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Cross Bones Graveyard by John Constable

Cross Bones Graveyard is on Redcross Way, London SE1.

The redevelopment of London SE1 has unearthed a wealth of archaeological treasures. A Roman cemetery on Great Dover Street, containing the remains of a 'female gladiator', is but one of many ancient burial grounds uncovered during building-works.  Around here, it seems that wherever you dig, you dig up the bones of the dead.

Next time you're in The Borough, take a stroll down Redcross Way, the tranquil back-street running parallel to Borough High Street. Close to the junction with Union Street, you'll see a vacant plot of land, enclosed by London Underground boards on which someone has chalked a skull and crossbones and the words: "Touch For Love". The rusty iron gate is adorned with a bronze plaque, ivy, glittering ribbons, flowers, feathers and other curious totems. 

This is Cross Bones, an unconsecrated graveyard going back to medieval times. The Tudor historian John Stow refers to it as a burial ground for 'single women' - a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in Bankside's legalised brothels or 'stews'. In his 1603 Survey of London, Stow writes:

'I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman's churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.'

The burial registers of St Saviour's parish don't distinguish between burials in Cross Bones and those in the churchyard adjoining what is now Southwark Cathedral. However, the long-established local tradition - that Cross Bones was a prostitutes' graveyard - is restated in the Annals of St Mary Overy (1833):

'There is an unconsecrated burial ground known as the Cross Bones at the corner of Redcross Street, formerly called the Single Woman's burial ground, which is said to have been used for this purpose…'

Such women were condemned to be buried in unhallowed ground. Yet many were actually licensed by the church. For some 500 years, the Bishop of Winchester exercised sole authority within Bankside's 'Liberty of The Clink', including the right to licence prostitutes under a Royal Ordinance dating back to 1161. These women became known as 'Winchester Geese'.

Cromwell and the Puritans shut down the Bankside pleasure quarter, with its bear-pits, theatres, taverns and stews. By Victorian times, the area around Cross Bones was  known as The Mint - an overcrowded, cholera-infested slum, and a notorious thieves quarter. When William Booth was conducting his survey of poverty, his researcher George Duckworth described it as:

'… a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding, is unrivalled in anything I have hitherto seen in London.'

Duckworth walked around The Mint with a policeman who told him: 'Police don't go down here unless they have to, and never singly.' Around this time, Cross Bones witnessed many a pauper's burial. It was also the haunt of body-snatchers, seeking specimens for the anatomy classes at nearby Guy's Hospital.

The graveyard was finally closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was 'completely overcharged with dead' and that 'further burials' would be 'inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency'. In 1883, it was sold as a building site, prompting Lord Brabazon to write to The Times:

'… with a view to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people.' (10th November 1883)

The following year the sale was declared null and void, under the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884).  Subsequent attempts to develop the site were fiercely resisted by local people. The land was briefly used as a fair-ground:

'… until an action was taken against the showmen for abatement of the nuisance caused by steam organs and noisy music.'

Apart from these minor intrusions, the graveyard slept peacefully and unmolested for the best part of a century. Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station to supply power for the Jubilee Line Extension. Prior to the work, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation of the site, removing some 148 skeletons. By their own estimate, these represented: '…less than 1% of the total number of burials that were made at this site.' Some were exhibited at the Museum's 1998 London Bodies exhibition, including:

'… a young woman's syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions, from Red Cross Way, Southwark, 18th century'.'

By then, the secret history of the graveyard had erupted into my own life and work. On 23rd November 1996, I wrote the first of many poems and plays inspired by the spirit of a Winchester Goose. In the middle of that night, I walked up Redcross Way, unaware of its true significance, with an unquiet spirit whispering in my ear:

'For tonight in Hell, they are tolling the bell
For the Whore that lay at The Tabard
And well we know how the carrion crow
Doth feast in our Cross Bones Graveyard.'

Only after writing these words did I discover that Cross Bones was a real historical place. When I found out that London Underground had just dug it up, it gave me 'Goose bumps'! It was as if I'd tapped into what was happening in my own back-yard: had somehow channelled the spirit of The Goose.

I felt I had to try to heal this wounded spirit, by giving her a voice. In the course of the work, our relationship seemed to transform. It was she who had returned to heal me - and all the other people touched by the spirit of her sacred place.

You could say that this 'Goose' was the true author of The Southwark Mysteries, my epic cycle of poems and Mystery Plays, which was later published, and performed in Shakespeare's Globe and Southwark Cathedral. Far from making me lose the plot, she'd connected me with my neighbourhood in a truly creative and life-affirming way.

We've since conducted many rituals and community events at the graveyard. The rituals are simple, inclusive and non-dogmatic, emphasising respect for 'the Ancestors', and honouring the spirit of this particular place. The Halloween of Cross Bones has been observed every Halloween night since 1998, with hundreds of people making the candlelit procession to the site, to honour 'the outcast dead' with candles, incense, songs and offerings. By another curious stroke of synchronicity, the first Halloween of Cross Bones coincided with the London Bodies exhibition at the Museum of London.

Some of us meet regularly, as an informal Southwark Mysteries / Friends of Cross Bones group. We've taken it upon ourselves to clear rubbish from the vicinity of the gate, and to replenish our spontaneous shrine with fresh flowers and other tokens. The group recently secured Southwark Council 'Cleaner Greener' funding for the six planters of ivy and the bronze memorial plaque now mounted on the gates. We are also campaigning for at least a part of this historic burial ground to be rededicated as a memorial garden.

In 2002, Southwark Council refused planning permission for three office-blocks to be erected on the graveyard. The commercial value of the site means the development of the site is likely in the longer term. However, unless such developments are sensitive to the original nature of the site, they risk desecrating the past, arousing the opposition of present-day residents, and being condemned by future generations.

Friends of Cross Bones are proposing that any plans for future developments should reserve an area (between the Redcross Way gate and the junction with Union Square) as a Cross Bones memorial park. This might be only a small plot of land, with a tree and a tombstone - perhaps bearing the inscription: 'The Outcast Dead' - with a brief account of the history of this paupers' graveyard. We ask that such a pocket-park should also include the iron gates that over the past ten years have been transformed into a people's shrine.

At a time when green spaces are rapidly being swallowed up by new developments and when tourism is a vital part of the local economy, what could be better than to re-establish a public park and an important visitor attraction in the very heart of The Borough?

© John Constable, Southwark 2005

for more information, and to sign the petition to create a
memorial garden, please
visit the main Cross Bones website at

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