- 17 Aug 2013
- The Weekend Australian
- SIMON DE BRUXELLES
- THE TIMES
FOR centuries, the great and the good made their way to Bath, in England’s southwest, hoping for a cure in its famous hot springs. When the mineral-rich baths failed to work their magic, many stayed on — under the floor of Bath Abbey.
Now, to their dismay, restorers have discovered that the floor of the historic building is resting not on the foundations of its Norman predecessor, but on the bones of as many as 6000 people.
Work being carried out to repair subsidence and install underfloor heating has uncovered significant ‘‘voids’’ once filled with the bodies of those interred directly beneath its floor.
In some places the only thing holding up the floor are slabs that once marked graves.
Memorials now mark the graves of such celebrities as Arthur Phillip, Sydney’s founder and NSW’s first governor, and the economist and population control advocate Thomas ‘‘Gloomy’’ Malthus.
The work is the first stage of an £18 million ($30m) project to fix the subsidence and build underground facilities for the tens of thousands who visit the abbey each year.
Charles Curnock, director of the Footprint project, said: ‘‘The archaeologists told us that we’d find the walls of the Norman cathedral (and) that we could fix concrete and steel beams to support the new floor, but when we dug down, we discovered the stone had been rubbed out and there was literally nothing there. There was just fresh air beneath one of the main pillars. We were quite surprised the floor hadn’t collapsed already on us.’’
The problem has been compounded by the work of 19th-century restorers.
Mr Curnock said: ‘‘They basically churned up the graves that were there and broke them up to try and consolidate the floor. The way they treated them was pretty agricultural.
‘‘Some of the burials are still intact but many of the bones have been mixed up and thrown back. Many of them would have belonged to the B-list celebrities of the 18th century. They would come here from across Britain and the empire and when the hot water didn’t work, they’d be buried in the abbey.’’