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Media fanfare over graveyard dig is ‘a smokescreen hiding HS2 chaos’

Rail scheme's opponents left unimpressed by press and TV coverage

08 November, 2018 — By Tom Foot

An osteologist studies a skeleton excavated for HS2 at the dig site

WHAT’S the best way for the High Speed 2 rail-link team to bury bad news?

By digging up thousands of Camden’s dead, it seems.

This is the view among opponents of the £100billion project who say a bespoke media campaign generating excitement around the exhumation of up to 60,000 skeletons from a graveyard close to Euston masks the pain the new railway is causing the area.

The dig at St James’s Gar­dens began last month, with HS2 arranging what the BBC has billed as “exclusive” access to the operation for its film crews. A documentary, Britain’s Big­gest Dig, is not expected to devote much airtime to protests from residents and businesses around the station, who have been driven from their homes and already seen parts of the area flattened.

Dorothea Hackman, who chairs Camden Civic Society, said: “We are very concerned that High Speed 2 is publicising the archaeological significance of digging up thousands of people laid to rest in St James Gardens as a smokescreen for deeply worrying issues around bringing high-speed rail into Euston.”

She added: “People’s homes and business are being compulsorily taken to be demolished without compensation being paid.

Noise insulation with ventilation is not yet being installed in over 1,000 homes before work begins. There is traffic chaos from road closures, with plans to run huge lorries down residential streets in numbers ex­ceeding what Parliament was told.  “There’s inadequate mitigation for urban areas during construction, and real worry about the cutting retaining wall standing up to the proposed works… the list goes on.”

More than 200 archaeologists and related specialists have started work at St James Gardens, a public park and former cemetery believed to hold the remains of people buried there in the 18th and 19th centuries. National newspapers have published features on the dig in anticipation that the remains of high-profile or historic figures may be discovered.

Captain Matthew Flind­ers, an English navigator, explorer and scientist who led the first circumnavigation of Australia, is believed to be buried there.

The dig site near Euston station

And, as the New Journal reported two years ago, it is thought Bill “the Black Terror” Richmond – a former slave and celebrated bareknuckle boxer favoured by George IV – has a grave there, as well as James Christie, a British naval officer before becoming the leading auctioneer who founded Christie’s in 1766.

Speaking about why there had been such a huge wave of positive publicity for the archaeological dig, Helen Wass, HS2’s head of heritage, said: “It’s human curiosity, about how people lived in those conditions in post-medieval London. “People are always fascinated by their ancestors. What did they dress like? It is our job to be able to tell these people’s stories. All archaeologists should be storytellers, and if we do not then we have sort of failed.”

The cemetery was an overflow burial ground used by St James’s Church in Piccadilly.

Originally designed for 16,000 people, at its height it held 66,000, said Ms Wass. HS2 Ltd is in discussion with the Church of England about what to do with exhumed bodies. “We’re currently working with the Church of England on selecting an appropriate reburial location, taking into considerations various factors,” said Ms Wass.

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