Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
2016 saw the opening of the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, the result of a local campaign. For about 20 years, the small area of land on the corner of Red Cross Way and Union Street has become a focus as a memorial to the “outcast dead” but not generally accessible to the public. Now TfL, the owners of the former graveyard, have granted a three-year lease to the Bankside Open Spaces Trust who have created a peaceful green space a short walk away from the bustle of Borough High Street.
Winchester Geese was the name given to the women who worked in the “stews”, or brothels, of medieval Bankside. The stews were regulated and were on land owned but leased out by the Bishop of Winchester who, needing a residence in London to be close to the King, owned a Palace in today’s Clink Street. Also known by the euphemism of “single women”, John Stow in his Survey of London in 1598 said that they were “forbidden the rightes of the Church, so long as they continued that sinnefull life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot ground, called the single womans churchyeard, appointed for them, far from the parish church.”
A tradition has grown up that the former paupers’ graveyard in Red Cross Way is the burial ground that Stow refers to. In 1795 Matthew Concanen and Aaron Morgan wrote about the Cross Bones burial ground in their “History of St Saviours”:
" … in the account we have given of the Stews on Bankside, mention is made of a piece of ground called the Single Woman’s Burying Ground, set apart as the burial place of those unfortunate females; we are very much inclined to believe this was the spot, for in early times the ceremony of consecration would certainly not have been omitted; and if it had been performed, it would doubtless have appeared by some register, either in the possession of the Bishop of Winchester, or in the proper ecclesiastical court. We find no other place answering the description given of a ground appropriated as a burial place for these women, circumstances, therefore, justify the supposition of this being the place; for it was said, the ground was not consecrated; and the ordination was that they should not be buried in any spot so sanctified.”
The paupers’ graveyard became seriously overcrowded in the early 19th century but it was not until 1853 when the overcrowding became a public health risk that the graveyard was closed for further burials. A new building for St Saviour’s Parochial School was built on the site but in 1908 the site was condemned as it was reported bones were sticking out above the ground. For a while, a funfair was held on the site but this was cleared away when the owner was found guilty of keeping a nuisance.
TFL are keen to develop the space but while they seek a partner and finalise their plans, the space has been let to the Bankside Open Spaces Trust on a three year lease who have created the newest public open space in The Borough.
The garlanded and decorated entrance gates in Red Cross Way
The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association was founded in the early 1880s and one of the first spaces they earmarked for transformation into a public garden was the Crossbones Burial Ground. The Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884 had made it illegal to build on land that had formerly served as a graveyard but nevertheless the Parish of St Saviour's held on to the burial ground in the hopes there would be a change of government followed by a repeal of the Act which would enable the site to be sold as building land. The parish stated they needed the revenue this would bring for upkeep and maintenance of the church.
At some stage, Transport of London acquired the site which had been left unused until the 1990s when a sub-station was built for the Jubilee Line. Prior to this work, the Museum of London conducted an archaeological excavation when 148 skeletons were exhumed, representing only a small proportion of the total buried. The remains were thought to date from between 1800 and 1853 and a large proportion of them were perinatal or under 5 years of age that reflected the high rate of infant mortality in one of the most destitute areas of Victorian London. It’s estimated that the graveyard houses the remains of thousands of bodies and though there is no firm evidence that this is indeed the “single women’s” burial ground which John Stow wrote about, it is highly probable.