Crossbones celebrates London’s ‘geese’

Author John Constable at Crossbones gate (Picture by Katy Nicholls)

One of the capital’s most poignant memorials will open its doors to visitors at a crucial time in its bid to become a permanent shrine. Crossbones Graveyard in Redcross Way, Southwark, was the last resting place of generations of prostitutes and convicted criminals, where the last burial took place in 1853 when it was too full to take any more.

A celebration to mark its reopening as a garden of remembrance will be held on November 18, with music, dancing, poetry and readings from its supporters who have helped preserve it from the bulldozers. The site was targeted for development in the 1990s as London Underground dug up part of the land during work on the Jubilee line extension, removing 148 skeletons.

But a sustained campaign by residents and protesters has helped bring it to the brink of becoming a permanent place of pilgrimage. Around the date of the celebration, Bankside Open Spaces Trust’s (BOST) lease on the land from Transport for London (TfL) comes to an end.

A decision on whether to hand the plot over permanently to BOST is expected within weeks. The special opening of Crossbones Garden celebrates its extraordinary past and present, and plans for the future. It will feature guided tours, talks and promenade performances on the site of the outcasts’ burial ground. The free programme, hosted by John Constable, author of The Southwark Mysteries, and Katy Nicholls from the Friends of Crossbones, begins with the first of two tours at 2.30pm – the second is at 5pm.

Mr Constable said: “As Friends of Crossbones, we are very keen BOST should have a longer lease to allow them to raise funds and ensure the garden’s future. “So far TfL has engaged very constructively with Friends of Crossbones and BOST, enabling us to open the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance to the public over the past three years. “We do not know yet what will happen, but we are very hopeful.

If a lease is finalised, it moves the garden forward into an exciting new phase. If not, it creates a difficulty but it is not insurmountable.

“People can now see the transformation of the last three years and seem to love it.” Crossbones was the unconsecrated graveyard for “single women” or “Winchester Geese”. These were medieval sex workers licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their trade in The Liberty of the Clink.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Crossbones was the paupers’ burial ground for the area known as The Mint, a notorious thieves’ quarter.

The graveyard was closed in 1853, described as being “completely overcharged with dead”. Crossbones has inspired many creative works – novels, plays, songs, poems, an urban shrine at the gates in Redcross Way – and a 20-year campaign to protect the site from development. BOST has worked with Friends of Crossbones to establish a Garden of Remembrance on the site.

Landlords TfL granted a lease to BOST three years ago and confirmed that the burial ground will be protected as a garden when the adjoining Landmark Court site is developed.

The shrine in Redcross Way is now adorned with ribbons bearing the names of people buried there, totems and mementos. It hosts vigils at 7pm on the 23rd of every month.