First, a confession: This is a reworking of something I spotted on the ever excellent Londonphile site, which you can find here, for which I hope they will forgive me, but I was down at Cross Bones recently and saw the railings for myself. So here goes – they say;
‘Cross Bones Graveyard has long been an at risk heritage site – it was rejected as unsuitable as a building site as far back as 1883 – and it has been featured in the media of late as it is again being marketed for development. Although much of the Cross Bones site is at first glance a concrete wasteland – owned by Transport for London and currently used for storage – it is in fact the last resting place of over 15,000 people. And while anyone who has read Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis will know that the dead can be found all across London, Cross Bones’ unique history makes the site a particularly significant one.’
Cross Bones was home to the ‘outcast dead’, an unconsecrated ground used for the burial of prostitutes. London’s graveyards present a complicated story. The ones attached to churches were for Christians, but others were licensed in public grounds by private companies, so it’s not at all unusual to go into a small park in London and few a few gravestones stacked around the edges.
The ladies of Southwark were known locally as Winchester Geese because they were licensed to ply their trade within the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark by the Bishop of Winchester. Despite this, they couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground or anywhere near a parish church. The age of the burial ground isn’t known, but it was mentioned in John Stow’s 1598 A Survey of London. It later became a pauper’s cemetery in 1665, the year of the Great Plague – and closed to burials in 1853 when it was declared over-full and a risk to public health and decency.
Today the Memorial Gates are festooned with ribbons, cards and flowers – a tradition which only started in a 1998 ceremony – and small shrines have been placed on the site. The colourful, celebratory nature of these offerings adds to Cross Bones’ atmosphere, and a closer look reveals a statue of Mary in a grotto-like setting amongst trees, accompanied by a number of ornamental geese.
Now the site is under threat as TfL seek to flog it off, because of course, we can’t have anything small and special and undiscovered, created by and for the people of London. Everything must be quantified and monetized and be seen to turn a profit. Who’ll mourn when it’s gone?