Pagans, prostitutes and paupers graveyard

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.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th February 2012

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