If you venture down Redcross Way, a quiet backstreet in SE1 running parallel to the busy Borough High Street, you’ll undoubtedly come across a large vacant plot of land. This is Cross Bones Graveyard, an unconsecrated memorial to the thousands of prostitutes who lived, worked and died in this once lawless corner of London.
This is, at least, how it started out in the late medieval period. During this time, the local prostitutes were known as “Winchester Geese”. These prostitutes were not licensed by the City of London or Surrey authorities, but by the Bishop of Winchester who owned the surrounding lands, hence their namesake. The earliest known reference to the Graveyard was by John Stow in his Survey of London in 1598:
“I have heard ancient men of good credit report, that these single women were forbidden the rights 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 woman’s churchyard, appointed for them, far from the parish church.”
Over time, Cross Brones Graveyard started to accommodate other members of society who were also denied a Christian burial, including paupers and criminals. With Southwark’s long and sordid past as “the pleasure-garden of London”, with legalised bear-baiting, bull fighting and theatres, the graveyard filled up extremely quickly.
By the early 1850’s the graveyard was at bursting point, with one commentator writing that it was “completely overcharged with dead”. Due to health and safety concerns the graveyard was abandoned, and subsequent redevelopment plans (including one to turn it into a fairground!) were all fought off by local residents.In 1992, the Museum of London carried out an excavation on Cross Bones Graveyard, in collaboration with the ongoing construction of the Jubilee Line Extension. Out of the 148 graves they excavated, all dating from between 1800 to 1853, they found 66.2% of the bodies in the graveyard were aged 5 years or younger indicating a very high infant mortality rate (although the sampling strategy used may have overindexed this age group). It was also reported that the graveyard was extremely overcrowded, with bodies piled one on top of each other. In terms of the causes for death, these included common diseases of the time including smallpox, scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis.
- Crossbones Graveyard, Historic UK, by Ben Johnson https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Cross-Bones-Graveyard/
- Crossbones, https://crossbones.org.uk/history/