What a World
Inside London’s Prostitute Graveyard
When residents in Southwark discovered a local graveyard contained the remains of prostitutes from long ago they fought to save it from developers, and honor the women buried there.
The plaque on the outside gates reads “Outcast Dead R.I.P.,” and the ribbons surrounding carry the names of all who might fall into that category.
The dates of their death span hundreds of years. In what was London’s original red light district, a small graveyard honors the women who once worked there in medieval times.
The London borough of Southwark on the South Bank began as a seedy marshland filled with pubs and brothels. Today, it’s a posh tourist destination, and Cross Bones has become a makeshift pilgrimage site to the prostitutes, paupers, and thousands of other unknowns who are buried there.
The area formed its seedy reputation when Roman soldiers set up base there in the first century, according to Smithsonian magazine.
For the next 1,500 years, it was the city’s zone of hedonism, where one could find brothels, gambling dens, and other illicit pleasures.
The land came under the Church’s thumb when it was leased to the Bishop of Winchester in 1107. The prostitutes became known as “Winchester Geese” and the brothels, called “the stews,” were regulated and taxed by the local Bishops.
Although they were working under the Church’s auspices, these working women were apparently not allowed a Christian burial.
It’s assumed they were placed in the unconsecrated yard of what is now called Cross Bones. Its first mention came from a historian’s account in 1598.
“I have heard…that these 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,” he wrote. “And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”
The brothels were finally shut down in the 17th century, and by 1759, Cross Bones had become a graveyard for the area. The graveyard was a target for bodysnatchers, whose corpse-hunting technique was a big business for medical schools.
Burials were officially stopped in 1853. Cross Bones had become so filled with bodies that gravediggers were unable to dig deeper than two feet underground and the site was deemed a public health hazard.
The origins of the cemetery were forgotten until London transportation planners launched an excavation into the area in the 1990s.
They planned to construct an electricity station for one of the Tube lines, but a Museum of London investigation put a halt to it.
Archaeologists spent more than a month excavating the site, turning up 148 skeletons. But that barely scratched the surface. “[T]he material excavated is only a small sample, less than 1% of the total number of burials,” the report stated.
The Museum of London estimated that the graveyard contained 15,000 burials—as many as half could be children, they said: victims of the horrific infant mortality rates of the time.
With this information, the local community rallied behind Cross Bones.
The land is owned by Transport for London, and its valuable location—site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Tate Modern and Borough Market—makes it a desirable development zone.
The neighborhood has been fighting any building plans for decades—one local council member even warned that a company attempting to desecrate the site would be haunted by spirits.
In 1998, a group performed songs, poetry and theater, paraded through the neighborhood and tied flowers and ribbons to the aging gates.
After that, for more than a decade, the community gathered in a Halloween procession to the cemetery and performed a ritual of honoring of the dead.
In 2007, volunteers began transforming the site into “Goose Garden,” a remembrance site for all those neglected by society.
In 2011, the neighborhood asked the mayor to allow them to build a Garden of Remembrance and keep it out of the hands of developers.
Earlier this year, the city leased the land to a trust for three years. With funds from the parks program, the community is turning it into a garden for the public.
Now, dozens gather on the night of the 23rd day of the month for the “Cross Bones Vigil for the Outcasts.” The latest procession, in July, was led by members of the clergy, who held a service for the down-and-out buried in Cross Bones. These monthly gatherings bring messages and decorations to tie to the bars while participants recite a call and repeat to the no-longer-forgotten “Winchester Geese”:
“Goose may you never be hungry!Goose may you never be thirsty!Goose may your Spirit fly free!”