Cross Bones graveyard

20 January 2012

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’ – John Stow, Survey of London, 1598.

One of the saddest spots in central London, a few minutes walk away from the busy, thriving Borough Market in Southwark, Cross Bones graveyard is the final resting place of around 15,000 Londoners, mostly women and infants who were denied a proper burial in consecrated ground, either because of profession (prostitutes and, for a long time, actresses were banned from proper burial) or because they died before they could be baptised.

The earliest burials at the site were of local prostitutes, who were also familiarly known as Winchester Geese as they had been licensed since 1161 by the Bishop of Winchester to work the streets and alleys of the Liberty of the Clink area of Southwark, which was well known to be a squalid den of vice, iniquity and crime. In Medieval London, ‘goose bumps’ was a charming and somewhat alarming term commonly used to describe the first signs of venereal disease, most probably caught in the stews of Southwark around the notorious Clink prison.

Photo – Inspector Juve.

Denied proper burial thanks to their trade, the prostitutes of the area were instead buried without ceremony in the Cross Bones graveyard, where the bodies were piled in an undignified heap on top of each other. Excavations have revealed that most of the skeletons in Cross Bones belong to either women or infants who had either been born dead or tragically expired shortly after birth. Later on in its long and miserable history, the euphemistically named ‘Single Women’s Graveyard’ was used as a general pauper’s cemetery for the poor of the area. It was also a favourite hunting ground for bodysnatchers, seeking out specimens for the teaching hospitals of London and after all, who would miss the poor, sad souls of Cross Bones?

In 1853, Cross Bones was closed due to overcrowding and being a risk to health and would have been built over had not the local residents, fiercely protective of the final resting place of so many of their own, strongly resisted any attempts to develop the spot. Nowadays it is a strange place, loved by locals and strenuously defended by them against the occasional attempts to gain planning permission for office blocks and car parks on the site. The gates to the burial ground are constantly festooned with tributes and flowers left by visitors, turning it into a makeshift shrine to the lost and forgotten women and children of early modern London.

Since 1998 it has become traditional for hundreds of people to gather at Cross Bones with candles, songs, gin and flowers on Halloween night to pay tribute to the ‘outcast dead’ of the graveyard. It’s my intention to join them this year with a bottle of gin to sprinkle in tribute. It’s interesting that when I first visited the grave of Mary Jane Kelly in St Patrick’s, Leytonstone (where it turns out members of my own family of dispossessed Irish Catholic immigrants are interred, although I didn’t know it at the time), I instinctively took along a bottle of gin to leave on her grave. It now seems that this is the right and proper thing to do when honouring a dead lady of the night, which pleases me rather.

Photo – The Centre of the World.

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 Crossbones Graveyard.’ — John Crow’s Riddle, John Constable.


Thanks to Lucy Fur Leaps for alerting me to Cross Bones! I’ve been thinking about it ever since…

(Originally posted last year, but I was thinking about it this morning and thought I’d share it with you all again.)

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