The Fascinating and Sordid History of Crossbones Graveyard

a painting of a skull and a book with flowers and a candle
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Last Updated on: 30th June 2024, 11:52 am

Regular readers of our blog know that Steve and I like to explore cemeteries. While in London in the spring of 2024, we toured the well-known Highgate Cemetery. However, the lesser-known Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance was more compelling and memorable.

In this post, you will learn about the history of Crossbones and perhaps be inspired to visit it, too.

Chalkboard welcoming people to Crossbones Graveyard
Come on in

What is Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance?

Crossbones was an unconsecrated burial ground for prostitutes, paupers, criminals, and other outcasts from post-medieval times until its closure in 1853.

Today, it’s a place to remember those that society failed.

It’s believed that 15,000 people were buried there, some in mass graves.

Construction work in the 1990s revealed that around half the people buried there were children. It’s estimated that 40% of the bodies were fetuses and infants due to a high infant mortality rate in this impoverished part of the city.

Where is Crossbones?

Crossbones is at the intersection of Union Street and Redcross Way in the Bankside area of the Borough of Southwark. It is easy to reach by bus, underground, or train.

It is a short walk from several interesting sights, including the Shard, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Clink Prison Museum, and the Southwark Cathedral.

The History of Crossbones

A graveyard for the outcast dead

The first known reference to Crossbones was in a 1598 survey of London by English historian and antiquarian John Stow.

Crossbones was in a seventy-acre area on the south bank of the River Thames opposite the City of London. The area was called the Liberty of the Clink (The Liberty). This area included the Clink Prison and was the place to engage in unsavory activities like gambling, bear baiting, and visiting brothels.

From the 12th to the 17th century, the Liberty was not under the jurisdiction of the king but under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester (Church of England).

A hand-drawn map of The Liberty
A hand-drawn map of The Liberty

The prostitutes who worked in this area were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester. They were sometimes called Winchester Geese because the word goose was slang for prostitute. To be bitten by a Winchester Goose meant that you had a venereal disease.

After its closure in 1853, Crossbones fell into neglect and faced threats from development projects. Parts of the graveyard were used for industry and storage of construction material.

A graveyard rediscovered

In the 1990s, the graveyard was rediscovered during the construction of the Underground’s Jubilee Line. Fortunately, the significance of its history was recognized.

In 1996, writer John Constable had a vision in which the spirit of a Winchester Goose revealed the secret history of Crossbones to him. For three years, the spirit revealed poems to Constable’s literary persona, John Crow.

These poems led Constable to write The Southwark Mysteries, plays based on Bankside’s history and folklore. They address social issues while drawing parallels between the past and present.

The Southwark Mysteries have been performed in Shakespeare’s Globe and the Southwark Cathedral. You can read more about Constable’s vision and The Southwark Mysteries here.

From 1996 until 2019, Constable, along with Katy Nicholls, worked to transform Crossbones into a shrine and sanctuary. They founded The Friends of Crossbones in 2004. Of the group, Constable said, “Our main concern is to protect the identity of Crossbones as a public garden of remembrance for outcasts, outsiders and other marginalized people…”

Since June 2004, The Friends of Crossbones has held a vigil at 7 pm on the 23rd of each month. You can find information about the vigils and other events here.

This haunting song, “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead” was performed by Frank Turner at the October 2019 vigil.

In 2020, a 30-year lease was granted to Bankside Open Spaces Trust for Crossbones to be maintained as a public garden.

For the deep-diving history buffs, here is an activist timeline from 1990-2020.

Crossbones today

A small, fenced area contains the modern-day Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. You won’t find tombstones and gravesites here. You will find an assortment of items that honor those unfortunate to end up here.

a collage of skulls and skeletons
Skulls and skeletons in the graveyard

There are also remembrances of marginalized groups and those who died by suicide.

a statue of a man with wings sitting on a pillar
The Trans-Angel sculpture for transgender people who were murdered because of transphobia
a card with a clip on a wood surface
A remembrance for lives lost to suicide

As of this writing, Crossbones is open every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 2 p.m. It is free to visit. There is a box for donations.

You can learn more about Crossbones on their website.

What I Took Away from Crossbones

I was touched by many things at Crossbones, but my biggest takeaway was the church’s hypocrisy. To license women to be prostitutes and then deny them a Christian burial while disregarding the role brothel owners and customers played is disgraceful yet unsurprising. In addition, the bishops benefitted from the brothels’ revenue.

Final Thoughts

If you like to explore graveyards and cemeteries while learning about history, don’t miss Crossbones. You won’t have a peaceful stroll through treed grounds but you will see eclectic displays that are sure to touch your heart.

You can read about my favorite cemetery, Paris’s Cemetery Montmartre here.

On the lighter side, why not visit the The O2 Entertainment District in London? You can read all about the fun things to do there in our post, “Your Ultimate Guide to The O2.”

Until Next Time

Have you been to Crossbones? What did you think of it? Have you found other unique burial places and memorial gardens around the world? If so, please share. Just drop a note in the comments section below.

Happy (and memorable) traveling,
Linda

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