Dem bones | Spa Fields park

This issue, we unearth local tales of, among other things, bodysnatching

From pleasure ground to playground – via graveyard… The Spa Fields park just south of Exmouth Market is a precious piece of local green space. It may not surprise you to hear that in the 18th century, the site and its surroundings were a pleasure ground, where people would come for drinks, entertainment and the supposedly health-giving spa waters (hence the name Spa Fields). It has, however, a more sinister past. From around 1787, it was used as a burial site. A place for the poor to lay their families to rest; a cheaper alternative to the city’s overcrowded churchyards. When it was set up, there was space for 2,722 bodies. Over the course of 50 years, there were, in fact, 80,000 burials. Hmm… It doesn’t quite add up.

Every night, the burial ground staff would move gravestones around in order to give the impression that there was always space for more bodies. And they would exhume bodies and then burn them in the Bone House – which stood on the site of today’s park hut. There’s a plaque recounting this horrible history at the park today.

One gravedigger, Reuben Room, was once quoted as saying: “I’ve been up to my knees in human flesh by jumping on the bodies, so as to cram them into the least possible space at the bottom of the graves.” Another, Joseph Naples, launched a notable career as a “resurrectionist” – that’s a bodysnatcher to you and me. He would sell his “wares” to doctors and anatomists. Naturally, many of the local residents complained about the vile fumes. Some became ill from them, and others simply moved away in disgust. In 1845 Charles Bird, the burial ground’s manager at the time, was dismissed and replaced, but the nightly nightmare continued until 1853, when the site was finally closed.

It was in 1886 that it became a children’s playground, thus paving the way for its more palatable use as a park today. Phew.

David Suchet has been playing Poirot for 25 years, acting in 70 Agatha Christie adaptations that spanned 13 series. But this autumn, he did so for the very last time, in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which aired on ITV on 13 November. It was a two-hour programme, and based on a real book – in it, Poirot is frail and elderly, and in a wheelchair. It’s no secret that Poirot’s “flat” is here in Clerkenwell. The 1930s Grade II Listed Florin Court in Charterhouse Square is used as the location for “Whitehaven Mansions”, his fictional home. The building of 120 flats suffered from a fire in the summer, sadly – you may have heard or noticed.

The interior has always been a set, however. Although the books span 60 years, the production team decided to keep the look to the Thirties throughout the 13 series. That said, there have been two designs: pre-2005, it was white and minimalist; post-2005, it was fancier, more Continental. (By the way, the first style was not strictly Art Deco, and deliberately so. This is because Christie had once stated that Art Deco was too flamboyant for her detective.)

After all this time with Suchet in the role, it’s easy to forget that the actor doesn’t actually live in Florin Court and that the set isn’t actually his home. In a way, it must have started to feel a bit like home to him, over the years… Nerdy fans of the programme have noticed that there are some items he has added to the set himself, such as a clock on the mantelpiece that he apparently found in an antiques shop.

It’s a symbolic item, now that the producers have called time on the show. Move over, Poirot, it’s Sherlock’s turn in Clerkenwell now. For more on Sherlock in Clerkenwell, see the Post, issue 16

There’s much to ponder on if you take a visit to the City Road chapel and museum-home of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to do your musing while sitting in his special exercise chair. It has a very deep, tightly sprung seat so you can bounce up and down in it to simulate horse riding. Clever. You are allowed, however, to take a seat in the chapel’s well preserved Thomas Crapper toilets, which are worth a visit in themselves. A Victorian addition to the 18th century building, they are not something that obviously Wesley, who died in 1791, had the pleasure of using. No, he had to put up with no doubt something much more puritanical.

In the toilets there are eight dark, polished cedarwood cubicles. Inside each one is a high-flushing ceramic loo bearing the stamp “Crapper’s Valveless Waste Preventer”. Each one proudly says “The Venerable Crapper” on the bowl. Each ceramic flush pull carries the instructions: Pull and Let Go. Beyond the cubicles are eight marble-sunk basins. There’s even a decorative floor. It’s a veritable underground shrine to Thomas Crapper, as local author and Spitalfields Life blogger The Gentle Author has remarked. He also made note of the symbolism of there being eight cubicles: “It’s the number of redemption, which is why baptismal fonts are often octagonal.”

Where else could you find such peace with your pees?
“The Gentle Author’s London Album”, £25, is out now.