The Cemetery Hiding London’s Seedy Past
It’s not often that you stumble across a medieval burial ground that’s hidden in plain sight a few minutes’ walk from London Bridge. If it wasn’t for the assortment of ribbons and flowers in varying states of decline adorning the railings, you might never know you’d come across Cross Bones Cemetery.
For years, local people and visitors to London’s Bankside have passed the iconic gates on Red Cross Way, touched the memorial ribbons, and left their own. The glitter and wealth of The Shard and the developments around London Bridge bely Southwark’s gritty and grimy past. This hidden land behind the gates is Crossbones, a post-medieval un-consecrated burial ground that remained in use until 1853.
If you look closely, you’ll see a plaque that commemorates ‘The Outcast Dead’, a sentiment, also reflected in a remembrance ceremony that takes place each Halloween and at a monthly vigil held at the graveyard.
Growing around the fact it was outside the remit of the Sheriff of London, in the 12th century, the area was known as The Liberty of the Clink. The Liberty was the spot where Londoners were able to let their hair down and do all those things that would have got them into serious hot water on the other side of the river.
Theatres (including that well-known den of iniquity The Globe), bear baiting and whoring abounded. In fact, the prostitutes in the area were given the name the Winchester Geese due to the fact that The Bishop of Winchester was in charge of licencing brothels in this part of town and their lascivious habit of baring their white breasts to entice potential customers to their beds.
Cross Bones’ early reputation as a graveyard for ‘Single Women’ suggests that at least at first, the graveyard was mainly used for the burial of prostitutes.
Even though the brothels and the prostitutes within were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester, they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.
When Oliver Cromwell closed down The Liberty in the 17th century, the graveyard evolved to extend to the burial of paupers more generally. Southwark became one of the poorest areas in London, clogged with dense slums in which disease ran rife. Cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases helped swell the graveyard’s numbers until it finally closed, heaving in 1853.
Crossbones doesn’t look much. Yet it’s estimated that the bodies of over 15,000 people are buried here–roughly half of which were children and foetuses. It’s a sombre spot that tells the stories of the city’s disenfranchised, the poor and the prostitutes buried on a small patch of unconsecrated ground.
A modern excavation done in the 1990s revealed the area was heaped with bodies, some basically piled in mass graves. Even more grisly, the excavation led to the discovery that more than 40 percent of the graves were foetuses, or infants under the age of one. Researchers also discovered that bodies in the cemetery had come into contact with a number of diseases, including smallpox, tuberculosis, and Paget’s disease.
Now owned by Transport for London, Cross Bones has become a place to honour outcasts dead and alive.
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