There is a long established tradition that it was a final resting place for ‘Winchester Geese’, ie prostitutes, from the legalised brothels or ‘stews’ of Bankside. This dates back to the days when the Bishop of Winchester ran Bankside and licensed the ‘Geese’.
Stow, in his Survey of London in 1603, describes the burial site as being appointed to single women forbidden the rites of the church so long as they continued a sinful life. However, by Victorian times, when the area was stricken by poverty and disease, the site was used as a pauper’s burial ground.
Cross Bones Graveyard was finally closed in 1853 on the grounds that it was ‘completely overcharged with dead’ and that further burials were ‘inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency’. A warehouse was built upon it.
Recent archaeological digs for the Jubilee Line extension have uncovered evidence of a highly overcrowded graveyard where bodies are piled up on top of each other and tests have shown that many of the bodies are women and children with diseases ranging from smallpox, TB and paget’s disease to osteoarthritis and vitamin D deficiency.
The long sleep of the Cross Bones dead is being disturbed by the construction of the new Crossrail line, which will run through the middle of old Southwark. The graveyard now lies beneath a gated construction site.
But the cholera victims and Geese are not forgotten — there is a small shrine erected by the local community and, for the last few years, the gate itself (on Redcross Street, SE1) has been kept garlanded with flowers, ribbons and tributes both Pagan and Christian. According to a note on the gate, there’s a vigil at 1900 on the 23rd of every month.
More photos on Flickr.