Wednesday 23rd October 2013
A short walk away from London Bridge, on Redcross Way, lies the Cross Bones Graveyard. An unconsecrated burial ground, it contains the remains of thousands of people shunned by society. Many of them were prostitutes (often referred to as “single women” or “Winchester Geese”) who were granted the Liberty of the Clink whereby they could take part in activities that were banned within the City of London. There are also an astonishingly high number of perinatal children, either stillborn or having passed away within seven days of their birth.
The exact age of the site is unknown, but it was first mentioned in writing in 1598. As the years passed by, it eventually became a paupers’ burial ground, which was then closed in 1853 on public health grounds.
In the 1990s, during the construction of the Jubilee Line Extension, the Museum of London’s archaeology team excavated the site and found an extremely overcrowded burial ground. They estimated there were 15,000 burials.
In 1996, the writer and local historian John Constable brought the site into the public eye with his book The Southwark Mysteries. Written under the name of John Crow, it’s a collection of poetry and mystery plays inspired by the spirit of a Winchester Goose. There is a petition to establish a public memorial garden on the site, especially as the area is threatened by redevelopment.
On the 23rd of each month, a vigil is held at 7pm outside the gates. We attended last week, and it was a very moving ceremony. Open to all faiths and none, it was led by a pagan viewpoint although nobody was required to take part in anything they didn’t want to – everyone was welcome to stand and listen. People brought along ribbons, mementos and other items to tie around the gates.
Songs and poems were performed. A few people gave little speeches. It was highly respectful, calm and peaceful. We were given ribbons with the names of some of the people buried there, taken from public records, and these were also tied onto the gates.
It isn’t right that some people are remembered more than others just because their family could afford a better gravestone, or afford one at all. There must be millions of people who are buried completely unknown to passers by. Even when you walk past ancient churches, some of the stones still have legible text and others have completely worn away. But all people are important. Everyone makes a difference to the world and makes a difference to someone’s life, even if it’s in a small way. I think this monthly ceremony makes the situation just a tiny bit fairer.