When I started the London Shoes website, my intention was to publish material concerning London’s lesser known, and more unusual aspects of its history – which I felt people might find interesting, particularly Londoners like me who spent a lifetime walking past landmarks and places, without even knowing they were there and totally oblivious to the ‘role’ a landmark may have played in the making of the history of this wonderful City.
This week’s topic is one such example of this – as it is a place that, on the face of it, is just a derelict plot of wasteland, situated in the middle of a busy commercial area – however, in reality, it is a place of historic intrigue and interest, as its provides a clear insight into how ‘hard’ life must have been, in terms of the way some sectors of the population were looked upon, and treated.
The subject matter for this week’s publication onto the London Shoes website is….the “Cross Bones-Graveyard” in Southwark-SE1
For me, the interesting aspect about this particular place is the way in which respect, dignity and sentiment has been shown by today’s world, towards those people throughout the centuries, who sadly were connected to this actual site.
Tucked away down Redcross Street-Southwark, literally just a stone’s throw from Borough or London Bridge tube stations – is a plot of land known as the “Cross Bones Graveyard”.
The site is a pre-Medieval ‘unconsecrated’ graveyard – which means it was never officially declared by any church or denomination, as a holy burial site.
‘Cross Bones’ started life in the 1500’s as a burial ground and memorial to the thousands of prostitutes and/or ‘single’ women who lived, worked and died in this once lawless area of London.
Historically, Southwark has always been one of London’s most seediest districts – even as far back as the Roman occupation – and its ‘dark’ reputation continued throughout the following centuries.
The area was full of pubs and brothels, which got busier and busier as the population of London grew and its commercialism increased, especially when bridges started to be constructed across the Thames, enabling a more easier access from the north to the south.
Southwark became the ‘go-to’ place that people would escape to for a good old ‘jolly-up’ or a night-on-the-town, as the district was geographically located just outside the laws and jurisdictions of the City of London – and so visitors to the area could have a good old drink-up in its many Inns and Taverns, then they could take-in a bit of bear-baiting, or cock fighting, watch a bit of entertainment at the Globe Theatre – and then pay a visit to its many brothels, bordellos and whorehouses.
From the 13th Century onwards, most of the land around Southwark was owned by the ‘Bishop of Winchester’ – who was an extremely wealthy and one of the most powerful men in England. He even had a palace built for him in the area, remains of which are still around today.
He owned the most of the houses and buildings in the Southwark district, including the many brothels, which were known as ‘Stewes’.
The prostitutes working the Southwark district were not licenced by the City of London – they were licenced and taxed by the ‘Bishop of Winchester’, who basically ‘owned’ them – and he would rent-out his properties to them, to conduct their trade, and charge them excessive rates.
Throughout medieval times and beyond, the Southwark prostitutes were known locally as “Winchester Geese” – which is said to be as a result of them baring their white breasts to attract and entice punters.
A common disease of that time was gonorrhoea or syphilis – and if you contracted these sorts of diseases, it was said that you had been ‘bitten by a Winchester Goose’!!
Sadly, because of their ‘immoral’ occupation, when the prostitutes of Southwark died, they were not allowed a Christian burial on consecrated ground, (even though they were closely associated to the powerful Bishop of Winchester) – and therefore, their bodies had to be buried somewhere – and that is how the ‘Cross Bones Graveyard’ came to be the final resting place of the ‘Winchester Geese’.
Records show the earliest reference to the unconsecrated ‘Cross Bones Graveyard’ dates back to an official Survey of London conducted in 1598.
By the late 1700’s, other members of society who were not granted a Christian burial, such as convicted criminals and paupers – were also buried at the ‘Cross Bones Graveyard’.
As a result, the graveyard soon filled up and became over crowded – and it became a favourite hunting ground for ‘body-snatchers’ to nick corpses and then sell them on to places like nearby ‘Guys Hospital’, who would then use them for ‘live’ anatomy research and training etc.
Because it was so full-up, the Cross Bones Graveyard started to become a health hazard to the local residents – and following many complaints, the graveyard was finally closed-down in 1853.
Following its closure, there were many plans submitted around what the land could be used for – in fact one proposal was for it to be a fairground – but this and all the other proposals were rejected as it went against the laws of the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884, as desecration of what was a memorial site, would have been prohibited.
The Cross Bones Graveyard more or less remained derelict right up until the early 1990’s – when ‘London Transport’ (as it was known then) purchased the land with a view to using it to site an electricity sub-station for its newly constructed Jubilee Line project.
At that time, the Museum of London, knowing that the site was an old burial ground, asked for permission from London Transport, to conduct an archaeological dig at the graveyard.
They were allowed 6 weeks to excavate just a small section of the site – and the results were astonishing.
They found bodies that had been simply piled on top of each other throughout the years.
They uncovered a total of just 148 graves that dated between 1800 and 1853.
The tests that they then conducted on these skeletons showed that the majority of the deceased had suffered from diseases such as smallpox, scurvy, rickets, tuberculosis, osteoarthritis, syphilis and serious vitamin C deficiencies.
Further test results indicated that the adults were mostly women under the age of 36 and had died either before or during or just after giving birth. Other skeletons were those of mainly children under the age of 5.
The archaeologists estimated that up to 15,000 people had been buried at the site.
Today – the Cross Bones Graveyard is looked after by a voluntary group known as the ‘Friends of Cross Bones’ – and the iron railings surrounding the site are full of ribbons, flowers, feathers, beads, messages and other tokens, commemorating those that are buried there.
Regular activities are undertaken at the site to keep the shrines in order and to ensure that its dead continue to be honoured.
The ‘Friends of Cross Bones’ group are continually campaigning for the site to be made an official permanent memorial garden – and although the future of the graveyard is delicately poised at the moment ‘Transport for London’ (formally London Transport) have promised to be ‘sympathetic to its heritage’.
So – the Cross Bones Graveyard site – probably seen by some as just a small plot of vacant land in a big built up metropolis – however, others may view it as, quite simply and respectfully – a place where you can go to celebrate ‘the people nobody remembers’.
Before heading off back home, I popped into the nearby ‘Lord Clyde’ pub – a site where there has been a boozer for over 300 years.
Lord Clyde himself was a highly decorated soldier who led commands in the Crimean war and the Indian Mutiny battles.
The current building and pub name dates from 1913, and is now Grade II listed with many of its original fixtures and fittings still in place – and a very pleasant place it is too, to sink down a nice couple of cheeky ones.