Today whilst conducting a private Charles Dickens Walking Tour with a colleague, I took a little detour through the back streets of Borough and Southwark to visit two very special and unique places.
This area of London lies just south of the River Thames and since Roman times (like Whitechapel) has been something of the armpit of London. It was close to the city but separate from it and for centuries it was one of the poorest and most violent slums anyway. Whatever London needed but didn’t want inside its city walls, was often dumped just over the river. The most awful prisons imaginable, slaughter houses, brothels, cock fighting, bear pits… whatever the worst bits of history are, they could be found here.
In fact the father of Charles Dickens was sent with his family to a terribe debtors prison and the terrible poverty in the area helped shaped the life and writings of Charles Dickens which showed how in almost 2,000 years, not much had really changed. Actually, it is a little known fact that for most people in Britain, before the Victorian age, their average intake of calories was less than the famine ridden areas of Sub-Saharan Africa today… something that we should all remember.
One of the big industries in this area was that of prostitution. Obviously historic London itself didn’t really want this going on on its turf but there were obviously demands to be met and Southwark / Borough was where this would happen. Much of the land here was owned by the Bishop of Winchester. He and the church made plenty of money from rent and fines from the district and was generally happy to turn a blind eye and in some cases not a blind eye at all to the sinful ways of the ‘Single Women’ as they were politely labelled.
However such women were definitely not to be buried on consecrated ground but they had to be buried somewhere and the answer lay in CrossBones cemetery. Despite not being very large in size, it is estimated that over 15,000 bodies, mostly prostitutes but some criminals and paupers were buried here. I say buried but they were pretty much dumped into mass graves and it reached such a state that in Victorian times, no further burials were allowed from around 1853.
John Stew in his 1598 Survey of London, refers to ‘a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard’. The women who worked in Bankside’s brothels or ‘stews’, were destined to be buried in unhallowed ground. In this part of London rather hypocritically, for five hundred years their trade was licenced and regulated by the church. From the 12th to the 17th century, the Bishop of Winchester was effectively the feudal lord of the manor. His London residence, Winchester Palace, stood between the church (now Southwark Cathedral) and the Clink Prison. The remains of this building can still be seen in nearby Clink St. Many activities that were forbidden within the City walls were permitted and regulated here within The Liberty of the Clink. By Shakespeare’s time, this stretch of the Bankside was established as London’s pleasure quarter, with theatres, bear-pits, taverns and brothels – the ‘stews’, licensed by the Bishop under Ordinances dating from 1161 and signed by Thomas Becket. The women actually enjoyed some protection from the Bishop and for this reason became known as the ‘Winchester Geese’; however when they met their often premature deaths, they were to be denied a Christian burial.
In Victorian times, Redcross Street (which is now Redcross Way) was an overcrowded, cholera-infested slum in The Mint, a notorious criminal ‘rookery’ where policemen feared to tread. Cross Bones was the final resting place for street prostitutes and paupers along with the working poor. It was also the haunt of body-snatchers, seeking specimens for anatomy classes at the nearby Guy’s Hospital. In the 19th century two charitable schools, for boys and girls, were built on the south end of the graveyard, restricting the space for burials.
Following petitions from a Mrs Gwilt, reports by the Board of Health and, finally, an order from Lord Palmerston, Cross Bones was 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 campaign: ‘to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people’. The sale of the site was declared null and void, under the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884). During the 20th century, it was briefly used as a fair-ground and as a timber-yard with sheds and light-industrial workshops.
Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line Extension. Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation, 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’.
Subsequent forensic tests have revealed that the woman was only 4ft 7in tall, aged 16-19 , and that the disease was already well advanced. It is estimated that more than 60% of the 15,000 people buried at Cross Bones were what we would label as children.
Time and again this burial ground has been sought to be bought up by developers desperate to get their hands on what could be lucrative real-estate. Repeatedly though, the actions of local peopl have saved CrossBones. Now, impressive work by volunteers is turning CrossBones into a garden of remembrance.
On 22nd July 2015 which is St Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral led the clergy and congregation in procession to conduct ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration’, in which the burial ground received the church’s blessing for the first time in its long and chequered history. Remembering that the history of London goes way past Christianity, on the 31st October of 2015, the annual Halloween of Crossbones climaxed with the Border Morris dance troupe Wolf’s Head and Vixen ‘dancing with the dead’.
The garden is open to the public most weekdays and some Saturdays, staffed by volunteers. The Crossbones project is bringing Londoners together to protect our heritage for future generations and to maintain a community garden in an area currently undergoing the disruption of massive construction projects. Crossbones is a truly inclusive memorial to ‘the outcast dead’ and to the ordinary working poor, a pilgrimage site of profound spiritual significance and a unique visitor attraction in the very heart of London.
Though work is still ongoing, a number of symoblic areas in the cemetery have already appeared. A pyramid of Oyster shells, oysters being one of the cheapest foods in times past and one of the few that those buried here would have been able to afford.
Infinity symbols in the shape of the figure of eight represent the everlasting and enduring nature of love whils the entrance benefits from a wonderful Goose wing walkway, carved from wood in a mannaer that suggests it is protecting those visiting and residing here.
Once a month, on the evening of the 23rd, a small service of remembrance is held here to remember the outcasts, unwanted, unloved and some of the most unfortunate residents of London that led the mos awful lives imaginable, only to be dumped like waste into the pits of Crossbones.
Below is a short video illustrating some of the history of CrossBones and of the recent efforts to safeguard the site from development.
Of course London is so old and populated that actually I’d imagine that there are the unknown bodies of the dead all over the city, no doubt not far from where some of us are now. Over the millenia, burials grounds are forgotten or developed for the living, not to mention how bodies tend to move outside the boundaries of cemeteries over the years.
The following short film visits some of the hidden burial grounds of London, including Crossbones.
If you’re visiting London next year and want to experience some real London, aside from or as well as the famous sights, be sure to check out my company, Ye Olde England Tours
For more information on Crossbones cemetary or to act as a volunteer for the gardens, please visit http://crossbones.org.uk