History

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

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

This is Cross Bones, a pauper's burial ground with a legend stretching back to medieval times.

'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…'

By then, Redcross Way was an overcrowded, cholera-infested slum. When Charles Booth was conducting his survey of London poverty, his researcher George Duckworth described it as:

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

Duckworth walked around The Mint with a policeman who told him: 'Police don't go down here unless they have to, and never singly.' During this period, Cross Bones witnessed many a pauper's burial. It was also the haunt of body-snatchers, seeking specimens for the anatomy classes at nearby Guy's Hospital.

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:

'… a young woman's syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions, from Red Cross Way, Southwark, 18th century'.'

Subsequent forensic tests revealed that the woman was 4ft 7in tall, aged 16-19, and that the disease was already well 'advanced'. The 2010 BBC documentary 'Crossbones Girl' reconstructed the quest for the identity of this young woman, most likely a child prostitute. More than 60% of the skeletons found at Cross Bones were those of children.

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

Poster on Crossbones wall

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 an 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 and rituals conducted 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 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. Friends of Crossbones have campaigned to protect the shrine at the gates on Redcross Way and the burial ground as a community garden, local park, heritage site and visitor attraction - the Cross Bones Garden of Remembrance.The importance of protecting the graveyard was made explicit in a 2008 question from Valerie Shawcross AM to London Mayor Boris Johnson.

London Assembly Question No: 1938 / 2008 Cross Bones Graveyard - SE1

Valerie Shawcross AM (Lambeth & Southwark, Chair of Transport Committee): TfL own a very interesting piece of history in Redcross Way SE1 - Cross Bones Graveyard, an un-consecrated medieval graveyard for prostitutes. The land is currently enclosed in London Underground boards, but has a gate with a bronze plaque describing its history. As Chair of TfL can the Mayor ensure that Officers of TfL contact the Friends of Cross Bones Graveyard and start a discussion with them to protect this piece of London's more interesting past?

The Mayor (Boris Johnson): The site is to be used as a Thameslink 2000 project works site between now and 2015. Future development plans have yet to be worked up but will be prepared recognising the archaeological interest of this site. This will include consultation with all parties with an interest in the site.

Ms. Shawcross also wrote to Peter Hendy (Commissioner of Transport, TFL) expressing her 'long-term concern [...] for the future of Cross Bones Graveyard [...] I would hope to see the planning brief for any future development on the site make some accomodation for the graveyard [...] perhaps a piece of public realm garden and a memorial... where visitors can be taken to pay respects and hear the story in full... It is extremely important that the Cross Bones Graveyard is recognised within that future development and some space allocated for public access and appreciation.'

In reply to her follow-up question in 2011, The Mayor stated: 'I am aware of this issue and recognise the cultural and historic importance of the Crossbones burial ground. The Deputy Mayor for Transport is discussing this issue with Transport for London (TfL)' Valerie Shawcross attended the St George at Cross Bones vigil on 23 April 2009, and returned on International Woman's Day 2015, to express her support for the Garden of Remembrance. In May 2016 London Mayor Sadiq Khan appointed her Deputy Mayor of Transport and Deputy Chair of Transport for London. .

Southwark Council's Community Project Bank has pledged £100,000 towards the eventual creation of a Cross Bones Memorial Garden. For the latest on the future of Crossbones see

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.


Get Flash Player