Cross Bones

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A plaque on the gates, funded by Southwark Council

Cross Bones is a post-medieval disused burial ground in The Borough, Southwark, south London, in what is now known as Redcross Way.

It is believed to have been established originally as an unconsecrated graveyard for "single women," a euphemism for prostitutes, known locally as "Winchester Geese," because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Liberty of the Clink.[1] The liberty lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and as a consequence it became known for its brothels and theatres, as well as bull and bear baiting, activities not permitted within the City itself.[2][3]

The age of the graveyard is unknown. John Stow (1525–1605) wrote of it in A Survey of London in 1598 calling it the "Single Woman's churchyard."[4] By 1769, it had become a pauper's cemetery servicing the poor of St. Saviour[disambiguation needed]'s parish. Up to 15,000 people are believed to have been buried there.[5]

Origins and closure[edit]

Cross Bones gates, decorated with messages and tokens
Makeshift shrine at Halloween
Inside the site

Cross Bones is bounded to the east by Borough High Street and to the west by Redcross Way. Union Street is to the south, with Southwark Street to the north. The earliest known reference to it is from historian and antiquarian John Stow's Survey of London in 1598:

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.[4]

It was closed in 1853 because it was "completely overcharged with dead," and further burials were deemed "inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency."[6] Southwark poet and playwright John Constable writes that, in 1883, the land was sold as a building site, prompting an objection from Lord Brabazon in a letter to The Times, asking that the land be saved from "such desecration."[7] Constable writes that the sale was declared null and void the following year under the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884, and that subsequent attempts to develop the site were opposed by local people, as was its brief use as a fairground.[8]

Excavation[edit]

Excavations were conducted on the land by the Museum of London Archaeology Service between 1991 and 1998 in connection with the construction of London Underground's Jubilee Line. Southwark Council reports that the archeologists found a highly overcrowded graveyard with bodies piled on top of one another. Tests showed those buried had suffered from smallpox, tuberculosis, Paget's disease, osteoarthritis, and vitamin D deficiency.[9] A dig in 1992 uncovered 148 graves, dating from between 1800 and 1853. Over one third of the bodies were perinatal (between 22 weeks gestation and seven days after birth). A further 11 percent were under one year old. The adults were mostly women aged 36 years and older.[2]

The Southwark Mysteries[edit]

Beginning in 1996, local writer John Constable revived the story of Cross Bones. The Southwark Mysteries is a cycle of poems and mystery plays inspired, he writes, by the spirit of a "Winchester Goose" (prostitutes licensed by the Bishop of Winchester) and "the outcast dead".[1] The work has been performed in Shakespeare's Globe and in Southwark Cathedral.[10] Interest generated by The Southwark Mysteries inspired the Cross Bones Halloween festival, celebrated every year since 1998 with a procession, candles and songs.[8]

The graveyard is now established as a site of local importance: Southwark Council nominated it for a blue plaque in 2005.[11] An informal local group, Friends of Cross Bones, is campaigning for a permanent memorial garden,[12] and is instrumental in the halloween events. The graveyard gates in Redcross Way are permanently decorated by a changing array of messages, ribbons, flowers and other tokens; a short memorial vigil ceremony is held at the gates on the 23rd of each month in the early evening.

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Constable, John. The Southwark Mysteries. Oberon Books, 1999, pp. 9, 264-5, 291, 304-5, 338-9.
  2. ^ a b Mikulski, R. Cross Bones burial ground, Museum of London Archeology Service, 28 March 2007; retrieved 19 December 2007.
  3. ^ Kettler, Sarah Valente and Trimble, Carol. The Amateur Historian's Guide to Medieval and Tudor London, 1066-1600, Capital Books, p. 155.
  4. ^ a b Stow, John. A Survey of London. 1598; reprinted in 1633 by Elizabeth Purslow, p. 449. This edition held in Southwark Local Studies Library.
  5. ^ MoLAS monograph. The Cross Bones Burial Ground, Redcross Way, Southwark, London. Museum of London, 1999, pp. vii, 4, 29; Constable, John. Secret Bankside: Walks In the Outlaw Borough. Oberon Books, 2007, pp. 28-29, 80-81, 120-121.
  6. ^ MoLAS monograph. The Cross Bones Burial Ground, Redcross Way, Southwark, London. Museum of London, 1999, pp. vii, 4, 29; "Cross Bones Graveyard", Southwark Council, retrieved 25 December 2007; Walsh, John. "Tales of the City: At the Cross Bones graveyard you can almost hear", The Independent, 14 March 2006.
  7. ^ Lord Brabazon, Letter to the Editor, The Times, 10 November 1883, cited in Constable, John. "Cross Bones graveyard', The Southwark Mysteries website, 2005, retrieved 19 January 2008.
  8. ^ a b Constable, John. "Cross Bones graveyard', The Southwark Mysteries website, 2005, retrieved 19 January 2008.
  9. ^ "Cross Bones Graveyard", Southwark Council, retrieved 25 December 2007.
  10. ^ "Shrouded in History," South London Press, 20 April 2000, p. 6; Petre, Jonathan and Sturdy, Gareth. "Dean Rejects Critics Of Southwark's 'Swearing Jesus' Mystery Play", The Sunday Telegraph, 14 May 2000.
  11. ^ Southwark council
  12. ^ Constable, John. Secret Bankside: Walks In the Outlaw Borough. Oberon Books, 2007, pp. 28-29, 80-81, 120-121.

Further reading[edit]


Coordinates: 51°30′15″N 0°05′35″W / 51.5042°N 0.093°W / 51.5042; -0.093