Redcross Way, SE1
If you walk down Southwark Bridge Road away from the river, turn left into Union Street, then the second road on your right is a rather unprepossessing street, Redcross Way. My attention was taken by some railings, a plaque and some tributes which had seen better days. What I had come across was a relic of the final resting place of many of the poor of Southwark, Cross Bones Graveyard.
Outside of the boundaries of the City of London the area beyond the south bank of the Thames, what we now know as Bankside and Southwark, had a rather racy reputation. There was only one bridge across the river at the time, the old London Bridge, and so those coming from the south into London or setting out on their journey from London had to travel through the district. Pretty much everything that was banned or disapproved by the City elders was to be found in abundance sarf of the river. The area was noted for its dangerous taverns, licentiousness including theatrical performances, blood sports and prostitution.
The many sex workers to be found in mediaeval Southwark were known as Winchester geese because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester who owned much of the land in the area. The first printed reference to the graveyard is as the last resting place for these poor women and is to be found in John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1598. He reported, “I have heard ancient men of good credit report that these single women were forbidden the rights 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. And therefore there was a plot of ground, called the single woman’s churchyard, appointed for them, far from the parish church”.
Whether Stow is an ancient man of good credit is not clear but his account of the origins of this graveyard has been given credence over the centuries. But it is clear whether from its origin or at another point of time the graveyard was used to bury people other than sex workers and particularly those who fell within the boundaries of the parish of St Saviour. Some 15,000 were said to be buried there.
Excavations carried out by the Museum of London in 1992 on 148 graves, dating from between 1800 and 1853, showed that two-thirds of the bodies were of children under the age of five, 11% under the age of one. Of the adults there the majority were women over the age of 36. Causes of death included smallpox, scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis. The dig also showed that the graveyard was particularly overcrowded with bodies piled atop of each other.
And it was overcrowding that saw the closure of the graveyard. Closure came in 1853 because, according to contemporaries, it was “completely overcharged with dead” and further burials were considered “inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency”.
Attempts were made to reuse the site for building purposes and even as a site for a fairground but these met with fierce opposition from the local residents. However, once the remains of the graveyard were transported to Brookwood warehouses and other commercial buildings were erected on the site. The building of the Jubilee line required an archaeological dig of the area and an electricity substation was built on the land. The railings and plaque are pretty much all that remains of this once overcrowded graveyard.