Secret London: Part VII – The churchyard of St Ghastly Grim

St Olave, Hart Street, is an ancient church (although largely wrecked during the Blitz and now re-built) in the middle of the City. It is the burial place of its most famous neighbour, the diarist Samuel Pepys who lived and worked in a long-demolished building opposite.

The inscription above the gateway reads, Christus Vivere Mors mihi lucrum, which roughly translates as Christ lives (or Christ is life), death is my reward. The morbid sculpture work on the gateway further advances the theme with one skull wearing a victory wreath. In 1665, only seven years after the skulls were carved, and only one year before it came within a whisker of being destroyed by the Great Fire of London, 365 people were registered for burial here from the Black Death (including the unfortunate Mary Ramsay, credited with bringing the plague to London) – that would have been a person a day carried through these macabre gates in this small parish alone.

This morbid scene prompted Charles Dickens to include it in one of his books and rename it, the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim…

“One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim; touching what men in general call it, I have no information. It lies at the heart of the City, and the Blackwall Railway shrieks at it daily. It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight. ‘Why not?’ I said, in self-excuse. ‘I have been to see the Colosseum by the light of the moon; is it worse to go to see Saint Ghastly Grim by the light of the lightning?’ I repaired to the Saint in a hackney cab, and found the skulls most effective, having the air of a public execution, and seeming, as the lightning flashed, to wink and grin with the pain of the spikes. Having no other person to whom to impart my satisfaction, I communicated it to the driver. So far from being responsive, he surveyed me–he was naturally a bottled-nosed, red-faced man–with a blanched countenance. And as he drove me back, he ever and again glanced in over his shoulder through the little front window of his carriage, as mistrusting that I was a fare originally from a grave in the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim, who might have flitted home again without paying.” – Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller


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