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Published January 10th 2013
Not Just Crossed Bones, but 15,000 Skeletons Piled High
There has been an unconsecrated graveyard on Redcross Way in Southwark since the middle Ages. In 1598 it was described by John Stow in his A Survey of London as a place where '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.' In the sixteenth century that church would have been St Mary Overie, now Southwark Cathedral.
The irony was that these 'sinful' women who eked out their existence as prostitutes, or 'Winchester Geese', were licensed by the Bishops of Winchester, the remains of whose palace can still be found on nearby Clink Street. When the brothels where the women worked started to die out, the cemetery was used for pauper burials; some of the cadavers were stolen by body-snatchers for the benefit of anatomy students at nearby Guy's Hospital. When the overcrowded graveyard was finally closed in 1853 it is estimated that more than 15,000 bodies had been interred in its soil.
Almost 150 years later when work commenced on the Jubilee Line extension, archaeologists from the Museum of London were granted permission to partially excavate the site. They removed 148 skeletons, estimated to be about 1% of the total burials. Approximately half of the remains belonged to women aged over 35, the rest were babies and aborted foetuses.
Information about the Dig by the Museum of London: Look at the Piled Up Skeletons
The Friends of Cross Bones have been conducting a campaign for the site to be rededicated as a permanent memorial garden. This has not yet been achieved, but monthly vigils take place at 7pm on the 23rd day of each month outside the railings, which are adorned with ribbons and flowers. In 1998 Southwark Mysteries staged the first Halloween of Cross Bones and Southwark Council has donated the brass plaque and ivy planters in the railings. They have also pledged £100,000 from the community project towards a future garden. More information can be found on their website.
Cross Bones Graveyard Railings
If you find yourself around Southwark, take time to visit Cross Bones Graveyard and spare a thought for the thousands of the outcast dead who were buried there in unmarked graves.