Fears Chinese embassy plan could unearth plague bodies

Chinese embassy planned for Royal Mint site

China sent letters to Wapping residents over the weekend explaining its plans for the embassy, cultural centre, office space and staff accommodation on the former Royal Mint site. - Credit: LDRS

Fears that China’s plans to build its largest European embassy on the former Royal Mint site could unearth the bodies of thousands of bubonic plague victims have been raised with Historic England.

Beijing bought the site near the Tower of London for £250million in 2018 and started consulting with residents last month.

It wants to create a “welcoming public face for China”, with office space and staff accommodation, having outgrown its current embassy in Marylebone.

The Royal Mint was built in 1809 on the site of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, the cemetery of which contained mass graves for victims of the Black Death.

This week Tower Hamlets councillors raised concerns that China’s plans to build secure basements and underground meeting rooms will disturb bodies and the abbey’s foundations.

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Cllr Peter Golds said: “This is a site of major historical importance. My concern is that across this site will be foundations and artefacts… and the burial sites of victims of the Black Death.”

The Black Death is the deadliest plague in human history killing up to 200 million people worldwide.  It thought to have reached England in June 1348 in sailors who arrived at Weymouth from France and hit London in the Autumn, claiming the lives of 30 to 50 per cent of residents.

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Part of the Royal Mint site was excavated between 1986 and 1988, uncovering three mass burial trenches with 762 bodies.

Cllr Golds added: “Only part of the site has been excavated and I am therefore asking Historic England undertakes a full and proper survey of the site to ensure the former Abbey foundations are protected for future generations.

“Furthermore I hope that an investigation is undertaken to see if the proposed developments impede on the unexcavated burial sites.

“If so, steps should be taken to remove remains with care and dignity.”

Cllr Golds added: “Only part of the site has been excavated and I am therefore asking Historic England undertakes a full and proper survey of the site to ensure the former abbey foundations are protected for future generations.”

Historic England confirmed that the Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service was contacted for pre-application advice. “Any advice Historic England provide in pre-application stage is confidential,” it said.

But added that the archaeology at the site was “highly important” and had been included in the same Tier 1 Archaeological Priority Area as the Tower of London and the former Royal Mint building itself is Grade II* listed. 

We are in contact with the prospective applicants, and have emphasised the importance of preserving the intact Abbey remains, identifying and tightly limiting any impacts to the surviving mediaeval burials, and undertaking thorough archaeological investigation and recording,” a spokesman said.

“The proposals for the site are at pre-application stage, and we will continue to advise on the impact on key historic elements both above and below ground as the plans for a new embassy develop, to minimise harm and maximise understanding of the site’s rich history.”

It comes as China’s reported persecution of Uighur Muslims has also led to opposition to the embassy in Tower Hamlets, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the UK.

China’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming wrote to the borough’s mayor John Biggs last month to say he believes councillors are “attempting to disrupt” the project.

A council spokesman said: “The redevelopment of the historic former Royal Mint site is important for Tower Hamlets as well as the rest of the country.”

The Chinese embassy was contacted for comment.

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