The Sad Story Of London’s Red-Light Graveyard

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 8, 2015
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“Making money ain’t nothing exciting to me. [. . .] You might be able to buy a little better booze than some wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat, and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is.” —Louis Armstrong

In A Nutshell

Walk along London’s South Bank, and you can’t miss it. Cross Bones Cemetery is now a garden, a walled memorial with shrines to remember those have been buried there over the centuries. As unconsecrated ground, the site was used first for the sex workers that plied their trade along the river beginning in the 12th century. It was a burial site for paupers and plague victims, with no one really knowing how many people have found their final resting place in the once-taboo graveyard.

Note: The photo above is of a shrine placed in the graveyard honoring the dead. Photo credit: Gordon Joly.

The Whole Bushel

At one time, the little strip of land nestled in London’s South Bank belonged to the Bishop of Winchester. Sitting just outside of the city’s jurisdiction, the area (and the Bishop) had a certain amount of freedom. If you were interested in the kind of entertainment that involved bear-baiting, tavern brawls, and theatre performances, it was the place to be.

It was also the place to be for those who were looking for a little more erotic entertainment.

Beginning around 1100, part of the infamy of the area of Southwark came from its legally operated brothels. By 1161, the brothels were regulated and licensed with the establishment of a royal order, and it was up to the Bishop to collect the money that the brothels paid to keep their licenses or the fines they paid if they lapsed in their responsibilities.

The women who worked the South Bank were known as Geese, or Single Women. And since they were women that had fallen about as far as there was to fall in the eyes of the Church, burial in consecrated ground was out of the question. So, many were buried in the little strip of land known as the Cross Bones Graveyard. Over the centuries, it became the final resting place for the fallen, the destitute, the poor, and the downtrodden.

There’s a lot that’s been written about Cross Bones that skirts the line between history and folklore. Between the reigns of Henry II (who established the charter that allowed for the licensing of brothels) and Henry VIII (who ended the practice and the idea of Southwark as a pleasure-seeker’s paradise), prostitutes were by no means respected, but they were expected to adhere to some laws. They couldn’t have a suitor or show favoritism to anyone. Doing so meant a prison sentence, a dunking in raw sewage, and a fine.

While those that died without repenting their lifestyle were often buried in Cross Bones, it was the final resting place for others, too, used as a plague pit in the mid-17th century, and a favorite haunt for grave robbers.

By the 1800s, there was some major public concern about the state of the cemetery, with locals blaming the shallow burials for an outbreak of cholera. Closed in 1853, the grounds had a brief history as the site of a carnival, but locals didn’t like the noise or the carnies any more than they’d liked the burials and the body-snatchers, so that ended, too.

In 1990, the site was examined for an electric substation. Archaeologists began excavating, and it wasn’t until the end of their six weeks that they realized just how many people had been laid to rest in the unconsecrated ground. There were 148 skeletons, more than half children, removed from only the most shallow graves. It was estimated that those skeletons accounted for less than 1 percent of the people buried there, and their bones showed just how difficult their lives had been.

Bones were scarred by injury and bent by disease. Not surprisingly, perhaps, syphilis and rickets were common.

Today, at least, the people buried there aren’t entirely forgotten. Instead of building an electric plant, Transport for London granted a private group the right to not only enter the burial grounds but to create a memorial there. Today, it’s a garden, with regular remembrance ceremonies held and gifts often tied to the gates.

In addition to the people who regularly visit and tend the site in remembrance of the countless, faceless people buried there, a handful of local homeless have also taken up the cause, appointing themselves unofficial guardians of the site, making sure that, every night, it’s safe from anyone who might try to deface the shrines left in memory of those who had no one.

Show Me The Proof

Cross Bones: History
Smithsonian: The London Graveyard That’s Become a Memorial for the City’s Seedier Past
The Independent: London’s Crossbones Graveyard is the setting for a very eerie Halloween celebration