A secret burial chamber, built below Britain’s oldest hospital and housing human remains, has been uncovered during preparations for a Royal visit.
The crypt, dating from the 1800s, was unearthed during landscaping works in the Princess Alice Garden at St Bartholomew’s Hospital – a tranquil green space named in honour of Queen Victoria’s grandchild who supported the hospital for more than 65 years.
The discovery came just weeks before a visit from the Duke of Gloucester - the Princess’s son and cousin of late Queen Elizabeth II - who became president of the Barts Guild hospital charity following his mother’s death in 2004.
It was during repairs to the garden floor that landscaping contractors Moolands Ltd came across the entrance to the tomb, which was concealed by a large flagstone.
Beneath lay a small dark room, measuring around two metres squared, containing two coffins, one of which had disintegrated. The other was lead-lined and in good condition, with an ornate design which suggests the people buried there were extremely wealthy.
Scattered around the crypt were other human bones.
Work was put on hold and both the police and archaeological experts were drafted in.
Whilst the crypt’s inhabitants and historical significance remains a mystery, its location, next to a small chapel called Barts-the-Less, may offer some clues. However, neither the church records nor hospital archives shed any light on its existence.
Steve Eames, who led the garden works, said: “A long career in the NHS has thrown up plenty of surprises, but this is my first time finding a tomb! Our main concern was preserving the space and maintaining the dignity of the dead. Perhaps one day we will know the identity of those inside, but in the meantime it only adds to the long history of this great hospital.”
Engineering consultants Perega helped to secure the site by reinforcing the crypt’s roof.
Sam Coleman from the company said: “We had to take precautions to keep the crypt intact as the arch over it was shallow and thin. Brass signs have also been added to make sure that no heavy vehicles or machinery is placed above the area.”
Despite the surprise discovery, the works were completed in time for garden party, hosted by Barts Guild, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 2023.
His Royal Highness met with Guild volunteers as well as staff from the hospital.