Cross Bones and the Winchester Geese by Terry Gatfield

An Australian who attended our May Vigil was moved to write this report:

It was the 23rd of the month and late in the year; the sun was setting slowly, having giving off what little warmth it had for the day. I stood in a relatively small geographical triangle comprising the points of Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the church of St George the Martyr, while Borough Market provided a door stop. Above me, the wheels of an electric train sang a metallic song as it rattled hastily over the tall brick parapets to its destination. The huge arches amplified the shrill sound of that found in the heart of a cello. Behind me, hung the glowing coach-style wall light of an ale house, The Boot and Floggit, a pub unchanged since Dickens walked the streets. This arena carried the scars from having been home to some of London’s poorest and most violent of slum dwellers. In front of me was a wrought iron gate festooned with ribbons, flowers, poems and tired photographs left to hang in memory of the dead, from ages gone past.

This is the graveyard of some 15,000 paupers, of infants, workhouse servants and prostitutes – especially those who were called the Winchester Geese. These were the medieval sex workers licenced by the Bp of Winchester to be fodder for the local brothels; alas these poor souls were forbidden to have a Christian burial. Because of the smell and health hazards of the over-crowded burial site it was closed in 1853. This is now prime valued land and has been sought by many a developer, and at one time it was to be location of a giant fairground. Fortunately, local residents and people with more passion than wealth blocked every entrepreneurial move. It remains to this day a sacred site and is called Cross Bones, the custodians being the people of Southwark, not the church or the local government.

I was attending an evening vigil alongside 100 others. With guitar in hand, it was led by a middle aged charismatic man who displayed the demeanour and possessed the voice of a RSC member. He informed the congregants of something of the history of Cross Bones and in time gave each of us a ribbon with a name, and the profession, of a deceased person written on it. We called out the name and tied it to the wrought iron gate, while offering a quiet prayer. A long silence followed; then everyone who had an interest in the proceedings was invited to come forward to share a song, recite a poem, offer a prayer or whatever moved them. After a little time a congregation of hands punctured the darkening night sky.

As this was happening, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a rather scruffily dressed old man, swaying a little like an inebriated drunk, who collapsed in a heap in the roadside gutter; he was an Australian I was to discover. At the time I thought that he had died and considered that he was fortunate to be able to find such an immediate burial site, and possibly getting a fresh ribbon, placed in remembrance on the gate for him. A kind man, Peter Gatsby, known to some of the locals, came and ministered to him and life seemed to be renewed. It was all rather surreal, his life seeming to ebb away with so little fuss yet with dignity.

The vigil did not stop for this blip. Testimonies and songs filled the remaining evening with a peculiar mixture of sadness and celebration and a blend of frivolity and respectful dignity, overlaid with occasional tears. Darkness descended, the people eventually dispersed and the street emptied. But the fresh, and the older sun-drenched pale, ribbons remained, swaying gently in the light evening breeze as a tribute and testimony to the promise of ‘life and resurrection on the last day’ for those who were unable to speak for themselves.

In the daylight hours of the following day, as I revisited Cross Bones and spent some time at the memorial gate, it dawned on me that what I had witnessed the previous evening was a wonderful gathering of people engaged in a deep, rich, street spirituality. Faith, hope and love abounded in the unseen. There were no clergy present, it appeared, despite being within a stone’s throw of Southwark Cathedral; no religious licences had been given by the establishment, no hymn books provided, no class exclusions, no request for donations, no special religious dress-ups, no formal membership: it was simply raw street spirituality. This was a Church service that was truly beautiful, in fact excellent, and perhaps for many it was one of the few Church services they might ever attend. Perhaps they, too, will remember it as fondly as I did.

PS – I made inquiries about the Australian who I thought had dropped dead the night of the vigil; it appears that he was taken back to Peter Gatsby’s flat nearby, and recovered well.