Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:35 am
This is Cross Bones Graveyard, surely one of the saddest places in London. Its story belongs within a wider narrative about poverty and prostitution, an important aspect of the two-thousand year history of the Borough of Southwark. Just an unfashionable step from busy Bankside in Redcross Way, Cross Bones is part of a very old burial ground. To be fair, it hasn’t seen better days for a long time. In its earth lie the remains of an estimated 15,000 largely forgotten people, heaped one on the other, some probably barely 18 inches below the surface. Cross Bones was in use up to 1853 when, being “completely overcharged with dead”, the cemetery was closed in the interests of public health and decency. No one knows for sure when the first burial took place. When Cross Bones was partially excavated in the 1990s during the course of works associated with the Jubilee underground line, Museum of London archaeologists removed 148 skeletons, more than 60% of them of children. About a third of the skeletons were perinatal children – babies who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth. The bones of all these individuals dated from around 1800 onward and generally exhibited signs of disease and ill-health, including smallpox, scurvy, rickets, osteoarthritis and syphilis, as well as healed fractures. However, heartbreakingly poignant though this is, there is a tradition – but no proof – that Cross Bones has a much longer, and even murkier, past. The Tudor historian John Stowe, in his 1598 Survey of London, mentions a cemetery for single women – a medieval euphemism for sex workers – who were excluded from Christian burial if they failed to mend their ways:
“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.”
It is widely believed that Cross Bones was formerly known as the Single Women’s’ burial ground and the very cemetery that John Stowe referred to.
Medieval Southwark was beyond the control of the City of London. At the southern end of London Bridge, it was where travellers rested before entering, or leaving, the City. They stayed overnight at one of its many inns, like the Tabard (immortalised by Chaucer), and would make an early start the following day. Just to the west of the bridge was Winchester Palace, London Home to the Bishops of Winchester. The Bishops came to own all the land thereabouts, though it was initially leased from the Abbot of Bermondsey. The district was technically a ‘Liberty’, an area in which the Lord of the Manor, in this case the Bishop, exercised control over most things through his own court. The Liberty of Winchester even had its own prison, the Clink – which later gave its name to the Liberty. And among the many privileges enjoyed by the Bishop was one you might think a little unusual for a man of the cloth: it was the right to license and tax the prostitutes who operated in the area. Now, Southwark has a reputation as a place of fairly ill-repute since Roman times, but given the Bishop’s involvement the prostitutes became known as ‘Winchester Geese’. ‘Goose’ was a term for ‘prostitute’ since at least the time of Shakespeare – I know not why and none of the explanations I’ve seen appear terribly convincing – from the idea that sex took place on beds stuffed with goose feathers (oh yeah?), to long necks being considered attractive (not impossible, I suppose), ladies baring their chests to attract attention (do geese do that?) to alleged similarities in vocal habits.
The Church believed that prostitution was morally wrong, but also viewed it as a price worth paying to protect respectable women from the lusts of men, and save men from something far worse. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) had a dire warning for us all, declaring, “Suppress prostitution, and capricious lusts will overthrow society.” St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) in his Summa Theologica compared prostitution with a sewer in a palace, “Take away the sewer and you will fill the palace with pollution.” Of course, prostitution, especially if you received rent from the brothels as well as income from the girls, could be highly lucrative. And let’s pretend it was all in a good cause.
Medieval brothels were called ‘stews’. This is because their origin lay in bathhouses, or ‘stewhouses’, where sex could be enjoyed alongside the opportunity to relax, or ‘stew’, in hot water. We know a bit about the Winchester Geese, albeit regrettably not from their point of view, through the ‘Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester’, which have survived from the 15th century. Some say the ordinances were drawn up in the 12th century, but historian Kate Lister casts doubt on this. Anyway, the ordinances formed the rules and regulations for working in the stews, together with the penalties for infringement. Given the time and context, many of the ordinances seem to be surprisingly reasonable, but of course we do not know the extent to which they were followed, or the girls’ individual circumstances. Ostensibly, the Geese seemed to have had a measure of protection, being allowed to board where they pleased and their forcible detention being specifically prohibited. There were limitations on business taking place during religious holidays (except at lunchtimes) and stewholders were not permitted to knowingly accept nuns or another man’s wife for work without the Bishop’s permission. Fair enough. Customers were protected too: they were not allowed to be detained for not settling their bills, and their swords had to be returned to them. It was not permitted to entice passing men into a brothel against their will and the girls had to be identifiable in some way, as well as be registered with the Bishop. There were serious penalties for any stewholder who allowed a girl to work if she had ‘the burning sickness’ – probably gonorrhoea (syphilis was unknown in Europe until the late 15th century). Serious penalties, too, for a girl who took a lover – it is thought because of the reduced revenue as a consequence of time spent on unpaid fornication.
Henry VIII, no stranger to upsetting churchmen, or anyone else come to that, closed the Southwark stews in 1546. Maybe the trade moved elsewhere – Cokkes Lane (now Cock Lane in Smithfield) is one possibility, and a more moderate example of one or two graphically-named streets of London. Prostitution was not unique to Southwark, but the Southwark stews were notorious and indeed Tudor Bankside was known as the in-place to go and have a good time, with bull and bear-bating and all manner of other harmless amusements, certainly right up to the early Stuart period and after the Restoration. The first theatre in the area, the Rose, was built in 1592 and the Globe followed in 1599. The population of London quadrupled in John Stow’s lifetime – he complains about the spread of “mean cottages and tenements”. Maps of the Tudor period show Bankside itself as being relatively built-up, with taverns, many of which took on the role of the stews, fronting the river and the intriguingly named Maiden’s Lane (which could be a corruption of ‘midden’) running behind. But much of the area to the south – including the site of Cross Bones – seems to be rural in character. In 1676, a terrible fire swept through Southwark, destroying hundreds of buildings. It never recovered and subsequently evolved into a bleak industrial district, with riverside warehouses and considerable poverty and lawlessness.
Which brings us back to Cross Bones; was this the last resting-place for the Winchester Geese, as many claim? From what I can make out, the best that can be said is that we don’t know that it wasn’t. Cross Bones cemetery is clearly shown on John Rocque’s Map of 1746 as “St Saviour’s Burial Ground” – which suggests it was consecrated ground. No burial grounds are shown in the area on a map by William Morgan dated 1682, though that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there, of course, and it is possible that St Saviour’s Burial Ground was once used for victims of the plague of 1665.
The Museum of London’s website simply says, “The Cross Bones burial ground served the poor of the parish of St. Saviour’s, Southwark, but the ground is thought to have originally been established at least as early as the 17th century, as a single women’s (prostitutes’) cemetery. By 1769, it had become a paupers’ cemetery and remained so until its closure.”
In 1791 a boys’ school was built on part of the site, followed by a girls’ school in 1819. By the Victorian era, this part of Southwark, known as ‘the Mint’, was an over-crowded, disease-ridden, rookery. It is the sort of place Dickens would have known – and he probably did, because he was in lodgings a short distance away, in Lant Street, and his father spent time in nearby Marshalsea Prison for debt. So Cross Bones became the final resting place for impoverished local residents, including sex-workers, as well for bodies found in the Thames. Some historians claim there were as many as 50-80,000 prostitutes in Victorian London, but there are no accurate statistics, the population was soaring and it depends how ‘prostitution’ is defined. Official records would hardly be reliable, and to some Victorians a prostitute could simply mean someone living outside marriage. What is for sure is that many women resorted to prostitution at one time or another for economic reasons, and some of them are bound to have ended up in Cross Bones. Just to add another macabre detail to our story – Cross Bones was an ideal target for grave-robbers supplying nearby Guy’s and St Thomas’s teaching hospitals.
Sometime after it was closed, the church authorities decided to sell Cross Bones for building development, a proposal that was opposed by Lord Brabazon (1841-1929), Chairman of the Metropolitan Public Garden, Playground and Boulevard Association (now the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association). The decision was fortunately overturned under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. But, apart from turning them into parks, what did urban authorities do with disused burial grounds anyway? In the 20th century, the Cross Bones site was even briefly used as a fairground, and then for light industrial units.
These days, after considerable effort and lobbying from the 1990s, Cross Bones has become a community garden of remembrance created and looked after by the Friends of Cross Bones Graveyard and Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST). The friends’ endeavours were given impetus by the writer John Constable who, apparently knowing nothing beforehand about Cross Bones, on 23 November 1996 had a vision of an ‘unquiet spirit’, who called herself The Goose and who took him to the gates of the burial ground at night and whispered her story to him. The Goose became a symbol for Cross Bones and inspired poems and plays which evolved into a collection called ‘The Southwark Mysteries’. People have gathered at the gates of Cross Bones for a vigil on the 23rd of every month since 2004. There is more about this, and John Constable, on the fascinating Cross Bones’ website.
But what of the historic Winchester Geese? Unlike the sad remains unearthed from a later date at Cross Bones, the Geese do not speak to us. Only our imaginations will tell their story and it seems that imagination is the common denominator between them and Cross Bones. That their remains lie under, or are among, the 15,000 people estimated to be interred at Cross Bones is a story many would dearly like to believe. But we will probably never know where the Winchester Geese were buried, if indeed it was in a discrete location, any more than we’ll ever know where the majority of our ancestors anywhere were laid to rest. As for Cross Bones, it was one of any number of graveyards where the vast majority of Londoners over the centuries ended up. But it is unique in the sense that we know about it and it has survived in the way it has. Seeing it for the first time is a curious sensation. Hundreds of colourful votive or memorial ribbons, flowers, trinkets and messages festoon its railings. It is simultaneously extraordinary and moving. The development of Cross Bones as a garden and shrine is a credit to a community that wants to honour its heritage and those they have dubbed ‘the outcast dead’. Is it attractive? Not particularly. Does it have facilities and a giftshop? No. Is it worth a visit? Absolutely; it is beguiling, compelling and thought-provoking. If we can bother to remember the rich and privileged simply because their wealth ensured a certain immortality, we can certainly spare a thought for the unidentified masses, our ancestors, who helped create our country and whose dreams and deeds no one cared about when they lived.
For more detail on the history of Southwark, and Cross Bones, visit Planet Slade.com, Paul Slade’s excellent website.
For more about the history of sex work and sexual attitudes, visit The Whores of Yore website, created by Dr Kate Lister (note for those of a nervous disposition – this website contains explicit photographs).