I was taking a short cut to Borough Market when I came across these gates above in Redcross Way. I’d thought they might be an art installation at first, but then read some of the inscriptions, and knew I wanted to research further.
The Crossbones Cemetery was originally an unconsecrated burial site for prostitutes (aka ‘single women’) and then later paupers from late medieval times until its closure in the nineteenth century.
In his 1598 Survey of London, the historian John Stow writes: “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.”
It could have stayed forgotten – just as many of the women buried there – had, but evacuations by the Museum of London prior to work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s uncovered 148 skeletons, an estimate of less than 1% of the bodies buried there. Then, under the guidance of the poet, author and urban shaman, John Constable, a group was formed to protect the Graveyard from development and also to establish a memorial garden for who the gates declare as: ‘RIP THE OUTCAST DEAD’.
It’s a very moving place, not least because the spot still feels derelict apart from the visible touches of care.
As another sign says, it is ‘a place of healing where the wild feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is – whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer.’
And this, I think, it’s the secret of power for me. It’s not a place where you can visit and feel ‘poor women’, although that’s obviously a part of it. It’s also, perhaps strangely given the circumstances, a place of hope – that things might be different, that everybody – whatever their gender or profession – is worth something, and also that every man or woman has the right to be treated the same.
I really hope that the Friends of Crossbones Graveyard manage to create their garden of remembrance and that this hidden London spot is protected and given the respect it deserves, but in the meantime, here’s a poem I wrote inspired by the ‘Geese’ of Southwark (the women were apparently called ‘geese’ because of the white aprons they wore, or their white breasts bared to river visitors). There are also two videos I’ve found – one of a piece by John Constable (or Crow) and the other from a TV documentary which reconstructed one of a ‘young woman’s syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions’ found at the graveyard.
Catherine, Lisa, Louise, Angela,
Gabriella, Susan, Constance, Faith
It starts with the tapping of a toe,
a rush of blood, hips that swing
Anne, Jane, Mariella, Clare,
Lucy, Lucinda, Karen, May
one sassy look too far,
a dish upturned, locked door,
Sarah, Annabel, Estelle, Kay,
Alison, Christine, Jeanetta, June,
who always preferred the open road,
didn’t she? Liberty, morality,
Caroline, Sandra, Sally, Sue,
Maria, Moira, Elizabeth, Lou,
equality, justice. Two sets of law
making the same set of bones,
Geraldine, Jess, Samantha, Rose,
light, generosity, kindness, hope.
Here’s a clip from the BBC documentary, Cold Case, about one of the girls:
And here’s John Constable (aka Crow) performing at Halloween, 2008: