London Day 7: Cross Bones Graveyard for the Outcast Dead

[Continuing my London adventure recaps from my April trip…]

On Redcross Way in London is a red fence covered with ribbons and fake flowers, an ongoing memorial to the “outcast dead” buried under what is now a concrete lot. This place, known as the Cross Bones Graveyard, was used as a burial ground for prostitutes in medieval London, and then later for paupers into the mid-19th century when it closed in 1853.

The lot itself is off limits to the public, although the gate was unlocked so I snuck around for a quick photo of the memorial inside. Otherwise, it is totally empty, and without the tatters of fabric, strands of plastic beads, and left messages you would have no idea it was a cemetery for an estimated 15,000 people. It’s quite close to the bustle of Borough Market, but the street is much more silent and less traveled. It was in fact forgotten entirely until the 1990s, when it was rediscovered during the construction for the Jubilee subway line, which uncovered 148 skeletons in a mass grave. These skeletons included many stillborn babies, and most of the skeletons showed the effects of poor health and disease.

The prostitutes buried here in the Middle Ages were known as the Winchester Geese, and although they were buried on unconsecrated ground, they worked freely under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester on the South Bank of the Thames at the Liberty of the Clink. The Liberty of the Clink was actually the estates of the Bishop, taking its name from the nearby Clink prison, and the church even made money off the prostitutes due to licensing. Although this area is now within the City of London, it was formerly outside the city boundaries and thus away from its rules. In addition to the brothels, there were other marks vice such as pubs, theatres, bear-pits, and of course prisons like the Clink.

Around the 1760s, it was a graveyard for paupers of a parish in Southwark. The ribbons on the fence are sharpied with the names of the dead, a memorial led by the Friends of the Cross Bones Graveyard, which also holds a monthly vigil.

The graveyard is part of a planned development project by Transport for London and Network Rail, which could potentially surround the cemetery with modern buildings (I think it’s unlikely they would just build over it with the public backlash it would cause). Whatever construction takes place will have to be delicate, as the graves are so close to the surface that teeth sometimes turn up in the soil (one reason it was closed was that the burials were done so shallowly as to cause a health risk as the corpses rotted in the air).

It’s impossible to look at the Cross Bones Graveyard and not think of other spontaneous memorials, whether it’s a street corner at a car crash decorated with photos and flowers for a victim, or even the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, although to compare these all on the same level of loss is impossible and oversimplifying. However, they are all driven by this need to create something to remember in places that without any sort of memorial would be anonymous to the loss attached to them.

3 thoughts on “London Day 7: Cross Bones Graveyard for the Outcast Dead

  1. Wow that is white a discovery. My Blackheath train takes me so close to here evvery day, but I had. No idea!

  2. Katy says:

    beautiful photos – thank you! do come to a monthly vigil… 6:45pm on the 23rd of every month
    Katy
    http://www.crossbones.org.uk has a petition you can sign to help create a public garden at Crossbones

  3. I love your piece about crossbones, so envious. you got beyond the gates. I hope to get back next year or the one after to attend a vigil. It is one of my favourite places in London.

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