Crossbones, the strange but true story
behind the Garden of Remembrance
Crossbones Garden stands on the site of a post-medieval burial ground. It holds the mortal remains of an estimated 15,000 paupers, more than half of them children, who lived, worked and died in what was once an impoverished and notoriously lawless part of London. According to local tradition, it was once the ‘Single Women’s Churchyard’ for the ‘Winchester Geese’, women licensed by the church to work in the brothels, or ‘stews’, of The Liberty of the Clink.
The history of this place is not confined to some distant past; it’s an ongoing work in progress. Since 1996, Friends of Crossbones have worked to protect Crossbones and to raise awareness of its historical, cultural and spiritual significance. From 2006 to 2012, they worked with a mysterious ‘Invisible Gardener’ to create a secret guerrilla garden. Since 2015, they have collaborated with Bankside Open Spaces Trust to maintain a community Garden of Remembrance on the site of this ancient burial ground.
Crossbones Garden is now a haven of peace and quiet contemplation in the heart of London, a place to honour and remember ‘The Outcast Dead’.
The Cross Bones Graveyard
In his 1598 Survey of London, John Stow refers to ‘a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard’.1 Such women, who worked in Bankside’s brothels or ‘stews’, were condemned to be buried in unhallowed ground. Yet for five hundred years in this part of south London their profession was licensed and regulated by the church.From the 12th to the 17th century, the Bishop of Winchester was effectively the feudal lord of the manor. His London residence, Winchester Palace, stood between the church (now Southwark Cathedral) and the Clink Prison. The remains of this building can still be seen in nearby Clink St. Many activities that were forbidden within the City walls were permitted and regulated here within The Liberty of the Clink. By Shakespeare’s time, this stretch of the Bankside was established as London’s pleasure quarter, with theatres, bear-pits, taverns and brothels – the ‘stews’, licensed by the Bishop under Ordinances dating from 1161 and signed by Thomas Becket. In life, the women of the stews enjoyed a measure of protection from their Bishop and also became known as ‘Winchester Geese’; in death, if John Stow is to be believed, they were denied even Christian burial.
A local tradition going back to the early 19th century identifies this ‘Single Women’s churchyard’ with the St Saviours burial ground, popularly known as Cross Bones.2 In Victorian times, Redcross Street (now Redcross Way) was an overcrowded, cholera-infested slum in The Mint, a notorious criminal ‘rookery’ where policemen feared to tread. Cross Bones was the final resting place for street prostitutes and paupers along with the working poor. It was also the haunt of body-snatchers, seeking specimens for anatomy classes at the nearby Guy’s Hospital. In the 19th century two charity schools, for boys and girls, were built on the south end of the graveyard, restricting the space for burials.
Following petitions from a Mrs Gwilt, reports by the Board of Health and, finally, an order from Lord Palmerston, Cross Bones was closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was ‘completely overcharged with dead’ and that ‘further burials’ would be ‘inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency’.3 In 1883, it was sold as a building site, prompting Lord Brabazon to campaign: ‘to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people’.4 The sale of the site was declared null and void, under the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884). During the 20th century, it was briefly used as a fair-ground and as a timber-yard with sheds and light-industrial workshops.
Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line Extension. Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation, removing some 148 skeletons. By their own estimate, these represented: ‘less than 1% of the total number of burials that were made at this site’.5 Some were exhibited at the Museum’s 1998 London Bodies exhibition, including: ‘a young woman’s syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions, from Red Cross Way, Southwark, 18th century’.6
Subsequent forensic tests revealed that the woman was 4ft 7in tall, aged 16-19 7, and that the disease was already well advanced. It is estimated that more than 60% of the 15,000 people buried at Cross Bones were children.8
The Southwark Mysteries, Friends of Crossbones
and The Invisible Gardener
On the night of 23 November 1996, the writer John Constable had a vision, or visitation, in which he wrote a poem ‘as revealed by The Goose to John Crow at Crossbones… My shamanic double had somehow raised the a spirit of a medieval whore, licensed by a Bishop yet allegedly denied Christian burial’.9
The poem emerged from a kind of automatic writing, in which The Goose proceeded to ‘unveil the Secret History’ of Crossbones and The Liberty of The Clink. These verses seemed to conduct John, in mind, on a journey through time. In the middle of the night he took a walk, in body, through the back streets of Borough and Bankside. The Goose led him to the gates of an desolate old works site in Redcross Way, breaking into song:
And well we know
How the carrion crow
Doth feast in our Cross Bones Graveyard. 10
When he first heard and wrote those words, John was unaware that Cross Bones was an actual historical graveyard, or that The Goose had led him to its very gates. It was only after that night, whilst researching the origins of those strange visions and voices, that he came across references to the pauper’s burial ground in Redcross Way, and its links with the ‘single women’s churchyard’ for medieval sex workers. And that Cross Bones had just been dug up, during work on the Jubilee Line Extension!
The poem grew into The Southwark Mysteries, an epic cycle of poems and modern mystery plays. It was performed, in full, in Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral, in 2000 and again in 2010.
It inspired the artistic and magical works performed at Crossbones over the next 20 years, including The Halloween of Crossbones, a ritual drama ending in a procession to the red iron gates in Redcross Way to honour the ‘outcast dead’ with candles, ribbons, songs and offerings. John and his Southwark Mysteries group have performed this ritual every year since 1998, along with hundreds of site-specific performances at the burial ground. These in turn inspired the the emergence of an informal Friends of Crossbones group to protect the site and promote its cultural and spiritual significance. Katy Nicholls made artefacts to create a shrine at the gates and obtained Southwark Council funding for a memorial plaque to honour those buried there.
Vigils have been held at the gates at 7pm on the 23rd of every month since June 2004, usually led by John in his ‘John Crow’ persona. The Cross Bones shrine is especially relevant to ‘outsiders’, though it speaks to a much wider group of supporters. Local residents, international visitors, and people from all walks of life gather for the monthly vigils to renew the shrine with flowers, ribbons and mementos, and to participate in a truly inclusive act of remembrance.
These creative expressions of a transforming vision in action touched and inspired many people, including many site-security guards who effectively ‘went native’. Andy Hulme, who was then living on a caravan on site, began tending an ‘invisible’ wild garden there. Dubbed the ‘Invisible Gardener’, he also opened doors for John to create shrines in this guerrilla garden.
On St George’s Day, 23rd April 2007, Friends of Crossbones held a ceremony on the old burial ground, which was cleaned of rubbish and the seeds of a wild garden sown. Two years later, a large crowd gathered to hear London Assembly Member Val Shawcross pledge her support for its protection as a garden and heritage site.
Bankside Open Spaces Trust
and The Garden of Remembrance
At the turn of the millennium, local artist-photographer Zanna Wilford led a campaign against a proposed development on the site. Over the next decade, John Constable contacted the site owners Transport for London (TfL), The Mayor of London and other interested parties to seek a consensus for the future of Crossbones. In 2008, Valerie Shawcross asked an important question in the London Assembly: ‘As Chair of TfL can the Mayor ensure that Officers of TfL contact the Friends of Cross Bones Graveyard and start a discussion with them to protect this piece of London’s more interesting past?’ In reply to her follow-up question in 2011, Mayor Boris Johnson stated: ‘I am aware of this issue and recognise the cultural and historic importance of the Crossbones burial ground’.11
In 2014, after extensive discussions with John and Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), TfL granted a short lease to create a public community garden. As a sign of good faith, TfL arranged for the gates, which had been transformed into a shrine, to be sensitively relocated from the land scheduled for development to the protected graveyard area.In 2016, when London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced plans to develop the adjoining parts of the larger site, a TfL spokesperson reiterated that ‘the garden will remain when the adjacent site is developed for housing.’
The garden, designed by Helen John, has assimilated some elements of the original ‘Invisible Garden’, along with new features such as the ‘Goose Wing’ entrance, the wild-flower meadow adjacent to the Jubilee Line electricity sub-station (which had effectively destroyed the eastern part of the burial ground) and new planting areas bounded by John Holt’s dry-stone walls. In order not to disturb any of the human remains, the garden was designed with raised beds and fresh soil brought in. Our first act in creating the new garden was to rebury any bones found exposed in rubble from previous desecrations of the graveyard.
The Crossbones Garden of Remembrance opened to the public in 2015 and has already received many thousands of visitors and world-wide publicity. In the first year, we had guided tours of the garden, open days and festivals. On 22nd July, St Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral led the clergy and congregation in procession to conduct ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration’, in which the burial ground received the church’s blessing for the first time in its long and chequered history. On 31st October, the annual Halloween of Crossbones climaxed with the Border Morris dance troupe Wolf’s Head and Vixen ‘dancing with the dead’. Such events have reiterated the spiritual significance of Crossbones to Christians, pagans and those who simply wish to respect our shared humanity.
The garden is open to the public most weekdays and some Saturdays, staffed by volunteers. The Crossbones project is bringing Londoners together to protect our heritage for future generations and to maintain a community garden in an area currently undergoing the disruption of massive construction projects. Crossbones is a truly inclusive memorial to ‘the outcast dead’ and to the ordinary working poor, a pilgrimage site of profound spiritual significance and a unique visitor attraction in the very heart of London.
In The Garden
The Goose Wing Entrance
In John Constable’s vision, The Goose is the spirit of Cross Bones, protecting her outcast children. Local artist-woodworker Arthur de Mowbray drew on this vision, and the Invisible Gardener’s idea for ‘a cloister’, to create this stunning entrance structure, which symbolises The Goose protectively spreading her wing over visitors as they enter the garden. It serves both as a shelter and as a rainwater harvester; rain runs down through timber gutters into the pond.
Carved into the beams, you can read one of the poems from The Southwark Mysteries – ‘Here lay your hearts, your flowers…’ – which is recited at all the vigils, as well as John’s dedication to those buried at Crossbones. Arthur also created the timber seats built into the drystone wall beds, and our garden tool shed, known as The Clink, complete with a carving of a gargoyle of the Bishop of Winchester spitting water onto a goose’s back. All the wood used in Arthur’s creations was sustainably sourced personally by him.
The Invisible Garden
The Campaign for a Garden of Remembrance on the site of the old burial ground goes back to the 1990s. For the first decade it focused on the shrine at the red iron gates and the vigils held in the street (Redcross Way). During this time, many on-site security guards expressed support for the garden. One of them, Andy Hulme, began leaving signs at the shrine. Around Christmas 2006, a huge hank of mistletoe was hung there with a message: ‘Take a piece of me.’
Soon after, Andy, who was then living on-site in a caravan, contacted John, showed him how he’d begun work on a garden and gave him a key to the site. On 23rd April 2007, Friends of Crossbones cleared rubbish from the site, sowing the seeds of a wild garden and conducting a simple ceremony of rededication.
Andy, who had previously been Vivienne Westwood’s gardener and the muse for one of her fashion collections, became known as the Invisible Gardener. He cultivated a garden that enhanced what was already there. Utilising the rubble from the original lime mortar used to ‘cap off’ the burials after the graveyard was closed, he planted poppies and created a beautiful topiary heart and cross. Other plants crept in, sometimes naturally, sometimes introduced by Friends of Crossbones. Andy’s ‘Infinity Beds’, on the south side of the garden, opened onto a lawn which was bounded on the north by a rubble saltire cross (symbolising the ‘open pathways’ of Crossbones) and a pyramid.
The Infinity Beds
The Infinity Beds were formed from lime mortar rubble in the shape of an infinity symbol, a figure of eight representing eternity, empowerment and everlasting love. These had been broken up during initial work on the garden, and were restored as part of the new garden design. As much of the rubble was missing, construction company Costain, contractors on the new London Bridge station upgrade, kindly sourced and donated recycled London stock bricks and rebuilt the Infinity Beds.
The effect is of a ‘breaking out’ of the layers of lime mortar and concrete which had been used to ‘cap off’ the burials. Red, white and purple flowers were used to heighten the contrast between this ‘gash’ in the ground and the other limestone beds which are filled with softer pastel-coloured flowers and plants. The Infinity Beds also feature herbs like rosemary ‘for remembrance’ of The Goose and her outcast dead.
The Pyramid was originally created by the Invisible Gardener. Volunteers have since scattered seeds at its base and allowed nature to find her way into all the cracks. One side of the pyramid is covered with oyster shells from Borough Market. Before the 20th century, oysters were remarkably cheap, and one of the few foods not to be taxed, making them a staple food of the poor. Local people would buy a bag of oysters from the smacks moored on the river near London Bridge, washing them down with stout or gin. Many of the people buried here would have eaten them regularly during their lifetime.
The shape of the pyramid is echoed on the north side by a triangular pond.
It was recreated by Serge, one of our first volunteer wardens, based on an original pond made by the Invisible Gardener. From one angle, you can see The Shard reflected in the water.
In the Indian Tantric tradition, a downward-pointing triangle represents shakti or female creative energy.
The Map of The Liberty
The Southwark Mysteries began with a poem ‘revealed to John Crow by The Goose at Crossbones…’ It grew into a cycle of Mystery Plays and a Glossolalia of local lore, and was published by Oberon Books in 1999.
The complete Mystery Plays were performed in Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral on 23rd April 2000, and again in the Cathedral in 2010. The backdrop for the performance in Shakespeare’s Globe was a ‘Map of The Liberty’ painted on canvas. In the prologue to the play, Jubilee Line tunnellers dig up Crossbones, thereby raising the spirit of The Goose, who comes bursting through a rip in the canvas. This was the first time The Goose appeared on a public stage.
For the later production in Southwark Cathedral, the map was embroidered onto a blanket worn by the John Crow character. In 2016, The Map of The Liberty was painted onto the northern hoarding at Crossbones by Katharine Nicholls and John Constable.
The Old Door
The way into the Invisible Garden used to be through a battered door on Redcross Way. The legend ‘Touch For Love’ was drawn by John Lycett Green, grandson of the poet John Betjeman, as a sign to someone who was feeling lost and lonely.
John Constable’s inscription on the inside of the door paraphrases a line from The Southwark Mysteries:
‘We don’t dick with a Goose’s curse.’
The Shrine at The Red Gates in Redcross Way
The Halloween of Crossbones is a ritual drama which has been performed every 31st October since 1998. It begins with poems and songs from The Southwark Mysteries telling the story of the Goose and the spirits of Crossbones. There are simple, inclusive ceremonies to mark this night when ‘Here the veil between the worlds dissolves…’ 12 It ends with a procession to the red iron gates in Redcross Way. Candles are lit, prayers said and songs sung. The names of the dead are read aloud and ribbons tied to the gates, transforming them into a multifaceted shrine.
On 23rd June 2004, John and members of Green Angels, a community self-help group, rededicated the shrine, inaugurating the first ever ‘Vigil for the Outcast’. These Vigils have been held at 7pm on the 23rd of every month since then. Local craft-worker Katy Nicholls made artefacts to create a shrine at the gates and successfully applied to Southwark Council for the memorial plaque on the gates, which commemorates those buried at Crossbones: ‘R.I.P The Outcast Dead’.
The shrine then grew spontaneously, and is now regularly renewed with flowers, ribbons and mementoes. These gates, best-viewed from the street (Redcross Way), feature in many guidebooks and media reports, and attract visitors from all over the world.
In 2014, Transport for London (TfL), the owners of the site, and the gates, relocated them to sit alongside the old burial ground. The photograph shows the gates in the process of being moved, seeming to fly in front of The Shard!
Behind the shrine of the beribboned gates is a statue of the Virgin Mary protectively cradling a goose.
Pagans prefer to see Her as the Goddess. There’s also a Buddha-head hiding in the Infinity Beds! Crossbones welcomes all faiths and none.
The Green Man
A wealth of seasonal festivals are celebrated at Crossbones. The Lion’s Part theatre company end their annual October Plenty festival with a procession from Borough Market to the shrine at the Crossbones gates. It’s led by the Green Man (or Berry Man), a traditional fertility figure, painted green and clad in bushes, leaves and berries.
The procession is a greeted by a song written by John Constable:
The Green Man is come to bless our garden
With flowers and trees for future children… 13
Harvest offerings are tied to the gates and the Green Man blesses the garden. When the new Garden of Remembrance opened in 2015, David Risley, the actor-artist who created the role, presented an image of the Green Man. It can be seen on a plinth in the south-west corner of the garden, accompanied by an image of a Green Woman.
The Limestone Beds
We’ve sought to mark out what came from the Invisible Garden and its history as a burial ground and what was ‘introduced’.The Infinity Beds of rubble and London Stone are meant to be raw and unapologetic. The limestone beds by contrast offer a softer, contemplative space with pastel shades which reflect this. These were built by volunteers under the skilful eye of John Holt from the London School of Drystone Walling. The ‘stacking’ of stones is an ancient human activity – from the construction of paths, boundaries and way marking, to burial mounds. Over time, moss will colonise and colour the limestone, incorporating these beds into the site.
Crossbones Culture: Transforming Visions
The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable’s was inspired by a vision at Crossbones burial ground. Constable has also written extensively about Crossbones in many magazine articles, in his books Secret Bankside and Spark In The Dark, and in his contributions to the poetry anthology Urban Shamanism (also featuring David Amery, Aidan Dunn and Niall McDevitt).
Other books featuring the burial ground include A Goose In Southwark by Chris Roberts and Carl Gee and Sunday At the Crossbones by John Walsh.
Songs and poems have been composed by Katy Carr, Jacqui Woodward-Smith, George of Bermondsey and many others.
Crossbones artworks include posters by Zanna and Jimmy Cauty, sun-wheels, spiderwebs and other totems created by Katy Nicholls for the shrine at the Red Gates, and the ‘Our Lady’ banner by Jennifer Cooper.
Our work at Crossbones was extensively referenced in papers presented at the 2016 Urban Sacred In Southwark conference. The many academic books and articles on the subject include Dr Adrian Harris’ Honouring The Outcast Dead: The Cross Bones Graveyard, Steph Berns’ In Defense of the Dead: Materializing a Garden of Remembrance in South London and The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London by Professor Sondra Hausner of Oxford University (Indiana University Press)
1 John Stow, A Survey of London: written in the year 1598 (London, 1598; Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2005)
2 William Taylor, Annals of St Mary Overie (London, Nichols & Son, 1833)
3 Brickley and Miles, The Cross Bones Burial Ground (MoLAS monograph, 1999)
4 Lord Brabazon, letter to The Times (10th November 1883)
5 Brickley and Miles, The Cross Bones Burial Ground (MoLAS monograph, 1999)
6 Explanatory description of skull in London Bodies exhibition (Museum of London, 1998). This same â€˜syphilitic skullâ€™ featured in the Wellcome Collection exhibition Skeletons: London’s buried bones, 2008.
7 Dr David Green, Cross Bones Burial Ground: Unearthing the lives of the Southwark poor
8 Brickley and Miles, The Cross Bones Burial Ground (MoLAS monograph, 1999)
9 John Constable, The Southwark Mysteries (Oberon Books, 1999; reprinted 2011)
10 John Constable, The Southwark Mysteries (Oberon Books, 1999; reprinted 2011)
11 London Assembly Question No: 1938 / 2008 Cross Bones Graveyard SE1, and Question No: 1756 / 2011
12 John Constable, Spark In the Dark (Thin Man Press, 2014)
13 John Constable, Spark In the Dark (Thin Man Press, 2014)
NOTE: The burial ground was traditionally spelt Cross Bones (two words), though in modern usage it is often written Crossbones. Both alternative spelling are used here, depending on context.
‘When will the Garden be finished?’
The Volunteer Wardens are often asked this question. To which we say: ‘Never, we hope! Like life itself, it’s a work in progress!’
A garden is not a fixed thing – it should evolve naturally. We try not to impose any ‘Master Plan’ but to enhance what’s already there and to preserve some signs of the garden’s brutal, broken past. Some of us like to think that the spirit of The Goose is acting through the garden. Some plants are donated, other seeds just ‘blow in’. If they aren’t too invasive or poisonous, we invite them to stay and find their place.
Crossbones Garden is currently managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust, an established local environmental and volunteering charity. The charity has an excellent track record of managing open spaces, in collaboration with friends’ groups, local residents, businesses and site landowners. The charity works closely with Friends of Crossbones, facilitating a regular Crossbones Forum held every couple of months, where ideas and plans for the garden are discussed openly.
We’re now working with Transport for London to obtain a longer lease to secure the future of the site and which will then make fund-raising easier. To maintain the garden, we rely solely on the kind donations of visitors and supporters, and the hard work of our volunteers.
If you’d like to volunteer, or donate to support the work at Crossbones, please contact:
Bankside Open Spaces Trust, 50 Redcross Way, London SE1 1HA
Or you can leave a donation with one of our friendly volunteer wardens.
To become a Friend of Crossbones, to sign our petition and for information on events and the campaign to protect this unique place, please use the contact form on this website.
Special thanks to Katy, Jacqui, Jennifer, Andy, Irene, Pete, Sophie, Serge, Natalie, Zanna and all the Friends of Crossbones and Volunteer Wardens who have given so generously of their time to make it all happen!
Text (c) John Constable with additional material by Helen John
Photos (c) Katy Nicholls, Max Reeves, Juliet Singer
This article was commissioned by Bankside Open Spaces Trust