History

The redevelopment of The Borough and Bankside, London SE1, has unearthed a wealth of archaeological treasures and lost histories.

On Redcross Way, a tranquil back-street running parallel to Borough High Street, there's a plot of land surrounded by London Underground hoardings. There's a big rusty iron gate adorned with ivy, ribbons, flowers, feathers, jewellery and other curious totems – and with a bronze plaque bearing the epitaph: 'R.I.P. The Outcast Dead'.

'I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these 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.'

'There is an unconsecrated burial ground known as the Cross Bones at the corner of Redcross Street, formerly called the Single Woman's burial ground, which is said to have been used for this purpose…'

'… ...a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding, is unrivalled in anything
I have hitherto seen in London.'

As early as 1831, concerns were being raised about the condition of the graveyard. Following petitions from a Mrs Gwilt, reports by the Board of Health and, finally, an order from Lord Palmerston, Cross Bones was closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was 'completely overcharged with dead' and that 'further burials' would be 'inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency'. In 1883, it was sold as a building site, prompting Lord Brabazon to write:

'… with a view to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people.' (10th November 1883)

The following year the sale was declared null and void, under the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884). Subsequent attempts to develop the site were resisted by local people. The land was briefly used as a fair-ground: '… until an action was taken against the showmen for abatement of the nuisance caused by steam organs and noisy music'.

Aside from such minor intrusions, the graveyard was vacant land for the best part of a century. Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line Extension. Prior to the work, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation, removing some 148 skeletons. By their own estimate, these represented: 'less than 1% of the total number of burials that were made at this site.'
Some were exhibited at the Museum's 1998 London Bodies exhibition, including:

The 1999 publication of the MoLAS report on the Cross Bones Burial Ground coincided with the publication of The Southwark Mysteries, my epic cycle of poems and Mystery Plays inspired by the spirit of a Winchester Goose at Cross Bones:

For tonight in Hell, they are tolling the bell

For the Whore that lay at The Tabard
And well we know how the carrion crow
Doth feast in our Cross Bones Graveyard.

Only after writing these words, on the night of 23rd November 1996, did I discover that Cross Bones was a actual historical place - and that London Underground had just dug it up! It was as if I’d tapped into what was happening in my own back-yard: had somehow channelled the spirit of The Goose.

The work has been performed, in full, in Shakespeare's Globe and Southwark Cathedral, in 2000 and again in 2010, and has featured in many site-specific performances at the graveyard.

We’ve since conducted many rituals and community events at the graveyard. The rituals are simple, inclusive and non-dogmatic, emphasising respect for ‘the Ancestors’, and honouring the spirit of this particular place. The Halloween of Cross Bones has been observed every Halloween night since 1998, with hundreds of people making the candlelit procession to the gates, to honour the ‘outcast dead' with candles, ribbons, songs and offerings. By another curious stroke of synchronicity, the first Halloween of Cross Bones coincided with the first exhibition of the Cross Bones skeletons at the Museum of London.

Over the past decade, the iron gates in Redcross Way have been transformed into a people’s shrine, a living communal art-work. People of all faiths and none have left messages and mementoes, testifying to its power as a truly inclusive sacred place, dedicated to a vision of a shared humanity. Since 2004, an informal Friends of Cross Bones group has held a 7pm vigil at the gates in Redcross Way on the 23rd day of each month. People come from all walks of life to 'remember the outcast' and to replenish the spontaneous shrine with fresh flowers and other tokens. The Cross Bones shrine is especially relevant to 'outsiders', though it speaks to a much wider group of supporters. People of all faiths and none, local residents and international visitors regularly gather for the monthly vigils to participate in a truly inclusive act of respect and remembrance.

A range of traditional festivals are celebrated here. The Lion's Part end their annual October Plenty festival with a procession to the Cross Bones gates, where the Green Man blesses the garden. On St George's Day, 23rd April 2007, a ceremony was conducted on the graveyard site, which was cleaned of rubbish and the seeds of a wild garden sown. This garden has flourished under the care of an 'Invisible Gardener', one of many mysterious characters associated with Cross Bones. On St George's Day, 23rd April 2009, a large crowd gathered to hear London Assembly Member Val Shawcross and the then Southwark Council leader Nick Stanton pledge their support for the protection of Cross Bones as an important heritage site.

The shrine at the gates already attracts over 50,000 visitors a year; it features in many guidebooks, on guided tours and in television coverage of the vigils held by local people.

For more than ten years Friends of Crossbones have pioneered a constructive approach to the future of this important heritage site. Whilst recognising that large tracts of the site will eventually be developed, we propose that the memorial gates and also the oldest, southernmost part of the old graveyard (between the memorial gates on Redcross Way and the junction with Union Square) should be protected and eventually opened to the public as a community garden, local park, heritage site and visitor attraction - the Cross Bones Garden of Remembrance.

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