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St. Mary Newington Cemetery, Elephant and Castle, Southwark

An archaeological excavation was undertaken by Pre-Construct Archaeology prior to the regeneration of Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre by Southwark Council. This development encompasses the construction of a new Leisure Centre, the grounds which were partially occupied by a portion of the cemetery of the former church of St. Mary Newington.

The fieldwork was undertaken as part of a planning consent in compliance with both the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) Section 12 and the Southwark Plan (Policy 3.19). The investigations were also guided by the regulations of the Disused Burial Ground (Amendment) Act, 1981 and under the terms of a Burial Licence issued by the Ministry of Justice (Licence no: 12-0100, File no: OPR/072/89).

At the time of the excavation the land was occupied by the Sports Hall wing of the former Leisure Centre. To the east lay the swimming pool. The property was redeveloped with the former swimming pool area being remodelled as a 37-storey residential tower block named ‘One The Elephant’. At the time of the archaeological excavation both the sports hall wing and the former swimming pool were undergoing demolition as part of the same project. The evaluation trenches in the former were considered to have exposed a sufficiently complete sample to mitigate this area while the latter was deemed to have removed most of the relevant archaeological evidence. The main area of archaeological investigation was therefore situated to the immediate south of the sports hall, along the boundary with St. Mary’s Churchyard.

An initial archaeological evaluation comprising two trenches was conducted on the site. Following the discovery of post-medieval structures to the south of the sports hall, a desk-based assessment was prepared. As part of the excavation programme, a further six-trench evaluation was completed on the sports hall site, which revealed elements of funerary related structures along the south-west side of the development area.

The main phase of the excavations encompassed a total area of 339.22 m², exposing a series of 25 burial vaults, the footings of St. Gabriel’s Church and a churchyard wall. The brick vaults were found to contain both lead coffins and charnel. The specialist exhumation group (BGS) had been engaged to remove the disarticulated human remains from these vaults. Because of the health risks involved with corroding lead, special care had to be taken with the lead coffins. This was particularly the case where the roofs of the burial vaults were still intact, as demolition here could potentially result in damage to the coffins and uncontrolled releases of decayed lead. In these instances, the fronts of the individual vaults were opened with the use of a three tonne 360-degree mechanical excavator fitted with a breaker. The void within the vault was then filled with demolition crash bags (containing polystyrene chips) and a wooden board was placed on top of these. The roof was then broken by machine and the brickwork was removed by hand. Once the crash bags were lifted the lead coffins could be reached. Rubbings of name plates, where these survived, were taken on tracing paper with graphite and the coffins were lifted. The charnel and the coffins were re-interred at the St. Pancras and Islington Cemetery, East Finchley, London N2 9AG.

The results of these excavations were published in PCA Monograph 23: ‘Tales from the Vaults and other Newington Horror Stories – an archaeological and historical study of Elephant and Castle’s underworld’