Crossbones saved – a tribute to our poorer ancestors

Staff Reporter (24 March, 2021)

Bankside Open Spaces Trust recently gained a 30-year lease that the group says helps secure the future of the site

679A tribute to the site's buried "outcast dead".

The future of the Crossbones graveyard and memorial garden in Southwark has recently become more secure, after local community group Bankside Open Spaces Trust gained a 30-year rolling lease last week – but its past remains more uncertain, writes Kit Heren…

What is known about Crossbones, tucked away between Redcross Street and Union Street, is that it was a graveyard for poor people from at least 1769. It was closed in the 1850s because of overcrowding.

About 140 years later, when Transport for London (TfL) was excavating to develop a new electricity substation for the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s, Museum of London archaeologists came across the bones of nearly 150 people. The archaeologists thought there were likely to be many more people buried at the site – up to 15,000.

It was clearly a graveyard for the poor people of the area. More than 40 per cent of the skeletons belonged to stillborn children or babies under 11 months old, suggesting a very high infant mortality rate for the area. Some 60 per cent of bones unearthed had signs of some kind of infection. Nearly half of the people found at the site had osteoarthritis, and there were higher rates of other back conditions.

Local group given lease and funding for historic Crossbones cemetery

Many people, including the local writer and mystic John Constable, who leads the Friends of Crossbones Graveyard group, have linked the Crossbones Graveyard with an unconsecrated burial ground described by the 16th century historian John Stow.

The area now called Bankside had more relaxed rules on brothels and theatres, meaning many prostitutes lived and worked in the area. The neighbourhood was largely run by the Bishop of Winchester – but Stow said that despite this, sex workers were not allowed to have a Christian burial. That meant that they had to be buried in unconsecrated ground – what Stow called “a single woman’s churchyard”.

It is not clear that this was Crossbones. Historian Steph Bern wrote in a 2016 paper on the graveyard that “most nineteenth-century records identify Crossbones as the unconsecrated burial ground for medieval prostitutes” described by Stow.

A performance by author John Constable (Katy Nicholls)

But “archaeologists’ excavations could not confirm or deny the presence of the medieval graveyard,” she added – a consideration that Constable also pointed out to the News.

Perhaps the question of whether the graveyard was the “single woman’s churchyard” identified by Stow is not the most important. What is clear is that the former paupers’ graveyard has become a place of great emotional value and symbolism for many local people and other visitors.

Campaigners, including Constable, have transformed the site over the past 25 years, adding the memorial garden next door in 2015. Constable, under the persona of John Crow, led commemorative vigils at the gates of the graveyard every month.

People also adorned the gates of the graveyard with ribbons, part of what archaeologist Don Henson called the “active commemoration” of the prostitutes who may or may not be buried at the site.

“HMS Belfast and Southwark Cathedral have associations who support the work of those sites, but the heritage narrative is controlled by the owners of each site,” he wrote in the 2014 book Who Needs Experts?

“At Crossbones there is no site ownership or even management; there are merely acts of commemoration. As a result, Crossbones is the most affective [sic] heritage site in Southwark, even if it is the least recognised, least designated and least like a heritage asset.

“It is the one place in the area where purely local significance is really evoked, and where the lives of people in the past can be celebrated and remembered. Without physical structures to distract the mind, it can be a site of quiet contemplation and communion with past people.”

That sense of communion may have felt under threat at some points in the past 25 years, with concerns that the site could be developed into housing. The recent news that TfL and housebuilders U+I have committed to giving BOST a rolling 30-year lease eliminates that threat for now.

Contribute
David Risley says:

I have attended many vigils at Crossbones over the last 25 years. They have been moving evocative experience’s where John Crow, aka John Constable, has illuminated the history of the area. The vigils bring a reverance to the terrible suffering of past Southwark and attaches that suffering to our experience today, the suffering still endured today through poverty, prostitution and greed. On the occasions I attended I have always been transported into the underbelly of sin that stalked these corrupted streets and that still stalks them today. Goose may you fly free.

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