Not far from the high rises going up near the Shard is a nondescript piece of land in Southwark, walled off with softening bricks and an iron fence covered in streams of ribbons. A small rusting plaque with a picture of a goose is attached to one of the walls, saying that local people have created a memorial to the 'outcast dead' who were buried in this plot of land. This is Crossbones Graveyard, where 15,000 people were buried in unconsecrated ground - the paupers, prostitutes and children who all lived and died in terrible conditions in this now prosperous but once desolate area of medieval London.
The Shard towers over Southwark, the tallest building in the UK and home to businesses, restaurants, a 5 star hotel and the highest viewing gallery, The View from the Shard. Here tourists can drink champagne and admire the views for miles across the city, oblivious to what lies at their feet. This area was once one of the most lawless parts of London where paupers, debtors and unfortunate women lived and worked. Southwark was home to the pleasure grounds of London with theatres, bear baiting, prostitution and licentiousness all banned within the city but permitted here. Scurvy, cholera, syphilis ran rampant and life was hard and short. Many of these outcasts were buried in what is now called Crossbones Graveyard, a fascinating and eclectic garden which is open to visitors.
A Brief History of Crossbones Graveyard
In the 12th century the Bishop of Winchester was granted ownership over part of the Hide of Southwark on the south of the River Thames, an area known as the Liberty of the Clink. Outside the city boundaries, both physical and legal, the Bishops of Winchester held enormous power across the south of the country and this was the part of the diocese where they had their London base. They built Winchester Palace, which you can still see the remains of today, and the notorious prison, known as The Clink, ruling their area with a rod of iron and making as much money as they could from it and its inhabitants.
Henry II instigated 39 rules signing into law his Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark Under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester.
These were all a way of extracting as much money as possible from residents, but also offered the women some degree of protection, leading to them becoming known as 'Winchester Geese'.
5) Quarterly searches of every brothel must be carried out to ensure no woman is imprisoned there against her will. If any such woman is found, Bishop's officers must escort her safely out of the Liberty.
11) No brothel-keeper to knowingly accept a nun or another man's wife as one of his whores without permission from the Bishop's officials. Fine: 12 pence.
30) No brothel-keeper to accept any whore he knows is pregnant. No whore to work while pregnant. Fine: 20 shillings (for the brothel-keeper); 6 shillings and 8 pence (for the whore).
32) No brothel-keeper to let any whore work on his premises if he knows she has "the burning sickness" (possibly gonorrhoea). Fine: 20 shillings.
For all his protection however, the women were still not permitted to be buried in holy ground, they were to be used for financial gain and then discarded in unconsecrated land. The area was notorious for its overcrowded slums, with deadly illnesses widespread, and women did not survive such conditions for long. By 1598 the land was referred to as the 'Single woman's graveyard'.
During the Protectorate, Cromwell closed down the theatres, bearpits and brothels in the area and in 1708 the land was leased to St. Saviour's Parish, who later that century built charitable schools on part of the land. By the end of the 18th century, body snatching was rife with men digging up bodies and taking them away for medical experimentation. By this time, the burial ground was for all of the paupers resident in the area, not just the 'single women'.
In 1845, a Mariane Gwilt complained to the Board of Health:
“From the windows of the room called the School room we have all this sickly Summer almost daily witnessed the most distressing sights; our remonstrances are vain – in the bone house with its open grating which is not more than eight or ten yards from five of our windows we have during these last fatal six weeks had sometimes as many as from three to nine bodies lying in their shells [coffins] at a time for days (as many as ten days) in the aforesaid one house close under our windows. ...
On another occasion three or four weeks since the body of a man who had drowned himself at Blackfriars Bridge was brought down here and allowed to lie in its shell ten days when the body was washed with a mop and pailsful of water and the shell again washes out and all the filthy liquid and shavings and grass thrown under our windows his clothes lie there at this time I am writing and whilst he lay’d there the bodies of two children who had died of the Cholera was left in this dead house…”,
The site was closed to burial in 1853, having been described as being 'completely overcharged with dead'. The final body was that of Sarah Fleming aged 36, who was buried on 31st October 1853. A year later, Brookwood Cemetery opened, with the introduction of the London Necropolis Railway taking bodies and mourners out to Surrey for burial.
Over the subsequent years, the burial ground has fought off several potential developments including a funfair, warehousing, housing and full scale construction. The schools were demolished in 1930 and it wasn't until 1991 with the expansion of the London Underground that archaeological excavations were conducted by the Museum of London, who removed 148 skeletons which they said was just 1% of what was there.
You can see some of what they found on their website; bones all riddled with syphilis, cholera, scurvy, rickets, osteoarthritis and dental decay. All burials were in coffins lying east to west and facing upright, which showed that attempts had been made to respect the dead, despite the contempt from the church.
In 1996 a local writer, John Constable, who knew nothing about the history of that site, said he had a 'vision' in which the secret of the Crossbones were revealed to him. He felt compelled to walk to the area, once he got there he started singing:
And well we know
how the carrion crow
doth feast in our Crossbones graveyard
He researched the site, uncovered its history and this led him to write a series of plays called the 'Southwark Mysteries', which have been performed across the area including in The Globe and Southwark Cathedral. Every year a drama was performed on the site where John Constable (in his shamanistic persona of John Crow) performed rituals to honour the 'Goose and her Outcast Dead', until 2019 when he retired to Glastonbury.
In 2004 he established the Friends of Crossbones to campaign against all of the threats of development and in 2011 they were able to lease the land to keep it safe from building and to open it as a public garden. In 2015 on the Feast Day of St Mary Magdalene, the land was finally consecrated and received the Church's blessing in an Act of Regret, Remembrance and Restoration.
The public garden was created by bringing in soil so that no bones were disturbed and any that had previously been uprooted were reburied in a special ceremony. The garden is run by volunteers and is only open when they are available.
A Visit to Crossbones
The garden is an eclectic jumble of memento mori amidst a profusion of plants.
Skulls, shrines and statues are scattered throughout the grounds, painted wooden discs of women's faces hang on small trees, small coffins filled with twigs are insect homes and huge bushes of rosemary for remembrance compete with delicate poppies growing through the cracks.
Apple trees, firs, hollyhocks, towering thistles all haphazardly fill the garden, there is no formal planting here, creating a haven for wildlife in this incredibly urban location, one where you can see the trains passing overhead.
A large sculpture emerges from the flowers, coated with oyster shells found amongst the rubble, leftovers from old meals, now the food of the wealthy but once the food of the poor. The iron fence along the west side of the garden is covered with ribbons and strips of coloured cloth, much of it faded from the sun but still all defiantly fluttering in the breeze. Posters and banners hang around the edges and handwritten scraps of paper overlap each other, some with a photo, others just a scrawled name, as people add dedications to their own, more recent, 'lost souls'.
A weathered statue of the Virgin Mary is surrounded by untied chains with padlocks open; a woman set free. On the walls, the ground, amongst the trees and plants are jars of candles and flowers, coins, little statues of geese, skulls, skeletons, hearts, feathers, pretty stones; a whole assortment of offerings which individually mean something to the person who put them there, collectively they form a garden of remembrance from every belief system you can think of.
A crow has been painted on a rusting sheet of corrugated iron, near it is a small wooden plaque saying, 'For all suicides' with some hand written names written into the wood below. Everything is in varying stages of decay, layer upon layer of fading colours, crumbling wood, disappearing names, as they all return to the land, the monuments as temporary as the people they commemorate.
The garden seems to be an ever changing spectacle, with new additions arriving all the time. A relatively recent addition is the entrance way, a wooden covered pergola which winds round to near the centre of the garden, known as The Goose's Wing.
"In Remembrance of the Winchester Geese, the paupers, infants and outcasts of the Borough and Bankside whose mortal remains are buried here."
La Catrina is another recent arrival - a statue donated by a Mexican Ambassador. La Catrina is the key symbol of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, and is a central part of Mexican imagery and culture. In recent years, La Catrina imagery has spread out of Latin America across the globe, being included in James Bond films and can now even be found as Halloween decorations in British supermarkets. The statue sits in an enclave, a delicate veil hanging over it, fitting in perfectly with the varied memorials from across the globe.
My personal favourites were the Japanese Mizuko Jizo, which translates as water-child Buddhas. These are small statues which look like babies, representing a dead baby or fetus lost through miscarriage. For many parents, losing a child early on means that they get no funeral, no rite of passage, no acknowledgement even of their loss, and these Mizuko Jizo are there to represent that loss.
In Japan they are given red knitted bonnets to wear and offerings such as bottles of baby milk, and the ones in Crossbones are no different, each wearing a hand-made small hat, shawl or necklace. Their peaceful and serene little faces peer out from the vivid green ivy which has been allowed to wrap around and climb up them, making a very picturesque setting for these tiny statues. As so many miscarriages go unnamed and unacknowledged, Crossbones seems like the perfect place for them.
It is a wonderful, peaceful place; a place of history, sadness and solace and above all, singularity, I don't think there is anywhere else in the country quite like it.
I was a born a Goose of Southwark
by the grace of Mary Ovarie*
whose bishop gives me license
to sin within the Liberty.
In Bankside stews and taverns
you can hear me honk right daintily,
as I Unlock the hidden door,
unveil the secret history.
I will dunk you in the river
and then reveal my mystery
For I am the Mistress Southwark
am the daughter of eternity
and in me the broken man
shall be made whole.
Poem from The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable
*You can read about Mary Ovarie on our article about the nearby Ferryman's Seat
Visiting Crossbones Graveyard
Address: Union St, London SE1 1SD
They usually open between 12-2 on certain days each week but this can vary considerably as it is only open when volunteers are available. Look on their website - you can always email them for confirmation to see if they will be open if you are making a special journey to see it.
The site is free to visit but please do leave a donation.