Shrine of many ribbons at the entrance to Crossbones Cemetery. Photo Kay Nicols.
It’s harder to find a more sadder place in South London than the site of Crossbones Burial Ground, Redcross Way, which is a side street tucked away off the busy Borough High Street, South London. It’s safe to say that many Londoners are not aware about the existence of this sad place so hidden away is it. John Stow first mentioned the burial place in 1598 in his History of London. He wrote “ I have read of ancient men of good credit report that single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Womens churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”(1).
Those buried there were the poorest of society and predominantly women and children. A large number of these women were prostitutes known as ‘Winchester Geese‘ so named because the Lord of Manor at that time was the Bishop of Winchester who licensed and taxed the Southwark brothels which lay just outside of the stricter jurisdiction of the City of London. This taxation secured another source of income for the church to add to their ever burgeoning coffers. The crown also tried to regulate the Southwark brothels then known as ‘stews‘ and In 1161, Henry II laid down 39 rules known as the “Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark Under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester.“ These rules included :
No stewholder was to prevent his ‘geese’ from entering or leaving the premises at will. Each prostitute had to pay 14 pence per week for her chamber.
Constables were to search each brothel regularly to check that no woman was being held there against her wishes. Any such woman was to be escorted to safety and out of reach of her stewholder.
No stewholder was to lend one of his prostitutes more than 6 shillings and 8d. This was designed to prevent girls from being enslaved by running up large debts.
No prostitute to be prevented from boarding wherever she wished.
No stew to open for business on a religious holiday except between the hours of noon and 2 pm.
No stewholder to knowingly accept a nun or another man’s wife for whoring without the Bishop’s permission….I know.. I know…you couldn’t make it up…!
No stewholder was to imprison any customers on the premises for not paying their bills.
No prostitute to wear an apron which was the garment of a respectable woman
Prostitutes were not allowed to throw stones or pull faces at passers by if they refused to enter the stew.(2)
Nevertheless completely unabashed from profiting financially from their Winchester Geese the church ordained that they would not be allowed burial in consecrated land. In such highly religious times this must have been devastating for those unfortunates who no doubt would have found it impossible to extricate themselves from prostitution. After 1769 as well as the Winchester Geese the cemetery also became the last resting place of paupers, people who had died in the local work house, and unfortunates found drowned in the River Thames. Over the centuries they were buried there, layer upon sad layer, and in 1832 a letter from parish authorities had noted the ground was “so very full of coffins that it is necessary to bury within two feet of the surface,” and that “the effluviem is so very offensive that we fear the consequences may be very injurious to the surrounding neighborhood.”(3).
In 1853 following a petition made by a Mrs Gwilt, involvement by the Board of Health and finally on orders from Lord Palmerstone, all future burials were stopped on the grounds that the site was ‘completely overcharged with dead’.
Incredibly in 1883 the site was sold as a building site. However on the 10th November 1883, Lord Brabazon – bless him – fired off a furious letter to the Times demanding the burial site be saved from any further desecration and the area retained as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people. For a while it was used in the 20th century as a timber yard and for an ever shorter while, a fair ground. But locals remembered the original use of the land and in the 1990s, when an offshoot of the building of the Jubilee Line was about to be built, an opportunity arose to excavate a small area to the east and around 140 bodies were recovered. Tests carried out by the Museum of London on these remains found them in the main to be infected with smallpox, tuberculosis, osteoarthritis and scurvy (4). These remains found just below todays surface are thought to date from the last 50 years that the site was in use i.e. 1800 to 1853. Over one third of the remains recovered consisted of perinatal infants, that is babies who died immediately before or very soon after birth with individuals under 1 year of age making up a further 11%, indicating a high infant mortality rate (5). The remaining undisturbed burials now lay in a more peaceful setting through the efforts of the Friends of Crossbones who have transformed the area into a peaceful haven and communal garden.
One of the entrances known poignantly as the Goose Wing entrance has a wooden carving designed by local wood carver Arthur de Mowbray which represents the spirit of Crossbones – a goose stretching her wings and protecting her outcast children – as well as visitors to the site..
Entrance known as Goose Entrance representing the spirit of Crossbones, a goose with outstretched wings protecting her outcast children as well as visitors to the site. Photo LostcityofLondon.co.uk
Thanks to History Cold Case, a history documentary that went out in 2018, the identity of one of the skeletons – that of a young woman whose remains were excavated by the Museum of London in 1992 from the area in the cemetery where an electrical substation was to be built for the Jubilee Line extension – has been discovered. The archaeologists discovered that although the latest burials ie.1830-1853, discovered not far from the surface , had been made in coffins, they were of the poorest quality recycled wood. Equipped with the approximate date of the young woman’s burial further investigation by a team of experts enabled her to be identified. Her name was Elizabeth Marshall. Careful analysis of her remains would reveal Elizabeth would not have lived beyond her 19th year and possibly had died as young as 15 or 16. Life had dealt Elizabeth the most cruelest set of cards for her body, as well as her face had been ravished by syphilis. Not one bone in her body was untouched by the disease and her suffering must have been intense. As each expert revealed their findings the facts became more and more sadder. Her syphilis was so advanced that she must have have contracted it when she was but a child. To add to Elizabeth’s woes, her contraction of syphilis would mean that she was in the lowest class of prostitute – to put it bluntly the stage where prostitute meets beggar. Her height of just 4′ 7″ would indicate that she was malnourished throughout most of her short life as would the fact that she also suffered from rickets. She was tracked down as dying on the 15th August 1851 in Magdalen Ward which was the ward for women suffering from venereal disease in St Thomas’ Hospital, Southwark. But it was not the syphillis that had finally killed Elizabeth but pneumonia Her address was given as St Thomas’ so it is likely that she was homeless, although her body did show signs of high levels of mercury, so at one time she had received ‘treatment’ in an attempt to cure her. But of course there was no cure. And Elizabeth, I hope she finally found the peace and tranquility that had eluded her during her lifetime. Professor Caroline Wilkinson, who recreated the face of Richard III, has recreated Elizabeth’s face. For those that would like to watch the programme themselves, I recommend it, here is the link:
There is a vigil held on the 23rd day of every month at the Ribbon Gates on Redcross Way, SE1, for those interested in visiting the burial ground and paying their respects.
Finally I am indebted to the various articles on Crossbones including Crossbones.org, a history of the site to found here
1. A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598. p.341. John Stow
2. Birth of the Liberty. planetslade.com. Paul Slade
3. The London Graveyard that Became a Memorial for the City’s Seedier Past. Bess Lovejoy. Smithsonian Magazine. Article 2014.
4. Brickley and Miles. The Cross Bones Burial Ground. 1999. MoLAS
5. See The Museum of London’s website for info
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