Skip to content

Dr Margaret Clegg, Keeper Of Human Remains

October 17, 2022
by the gentle author

Enjoy an atmospheric autumn walk through Spitalfields




“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 morning, until we entered a private door into the dusty netherworld where the lights were dimmer and the atmosphere was calm.

“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


You may also like to read about

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

A Dead Man in Clerkenwell

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 17, 2022

    So pleased to see this article: I was one of those who contacted the Natural History Museum to find out more about my ancestor who was buried in the Christ Church crypt.

    The Human Remains Unit are very helpful and also protective of the remains excavated from the crypt and showed me Sarah’s in her little brown box. They were able to tell me too (and it was comforting to know) she ate well eg fish and meat.

  2. Paul Loften permalink
    October 17, 2022

    The gold denture is fascinating. It must have been excruciating to wear but obviously you had to be wealthy to have one . People must have suffered terribly with their teeth in those days. One doesn’t realise the good fortune of living in times that can save one’s real choppers for their lifetime and being able to eat an apple in their eighties . Thankfully we also have a health service that provides dental care for everyone. Let us hope that this good fortune will continue and be built upon and not destroyed by short sighted greed . Thank you GA and Dr Margaret Clegg for making us aware of this reality

  3. October 17, 2022

    We recently carried out major painting works in the Pathology Dept St Bartholomew’s hospital. There are thousands of human remains held there & it was very strange looking at some of them & thinking what lives they lead.

  4. Sonia Murray permalink
    October 17, 2022

    Gentle Author, thank you for this article! Please thank Dr. Clegg for caring for these remains, and ask her to have the coffin plates transcribed, the bones tested for DNA, and the information made available in print and digitized before the remains are destroyed and their story lost forever. Doing so would be an awesome task, but a very great benefit to countless descendants of the people of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

  5. October 18, 2022

    Like Paul Loften, I was fascinated by the ‘denture’: I still can’t work out how it was fitted! Is there a drawing, or perhaps a model, available, that shows it insdie the mouth?

  6. Marney MacDonald permalink
    October 18, 2022

    As descendants of Jean/John Rondeau Sexton at Christ Church whose remains are at the Natural History Museum we had the extraordinary privilege of viewing them several years ago. We also hope that DNA tests would be done before the final disposition of the remains.

    Rondeau Baker, Marney Baker MacDonald, Karen Baker Martin. Canada

  7. Marcia Howard permalink
    October 19, 2022

    Wouldn’t fancy wearing that denture, gold or not! Astounded knowing there are so many skeletons at the Natural History Museum, especially as my siblings and I spent many many hours there in the first 11 yrs of my life growing up in Chelsea – in walking distance of the Museums at S.Ken

Leave a Reply

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

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS