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Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark|©Garry Knight/Flickr
Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark|©Garry Knight/Flickr
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A History Of The Cross Bones Graveyard In One Minute

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 26 September 2016
Just a short distance away from the bustling Borough High Street, down the quiet side street of Redcross Way, lies an unusual sight – a community garden, bordered by tall iron gates, ribbons, flowers, trinkets and messages coating its railings. This is Cross Bones, an unconsecrated mass graveyard/turned shrine to London’s outcasts. Visit this unusual London landmark as we discover its history.

Southwark’s reputation as the seedy underside of London goes back centuries. During the Medieval Ages, the area was known for its many inns — Chaucer’s pilgrims famously set off from one on their journey to Canterbury. A stretch of land to the west of London Bridge was known as Liberty of the Clink and the area became the city’s entertainment and red light district (to which many Shakespearean plays attest) filled with inns, brothels, bear pits, theatres and prisons.

Redcross Way lay in the Liberty of the Mint, an inter-jurisdictional area which was a notorious refuge where the poor could escape their debtors and criminals the law. The area around it became one of London’s poorest, tightly-packed with disease-infested slums, which were only cleared in the 1880s.

A burial site since the Middle Ages, Cross Bones was closed in 1853 on public health grounds after being deemed ‘completely overcharged with dead’. In the 1990s, London Underground construction work led to the site being partially excavated by archaeologists, who found disease-riddled skeletons tightly packed together. It is believed that 15,000 bodies are buried here, 60% of them children and most of the adults women.

A survey of London by John Stow in 1598 references a ‘single women’s churchyard’ in Bankside, where prostitutes were buried on mass. During life, they were known as the Winchester Geese, licensed and taxed by the Bishop of Winchester but denied Christian rights in death. Locals today hypothesise that Cross Bones served a similar purpose, as dumping ground for the area’s many prostitutes and paupers from its slums.

In 1996, local author John Constable wrote a collection of poems and plays entitled The Southwark Mysteries. Inspired by the ‘outcast dead’ of Cross Bones, it has popularised the myth and has since been performed at the Globe and Southwark Cathedral. Constable formed the Friends of Cross Bones, who have fought against redevelopment of the site, preserved the graveyard and formed a community garden. Now marked by a plaque, the site sees a Halloween procession and ritual drama descend on it every year, while vigils have been held once a month since 2004 in memory of history’s forgotten ‘Outcast Dead’.