beneath the Museum to reach the mausoleum. As the fluorescent tubes flickered into life, all was still within the rotunda and an expanse of steel shelving was revealed, extending into the distance and stacked neatly with cardboard boxes, each containing the mortal remains of a Londoner. “They’re Spitalfields,” indicated my hosts, gesturing in one direction, before turning and pointing out other aisles of shelves, “That’s the Black Death and they’re Romans.” Outside the traffic rumbled and as we passed fire-doors which gave onto the street, I could hear the rush of trucks close by. The identical cardboard boxes were a literal reminder that we are all equal in death.

Extraordinarily, the rotunda was not built to house the dead but simply as a structure to fill the roundabout, yet I am reliably informed the stable low temperature which prevails is ideal for the storage of bones. Inside, it was a curiously unfinished edifice – with raw concrete and a platform from a crane used in the construction still visible and, elsewhere, the builders had left their graffiti. This was a mysterious incidental space for which no plans survive, but that has found its ideal purpose. Entirely lacking in the gothic chills of a cemetery, the rotunda was peaceful and I had no sense of the silent hordes surrounding us, although I am told contract workers sometimes get nervous when they learn what is stored there.

It is the exterior world which which becomes the enigma when you are inside the rotunda, a world of distant traffic noise, of curiously transmuted snatches of conversation upon the Barbican broadwalk above and of the sound of kitchen equipment in the restaurant overhead. But you may be assured that I sensed no discontent among the thousands of supplanted former-residents of Spitalfields, resting there in peace yet with life whirling all around them.

You might also like to read about

A Dead Man In Clerkenwell

At Bow Cemetery

19 Responses leave one →
  1. April 5, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for this extraordinary insight into the use of the rotunda; I wonder what your young self would have thought if he could have opened the door in the hidden garden and discovered what was resting inside?

  2. Geraldine Moyle permalink
    April 5, 2020

    “The outcome of the catastrophies that came upon the City was the genetic transformation of Londoners and, even today, those who are descended from Black Death survivors possess a greater resistance to AIDS and certain cancers. Medieval Londoners were more resistant to infection than their present day counterparts.“

    As I recall, you are not directly descended from Black Death survivors, dear Gentle Author. Nor has any reliable infectious disease expert found a connection between that 14th century plague & Covid-19. Rather, the direction is: Stay Home, Save Lives. Since I’d like to read *your* Spitalfields Life in 2021, & if this post reflects the 5 April date, please STAY HOME.

  3. Sara permalink
    April 5, 2020

    When the Museum of London moves to its new site in Smithfield will the Rotunda still be used as a mausoleum or will a new place be found for it?
    A fascinating article.

  4. April 5, 2020

    What a wonderful feature for a Sunday! Incredible access… I had wondered why the layout was configured the way it is, and now we know. Brilliant

  5. Fiona Larcombe permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Any idea what will happen to them when (if) the planned move to the Smithfield site takes place?

  6. Annie S permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Thank you GA, that’s very interesting.
    I have visited the Museum of London’s store in Wharf Road but I had no idea so much was also kept on the main site.

  7. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Fascinating post…and it makes one wonder what future historians might be able to deduce from present day skeletons about our way of life – curvature of the spine due to too much bending over a computer screen? Dodgy bone formations due to too much time spent on the sofa binge watching? Anything to indicate the obesity crisis? Jogger’s knees?

    And anything to do with the dreaded you know what??

  8. Chris Webb permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Yes, I have always wondered what was in the Rotunda, and I have also always wondered why they didn’t just build the entrance in the main building. The gloomy and obscure elevator the other side of the roundabout is pretty grim. Presumably they are building a new home for these remains at the new site.
    As the number of ancestors we have doubles with each generation back everyone whose ancestors were from the places affected by the Black Death must be descended from at least some survivors.
    I am not convinced by the general “people were tougher back then” argument. Some people might have recovered from diseases which have now been mostly or entirely eradicated but I think I would rather put my trust in modern medicine.
    The respect the remains are treated with is a big contrast with certain other places such as the Paris Catacombs. I could speculate that the less religious people become the more they respect physical remains. The more religious might have the attitude that bones are just the leftovers, and that the real person is the soul that has moved on somewhere else.

  9. Mary permalink
    April 5, 2020

    It is fascinating to read that Londoners descended from Medieval Londoners show immunity to certain diseases, and how pertinent in these troubled times
    I wonder if the remains will stay under the rotunda or eventually move with the Museum of London to its new home.

  10. Jiannis permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Congratulations for the wonderful blog and many thanks for today‘s post, which I found particularly interesting. Have been in that area (and visited the Museum) many times and always wondered what is the purpose of the rotunda. Now I know!

  11. Brenda permalink
    April 5, 2020

    I am so glad I found your wonderful Spitalfieldslife as an outer Londoner and disabled I can no longer get out, even more in these troubled times.
    I’m an avid mudlarking fan and follow Nicola White and Sifinds on Youtube they find some amazing artefacts and give a rundown of their history in London through the years, and how the Thames was used. So thank you for bringing another part of London to life.

  12. paul loften permalink
    April 5, 2020

    When I left school in 1968 my first job was situated in Aldersgate st. I saw the Barbican being built. At the time it was a site of massive unrest with very large police presence due to the building workers strike. I came out of the building I worked in at lunchtime and was forced back by a full-scale riot taking place outside the site where they were bussing in strikebreakers to the chant of “scabs, scabs ! “. There was a huge drop into the foundations and I saw a building worker balanced on the surrounding wall with a number of policemen walking along the wall trying to reach him. I thought ” He is going to fall in there and he did at that moment ” I covered my eyes . I saw the ambulance come and they brought him up . He was alive, I don’t know how, but he just had a broken arm and some other injuries. I think The Rotunda came later on, it was always a mystery to me what was in there.

  13. Saba permalink
    April 5, 2020

    GA, I daily follow you into some corner of life in London that I previously had not even imagined.

    What will future archeologists learn about our generation from our remains? Well, Al Capp, the American cartoonist, said that people were evolving into blobs with out-sized forefingers for pressing buttons. Capp lived before computers came along. Now my hand is definitely reshaped — and hurts — due to computer use.

    I’ll try to find the Museum of London catalog for the bones.

  14. aubrey permalink
    April 5, 2020

    I’ve often attended some Gresham College lectures at The MOL. I had no idea of was down under/beside this building. Now I do. Thank you for the narrative – really fascinating.

  15. April 5, 2020

    One branch of my family originate (earliest record of them there in 1406) from a small and obscure English village which was actually quarantined during the Black Death, estimated death toll 60% and higher than the already dreadful average. Food was left at a crossroads 2 miles outside and they did the soaking money in vinegar/alcohol thing.

    I’ve thought a lot about my possible ancestors recently, oddly enough, often when frustrated by delivery slots. I would rather be around now than in 1349.

    Stay safe everyone, we can get through all this.

  16. Gillian Tindall permalink
    April 5, 2020

    The Museum of London actually has so many bones that it boards some of them out elsewhere. Some years ago, when I was visiting the previous incumbent of St Brides church in Fleet Street, he showed me a stack of boxes kept on shelves in the one-time crypt adjacent to his own office. (The office itself had of course been full of bodies till it was emptied after the church had been wrecked in the blitz: the current occupant seemed quite unfazed by the thought of the previous ones).

    He carefully took down one labelled box to show me the contents. In it was the skeleton – incomplete, but with part of the skull – of Wynkyn de Worde, the main inventor of the process of printing at the end of the 15th century. He brought his skills to London from his native Alsace. Since St Brides is the journalists’ and printers’ church, it seems very fitting that his fragile remnants should have ended up there.

  17. April 5, 2020

    Thank you for this entry, I too wondered what was there and could not understand the way this was built. Your website has the most fascinating information on the East End and Spitalfields, I learn so much each time I read you. It is also good conversation topic with friends who are equally astounded to see your photos and information you provide.

  18. Grwg Tingey permalink
    April 5, 2020

    Reminds me of the OTHER marked circle on the ground, in frontof The Guldhall … making out the periphery of London’s Roman Amphitheatre.
    Especially when I & associates dance in that square!

  19. April 7, 2020

    The world beneath our feet. An ever giving history lesson.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS