Inside Crossbones Graveyard
You may have walked past this decorated gate in Southwark, but how much do you know about Crossbones Graveyard?
A Short History
Mentioned euphemistically in John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) as a ‘Single Women’s churchyard’ this patch of ground was once a burial ground for medieval sex workers who were excluded from Christian burial.
Ironically, the brothels (or stews*) were licensed and managed by the nearby Bishop of Winchester which gave rise to the women being referred to as ‘Winchester Geese’ and this man of the cloth took a healthy cut of the profits.
*The term ‘stew’ shouldn’t be associated with slow cooked meat, but rather it derived from the Middle English ‘stewen’ or ‘stuven’ which came from the French ‘estuve’ meaning a ‘sweat bath’ or ‘heated room’
It was also mentioned as a plague pit in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) but by 1853 it was closed, deemed to be full.
It was then forgotten until, while building a Jubilee line electricity substation, London Underground started to discover skeletons. Museum of London Archeologists removed 148, believing that to only be 1% of the total number of burials, indicating there was around 15,000.
One skeleton that was exhibition in the Museum of London was of an 18th Century girl, 4ft 7in tall aged 16-19. More than 60% of the skeletons were of children and the poster of one such skull can be seen on the side of the wall. It’s the image used in the BBC documentary film, Crossbones Girl.
What’s Happening Now?
Every Halloween between 1998 to 2010 John Constable (who has been a driving force in the protection of the graveyard and wrote the book The Southwark Mysteries) led a ritual dram with performance and songs, along with a candle light vigil.
However, it was decided that people wanted a more frequent remembrance service and now every 23rd of the month a vigil is held at the gates, to ‘honour the outcast, dead and alive.’
As part of Find Your London Crossbones held free tours for people to have a look inside. Here’s what it’s like behind the gate…
The City encroaching over the gardens, much of which was ‘guerilla gardening’ done at night, by people who cared. without ‘official’ permission.
A shrine, with the Virgin Mary, or perhaps just a Goddess? The Gardens are not tied to a particular religion, all are welcome.
The Green Man (and Woman) shrine is beginning to organically take shape.
Every garden needs a gargoyle, and here is theirs; the Bishop of Winchester, of course!
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