Pagans, prostitutes and paupers

There is a small plot of land in Redcross Way that must rank as one of the most melancholy places in London.

For buried within an area of less than ¼ acre lie 15,000 souls.

For hundreds of years in the shadow of the Shard this unconsecrated post-medieval burial site was used to bury the dispossessed of Southwark.

[S]ince the 12th century this land south of the Thames by London Bridge came within the jurisdiction of The Bishop of Winchester and as a consequence was beyond the control of the City of London.

Known as the Liberty of the Clink encompassed within this small area banned theatres, the Globe and Rose among others sprung up, bear baiting was a daily occurrence and prostitutes worked in the brothels. As these brothels were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester the prostitutes were known as “Winchester Geese”. The term “goose bumps” was a charming and somewhat alarming term commonly used to describe the first signs of venereal disease, most probably caught working in the “stews” around the notorious Clink prison.

The Godly prelate might have licensed these unfortunates to work for him in the brothels but he excluded them from a Christian burial and so this small plot became a place of internment for “single women”, a euphemism for prostitutes, along with actresses and paupers.

The bodies were stacked upon one another with little ceremony to mark their passing. Many corpses were left exposed to the elements by the inept gravediggers, making it a hunting ground for body snatchers seeking out specimens for the local teaching hospitals.

Eventually in 1853 due to overcrowding the burial site was closed. It lay undisturbed and unloved until the early 1990s when during excavations for the Jubilee Line extension the site was discovered. Archaeologists from the London Museum have unearthed 148 bodies and found evidence of high infant mortality, trauma injuries, malnutrition and infections.

A group called the Friends of Cross Bones has acted since its rediscovery as a pressure group resisting attempts to develop this valuable piece of real estate. They number among their ranks prostitutes and pagans and on the 23rd of each month hold a vigil to remember the forgotten. On Halloween night it has become a tradition to gather at Cross Bones site, as it now known, with candles, songs, flowers and gin to pay tribute to the “outcast dead”. Gin apparently is the proper tribute to honour a “Lady of the Night”.

Another curiosity is to be found in Redcross Way, The Boot and Floggers public house opposite Cross Bones is supposedly the only bar in the country not to require an alcohol licence, because of special dispensation from James I in 1611.

Gutenberg to Zuckerberg


[O]ur insatiable appetite for a different means of communication seems to know no bounds. No sooner has one piece of technology been invented another supersedes it, not so for the Victorians who once thought that man had discovered everything and knew almost everything that was needed to know. They couldn’t have been further from knowing everything.

No better illustration man’s pace of change was my maternal grandmother. Born during the reign of Queen Victoria, she was a young woman when Orville Wright took to the skies to complete man’s first flight in 1903. In her twilight years she had witnessed man walking on the moon, a triumph in radio transmission if ever there was one.

Life had changed so much around her during her 98 years she would refuse to answer the telephone having never had such a new fangled contraption installed in her home.


Hot Metal
In the early 1960s I started working in Clerkenwell learning the rudiments of a trade that had changed little over 400 years since Wynkyn de Worde set up his printing press in Fleet Street to bring the written word to a wider public. By the end of the previous century we had moved away from setting the words by means hand composing to the quicker method of casting type line by line, but even then we still used wooden type for display lines.

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Once the page had been assembled it would be locked tight, hand inked and pressed against paper using a proofing press identical to ones shown in the newspaper offices depicted in old Hollywood cowboy films.

Cold Type
Within less than 10 years the three dimensional type of old was being cast aside to embrace computerised typesetting that required smaller premises and less staff. Its early prototype was the IMB golf ball typewriter which, it seems crazy now, required the operator to key the line twice, once for the text and a second keying for justification.


Bearing Fruit
Soon Steve Jobs’ Mac came on the market for a fraction of the price of the early systems which had cost a minimum of £¼ million, bringing with it greater flexibility and ease of use for instead of using code, icons displayed on the screen would make navigating around the system child’s play.

Christmas Present
Now as if to prove how wrong those Victorians were, an Englishman who invented a system which was only first successfully used on Christmas Day 1990 has transformed our lives. It seems hardly possible now that Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s internet has only been with us for 21 years.

Mind Bending
Now according to recent research the internet is changing the way our brains process thought by encouraging us to think less deeply on one subject while processing many other pieces of information. This, probably the most important invention since the arrival of the printed word has become a valuable tool to seek information, and the method of choice in which to communicate with others – whatever would my Granny have thought?

Blog typewriter

Electric Ink
Now my and your thoughts, ideas the beliefs have long lasting shelf lives. Unlike the printed material of my youth which were distributed locally and in all probability thrown away – well most of mine were – anyone in the word can access a webpage or blog, and more importantly anyone can now start to broadcast to the world.

Now L’Enfant Terrible of the internet has arrived – Facebook – there you can write with less candour than might be prudent, upload pictures and describe your entire life that is if you think the world is ready . . .

Writers create, some suffer from the condition known as hypergraphia – the overwhelming urge to write – and spend more time writing than is probably good for their wellbeing, and as a consequence without much thought. This need to write manifests itself nowadays in blogs which are created for a number of reasons. Some might do it to help promote their work or influence an audience with their politics or passions. Some do it for money; others do it, well, for the sheer heck of it.

Nowadays on the internet you will find few certainties but and plenty of opinions. I say this because, in this day and age, for it is extremely easy to start a blog and dish out advice without ever pausing for thought. In the endless hunt for comments and page views, too much opinion and personal experience gets passed off as fact, when actually writers of blogs are in a very subjective business.

London’s Fag End

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Tobacco is said to have arrived on our shores in 1586 and was first smoked at the Pied Bull in Islington, the habit proved so popular that only 28 years later there was recorded over 7,000 tobacco shops in London, this at the time when 8oz of tobacco cost 5/-. By the 18th century to tobacconists’ shops were displaying a large wooden figure of a black Indian wearing a crown of tobacco leaves and a kilt of the same material.

[L]ondon had 180 factories, almost half the country’s total, which were producing tobacco, cigars (thought at the time to be superior to Havana cigars), cigarettes and snuff and in East London and Hackney there was recorded 76 factories alone.

As recently as 30 years ago London still had one-quarter of Britain’s tobacco factories, and when I worked in Clerkenwell the Old Holborn factory was opposite our company. As junior boy I would go into an adjacent tobacconists, there on the counter was a tall ornate gas pipe, its flame flickering seductively at head level, encouraging one to light up. The shops proprietor, skinny man with nicotine stained fingers and yellow moustache to match was hardly an advertisement for his merchandise, for between gasps he would ask breathlessly “Can . . . I . . . help . . . you?”

Old Holborn TinOne of the last of these shops was Shervingtons which proudly displayed above its door “Ye Olde Tobacco Shop”. The shop was founded in 1864 and situated in Staple Inn, the 16th century block of offices at the eastern end of Holborn, the image of which once adorned tobacco tins as Old Holborn’s trademark. It appeared that the shop remained in its Olde ways and with bitter irony had No Smoking stickers displayed giving a further clue to its demise. Another tobacconist to bite the dust (or should that be ash) is Smith & Sons which only closed recently. Situated at the southern end of Charing Cross Road the shop opened in 1869 as Charing Cross Road’s first shop which had such a wide range of cigars they boasted of a walk in humidor.

I once nominated this as Ugly in my Hidden London – Greater London House – which was once the Carreras London factory which had relocated from City Road. Built in the Egyptian Revival Style some four years after Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter. The two black cats on either side of the entrance are now reproductions of the bronze originals, the sign of a black cat being an advertisement for Carreras Craven “A” cigarettes which featured a black cat on its packet. The original cats were separated one went to Jamaica and his unlucky partner ended up in Basildon.

Tobacco DockAnother tobacco related enterprise on its last gasp is Tobacco Dock just off the Highway. It was converted into a shopping centre at a cost of £47 million this sad Retail Mary Celeste remains empty and desolate, its only use appears to be as a backdrop to television dramas. At the entrance stands a 7ft tall bronze sculpture of a boy standing in front of a tiger commemorating that nearby in the 1800’s the world’s largest exotic pet store was located and the statute recalls an incident when a Bengal tiger escaped and picked up and carried off a small boy. The shop’s owner gave chase and prised the boy, unharmed from the animal’s jaws. `

This Grade II listed warehouse in Wapping was constructed in approximately 1811 and served as a store for imported tobacco destined for London’s numerous smokers. Tobacco Dock seems to epitomise London’s fag end as you walk through this monument to smoking with its faint echo and complete lack of human activity save for the odd security guard. Your footfall reverberates and shadows play upon your eye and mind as you pad over the debris of times past.

Dead boring

It’s the stuff of a science fiction writer’s dreams. Excavating in London one finds something buried that should have remained entombed forever.

In the late 1950s BBC Television transmitted the Quatermass trilogy, culminating in Quatermass and The Pit, in which a dangerous object is unearthed at a
building site in Knightsbridge (of which more later).

[B]ringing this film genre up to date the 2002 film Reign of Fire has London Underground construction workers penetrating a cave in which a hibernating dragon is awoken.

Next month tunnelling commences on CrossRail, Europe’s largest construction project, to bore over 26 miles of tunnel beneath London, a city which has after two thousand years many buried secrets.

The Black Death of 1348-49 wiped out half of London’s population and put such a strain on traditional churchyards two new internment areas were created. “No Man’s Land” was located just outside Smithfield and its annex at Spitalfields which is was reported swallowed over 50,000 souls.

The plague of 1665 was for London much worse. At least 68,000 people perished, that was out of a population at the time of half-a-million. To put that into context, should it occur in modern London it would equate to 800,000. With London having grown exponentially in the succeeding years since the Black Death, by 1665 it was now one of the world’s largest cities. The cramped and unhygienic living conditions, coupled with one of the hottest summers London had known, meant that plague spread fast, and this was not helped by the culling of cats and dogs who had helped keep down the rat population, the carrier of the infected fleas. Although recent research has hypothesised that humans were the main culprit of the plague’s spread.

Within just a few months, with graveyards overflowing, plague pits were sunk in Fulham, Gypsy Hill, Tothill Fields, Westminster and Kensington – the site of the fictionalised Quatermass Pit. Another, the Great Pit of Aldgate, measured 40ft x 15ft and was 20ft deep which consumed 1,114 bodies within a fortnight.

In modern times when the Piccadilly Line was being constructed, in a scene reminiscent
of Quatermass, workmen found that the section between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations had to be rerouted to avoid a plague pit, this has resulted in the line swerving dramatically.

Modern Aldgate station is built above the Great Pit of Aldgate, while at Green Park during tunnelling for the Victoria Line the boring machine ploughed straight into an unmarked plague pit. On the Bakerloo Line at the south end lie two tunnels; one exits to the line at Elephant and Castle, the other to a dead end to stop runaway trains and behind the end wall is another plague pit.

The majority of records for the location of burial pits are piecemeal and parochial. Most parishes had to resort to larger pits simply because of the sheer number of bodies they had to dispose of. These pits can be traced in the parish churchwarden’s accounts, where payment for digging was recorded. A rather illuminating if gruesome map has been produced by Public Grief Junkie.

Angel of Christian Charity


London’s most famous statue and probably its most loved is always surrounded by visitors, being at the heart of the West End. A beautiful naked boy Eros – Greek mythology for intimate love – shooting an arrow, what could be more romantic?

Described after it’s unveiling in 1893 as a “striking contrast to the ugliness of the generalities of our street sculpture” it has remained in Londoner’s hearts. Unfortunately the statue depicts Anteros his rather boring brother whose concern was unselfish and reflective charity and nothing to do with love.

The statue surmounts a memorial fountain for philanthropist the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who campaigned to stop child labour in factories.

[E]ros’s bow is directed not at his lover’s heart but towards the public’s social conscience. Some say it was originally pointed towards Shaftesbury in Dorset, and as a play on words the arrow or “shaft” pointed down and would be “buried” in the ground.

Sculptor Alfred Gilbert used as his model a 16-year-old studio assistant called Angelo Colarossi from Brook Green, and unlike the heavy bronzes of the day composed the statue of 15 light separate aluminium castings – wings, head, torso, legs – using the new-fangled Delville Costner process. This allowed the daring pose on tiptoe possible, in bronze he could not stand up unsupported, a problem many have in Piccadilly Circus on Saturdays nights.

Little realising its symbolism Londoner’s have adopted this beautiful statue as representing its cultural and romantic heart. How appropriate is it that the figure celebrating unselfish and reflective charity should be placed at the centre of the world’s capital that welcomes people from all nations to its bosom.