Beneath a quiet, suburban garden, plague victims can rest in peace

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Asha Mehta spoke to the former occupants of a Peterborough house where workmen dug up skeletons under the garden: could the remains have come from a mass plague pit in which 16th-century victims of the Black Death were buried?

Asha Mehta spoke to the former occupants of a Peterborough house where workmen dug up skeletons under the garden: could the remains have come from a mass plague pit in which 16th-century victims of the Black Death were buried?There can't have been many people who didn't feel a chill down their spine when it was revealed workmen had dug up skeletons under the garden of a Peterborough home. More hair-raising still was the speculation that the ancient human bones could have come from a mass plague pit in which 16th-century victims of the Black Death were buried.

Marjorie Cleminson remembers number the house in Thorpe Park Road, Peterborough, as her dream home.

She and her husband, Douglas Warriner, had poured a chunk of their savings into buying the plot of land and the building was the young couple's big project.

Douglas, an engineer, had planned every detail down to the ground, so when, in the spring of 1957, builders stumbled upon stone coffins and what seemed like an endless supply of bones, he was stunned.

But the shock only lasted fleetingly, with the down-to-earth professional eager that the work should continue quickly.

Marjorie, now 85, and living in Warwick Road, Walton, Peterborough, hasn't forgotten the moment Douglas told her what had been unearthed.

And the discovery last month brought those memories flooding back.

She said: "One of my old neighbours rang to say she had seen something happening at my house, which we all still call it. She said police were there and they had found bones.

"I knew straight away what it was all about.

"When my husband was building the house, they found a mass grave, and then graves with coffins.

"My husband had built a patio, but in the front garden there were stone coffins underneath. It was like a cemetery.

"The pathologist from the hospital came and took some of the remains away for analysis.

"He said the cemetery would extend right across Thorpe Park Road.

"He said the people could have died from the plague."

The plague pit theory has always been the most likely explanation for why the bodies were buried in that patch of land.

In the 16th century, disease struck in Peterborough, and as a grim solution to the mounting toll of bodies, plague pits or mass graves were created, and bodies were shovelled into them.

Neighbour Diana Dunn said: "They established that in the 16th century when there was a plague in Peterborough, they put the bodies in a plague pit.

"Those in coffins were the rich people. Others had been pushed into the pit."

Like the Warriners, the Dunns were not at all fazed by the bones, which Marjorie thinks numbered in their thousands.

Marjorie said: "I remember my husband coming home. He told me they were digging the foundations and they got so far and then hit this solid thing. When they moved the bricks away, they found a stone coffin.

"I did see a skeleton. It was about 5ft tall. It was very small, with a big skull and teeth.

"The person must have died young because the teeth were very good.

"It didn't put us off though. We kept on building. We had started it from scratch. This was going to be our dream house.

"It was over pretty quickly. Six weeks later and it was all buried over again."

It took almost three years to move in, and sadly, Douglas died aged just 42, so he only had six years to enjoy living in his creation.

Marjorie stayed there until 1987, and despite the story of the bones threatening to taint her memory of the house, she refuses to let it influence how she feels about the rambling building.

"I still think of it as my dream house. The Grange nearby was just lovely, with lots of green fields. It was a beautiful area."

However, other people might struggle to shake off the association.

She said: "The people who bought it have asked me to buy it back. They don't want to live there now. They say it's got a voodoo on it."

Doug Easton (23), from Baston, near Stamford, lived in the house from the age of one to 17.

He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up when he saw the photos of the house in The ET and recognised the garden.

He said: "We found a bone under the plum tree at the far end of the back garden."

At the time, the family dismissed it as an animal bone, but the latest developments have got him a little spooked.

He said: "When I was a kid, I used to hear knocking in the walls. I didn't know what to think but having watched Most Haunted, it was the same noise.

"It was really odd. My brother and I used to play football and conkers on the patio, and just 30 to 40cms under us, there were lots of bodies. It makes me feel a bit uneasy. I think they should be left down there."

24 September 2009: Police dig up human remains in suburban Peterborough garden.

Experts study bones to unravel story of their origin

The Medieval bones discovered in the back garden will be put on display in the city museum next year.

A total of eight human skeletons were excavated from the site.

The bones are believed to date back hundreds of years – however, the exact date the bodies were buried will remain a mystery for several months while they are closely examined.

Some of the bones are being pored over by experts at the museum, while others are at the forensic science department of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

Peterborough archaeologist Ben Robinson said: "It has been a fantastic find, and we know that people are interested in these sorts of artefacts.

"We hope that it might provide an answer to some questions about what was in the city hundreds of years ago.

"It is also a fantastic reminder that we live in a historic city such as Peterborough.

"Sometimes we forget about the history we have in this city, so it is always great to find things like this."

Slow and ghastly killer that swept Britain

Bubonic plague was known as the Black Death because the victim's skin turned black in patches, and inflamed glands in the groin, combined with vomiting, a swollen tongue and splitting headaches, made it a slow and ghastly killer.

The plague started in the East, possibly China, and quickly spread through Europe.

Whole communities were wiped out and corpses littered the streets as there was no one left to bury them.

It began in London, in the poor, overcrowded parish of St Giles-in-the-Field.

It started slowly at first, but by May of 1665, 43 had died. In June, 6,137 people died, in July, 17,036 and at its peak in August, 31,159 people died. In all, 15 per cent of the population perished during that terrible summer.

The plague spread to many parts of England.

Like all urban areas in those days, Peterborough suffered outbreaks of plague.

It struck in 1574, 1607, 1625 and 1665 to 1667. Each time a significant part of the population died – up to a third.