Step off Union Street and onto Redcross Way. You’re in a nondescript Southwark side street. Bisected by railway lines it borders an urban sprawl of undeveloped wasteland. Nothing remarkable here. Well, apart from a spontaneous shrine to the outcast dead of London.
Turns out the 14th century ‘respectable’ gentry of London had no liking for brothels cluttering up the place. Well, not anywhere they actually lived. Bear-baiting, whoring, theatres and all other manner of ‘ungodly’ activities were legally banned from their midst in the city. Obviously not wishing to dispense with these services entirely they simply needed to put them elsewhere. Handily, the Church had a convenient solution.
The Bishop of Winchester controlled land south of the River Thames – Southwark as we know it today – that fell outside the legal jurisdiction of the City of London. The church generously stepped in to licence all these apparently morally dubious activities on their own ground. See, Jesus cares. Known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ Southwark became a general den of iniquity. In deference to their licensee, prostitutes there became known as ‘Winchester Geese’.
Unfortunately though, London was also posed with another problem. The poor and unwashed had a tendency to die early. And in large numbers. Prostitutes were heading for an unconsecrated grave, paupers needed to be buried somewhere and so Cross Bones cemetery was born. Conveniently situated among the stews of Southwark it became the resting place for centuries of the unmourned dead. Without headstones, markers or in many cases even any record of their passing, the unwanted and disgraced were dumped in unmarked graves here until 1853.
Were they were forgotten about? Maybe, but not forever. The cemetery was unearthed again in the 1990’s when excavation work started on the London Underground’s new Silver Jubilee line. The dead were lost for a while but, apparently, were now not to be ignored.
A ritual drama plays out each year on All Hallows Eve at Cross Bones. Based on the ‘Southwark Mystery Plays’ of John Constable, the dead are now remembered with gifts and song. The iron bars of the cemetery gates have been repurposed into an ever-changing shrine. Awash with an esoteric mix of everything from Mardi Gras beads and Wiccan prayers to the smiling face of Buddha, the nondescript gates have become a visual trigger to at least ask, what happened in this place.
Rather touchingly a lot of people seemed to have asked. And a lot of people seem to wish those buried at Cross Bones to know they’re not forgotten. Take a look if you’re wandering by. It’s a curious manifestation of our need to care for the dead.
Loads more about doings at Cross Bones on the graveyards website.