“Hear lay your hearts, your flowers, your book of hours, your fingers, your thumbs, your “miss your mums”. Here hang your hopes, your dreams, your might have beens, your locks, your keys, your mysteries.”
These are the words cried out from the heart of John Constable, – versifier, citified spiritualist, Southwark native and champion in the revival of the Crossbones Cemetery. For this graveyard is situated down the eerie and awkwardly quiet alley of Redcross Way, just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of Borough Market. It is a most unusual cemetery in the fact that it is unconsecrated and used to be the final resting place for the many prostitutes and paupers of Southwark during Medieval times. All that remains evident now are the recently left votives, ribbons and loving messages that adorn the rusty red gates at the entrance of this burial ground.
In 1161 Thomas a Becket, the Archdeacon of Canterbury, signed a legislation allowing licensed brothels within the Liberty of the Clink, which was just outside the realm of the City of London. Since the Bishop of Winchester owned most of the land, he issued the license, thus allowing the church to profit from immoral earnings. These shameless women became known as the ‘Winchester Geese’. The hypocrisy went even further since these prostitutes were unable to be granted a Christian burial. In his “Survey of London” in 1598 John Stow writes, “single women were forbidden the rites 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.” The graveyard would go on to incorporated paupers and took on the name of ‘Crossbones’ by the 1800’s. But, by the mid-19th century the grounds had reached its maximum capacity. It was shut in 1853 and remained untouched for over a hundred years.
The Museum of London did excavations in the 1990’s uncovering a grossly overcrowded place with many of the skeletons showing evidence of unbridled pestilence and ill-health. A third of the bodies found were babies stillborn or not even a week old. This simple fact exemplifies the wretched quality of life and worthless estimation given to the unfortunates and outcasts of London.
John Constable first came across the site unbeknowingly on the night of November the 23rd, 1996. Wondering home late that night, he felt he had suddenly become possessed by the spirit of one of the Winchester Geese, who led him through Redcross Way to the very location of the burial site. On researching further he discovered that his Goose had in fact led him to her grave and has ever since thrown his enthusiasms and writings into honoring these outcast dead. It has literally reshaped and redirected his life’s work. Every month on the 23rd, a vigil is held at the gates in order to remember and offer respects to the deceased of Crossbones, and there is a special Halloween ceremony every year. Such has been John Constable’s resilience and persistence that Southwark Council refused planning permission for Transport for London to build 3 office blocks on top of the site. There is even talk of a memorial garden.
What we can take from this story is that we have to understand the hardship and grief that has paved the way for a better life. We take too much for granted and in defiance of our fast-evolving and redeveloping city, proposals for a Crossbones memorial would give many a quiet place to remember the unremembered and a moment to be mindful of our own humaneness and mortality.
NEXT WEEK’S INSIGHT:
Bedtime Stories @ 40Winks