Anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts and historian Dr Yasmin Khan explore the tale of two of Britain’s greatest cities – how one became the capital of a global empire and the other the workshop of the world – through the giant excavations being undertaken at either end of the first stage of the HS2 rail project.
Yasmin uses the historical records to explore the fascinating lives of the extraordinary and ordinary people buried at St James’s – from rapacious empire builders to the astonishing story of a tiny child who was about to be buried in the cemetery, only for it to be discovered that she was still alive.
The archaeologists also reveal the story of James Christie, founder of the world-renowned Christie’s auction house. Yasmin explores how a Scot of humble origins rose to the very top of class-conscious Georgian society.
Alice examines the skeletons of individuals and the contents of their graves to explore how the city shaped the lives of the citizens of Georgian London and how those citizens were obsessed with saving themselves from the grisly scourge that was sweeping London at the time – body snatchers were disgorging fresh bodies from London’s cemeteries and selling them to the growing schools of anatomy in the city.
More than half of those buried in the cemetery are children. The archaeologists discover one incredibly poignant child’s grave good – extremely rare in cemeteries of this era. It is a Queen Anne doll that was clearly the child’s most treasured possession.
And they begin the search for lost Georgian celebrities – from champion boxers to global explorers. It is the first astonishing phase of the story of an excavation that discovers the real-life secrets of a city that changed the world.
They begin by digging deeper into the fortunes of rich and poor in Georgian London through the excavations at St James’s burial ground next to Euston station that will make way for the new HS2 terminus. They are on the hunt for the lost explorer who extended Britain’s empire across the globe.
Several Georgian celebrities were known to have been buried in St James’s, but many of the graves may have been lost to Nazi air raids and the extension of Euston Station in the late 19th century. One such celebrity was black champion boxer Bill Richmond. Born into slavery in colonial America, Richmond gained his freedom fighting for the British in the American War of Independence. His remains may have been lost to the Euston extension, but there are higher hopes for another celebrity – one of the most illustrious explorers of the day, now largely forgotten in the country of his birth.
The episode reveals how many of the poor Londoners buried in the cemetery suffered brutally in its workhouses. Yasmin examines the remarkable workhouse records for St James’s Parish. Within the records, she follows the remarkable story of one family.
After more than two years, the gigantic dig reaches its conclusion, with the 50,000 or so skeletons being prepared to be reburied in the cemetery in Surrey that actually took over from St James’s Gardens when it was closed in 1854.
Up the line at another mammoth dig, the team uncover how Victorian Birmingham grew into a boom town of the Industrial Revolution. On Park Street, archaeologists are excavating a 19th-century burial ground. In Birmingham, 98 per cent of the thousands buried within the cemetery have no markers. For Alice, this represents an opportunity to examine the bones in order to tell the stories of the city of a thousand trades.
Yasmin explores the high infant mortality when she is shown the skeleton of an infant with rickets. It inspires her to explore conditions for children and their families in this crucible of the industrial revolution.
Back at the excavation, Alice explores how skeletons are being discovered with mysterious cut marks and with hands, feet and spinal columns missing. It is a mystery that Alice solves in the final episode of the series.
In this final programme, anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts and historian Dr Yasmin Khan reveal how working-class Victorians made Birmingham one of the most important industrial cities on the planet. The discoveries range from why several mysterious skeletons have strange cut marks on them to the rise of the real Peaky Blinders.
Next to Park Street stands the last glorious remnant of Curzon Street station, the oldest surviving railway terminus in the world and a neoclassical gem, opened in 1838. The archaeologists are uncovering much more of this historic station, including a turntable locomotive shed.
Metres away at the cemetery excavation, Alice explores how this great industrial city that grew from a few thousand to 700,000 residents in just over a century literally left a physical mark on thousands of the skeletons buried at Park Street. She discovers evidence of amputations and bones that have mended, but, in an era when the poor couldn’t afford health care, ten per cent of the skeletons have evidence of poorly healed bone trauma.
Finally, Yasmin discovers what happened to the burial ground after it was full. Remarkably it became a haunt of the real Peaky Blinders, who inspired the successful drama series. But the real Blinders weren’t just one gang – they were a phenomenon.