In the back streets of south London, a short walk from Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark Cathedral and The Shard, is the site of an old burial ground with an extraordinary history. For centuries it was a paupers’ graveyard for the area formerly known as The Mint, one of London’s poorest and most violent slums. According to local lore, it was once the final resting place for the Winchester Geese, medieval sex workers licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in the brothels of The Liberty of the Clink, which lay outside the law of the City of London.
By the time it closed in 1853, Crossbones held the mortal remains of an estimated 15,000 paupers. The eastern part was dug up in the 1990s during work on the Jubilee Line Extension. In 1996, the writer John Constable had a vision in which ‘The Goose’ revealed to ‘John Crow’ the secret history of Crossbones. This was the inspiration for The Southwark Mysteries – the epic cycle of poems, plays and esoteric lore performed in The Globe and the Cathedral – and informed the magical works at Crossbones: the creation of a shrine at the red iron gates in Redcross Way, dedicated to ‘the outcast dead’, and now a garden or remembrance.
Since 1996 John Constable (aka John Crow) and Katy Nicholls have worked to reclaim and transform Cross Bones Graveyard – from a derelict industrial works site to a world-famous shrine and garden of remembrance, a sacred place and sanctuary in the heart of the city. In 2004 they founded the Friends of Crossbones, an informal network of sex workers, poets, activists, oddballs and outsiders of all kinds. On 23rd June 2004 they conducted the first Crossbones Vigil for the Outcast, which has been held at 7pm on the 23rd of every month since.
From 2006 to 2013 Friends of Crossbones worked with Andy Hulme the ‘Invisible Gardener’ to create a wild guerrilla garden with shrines. From 2014 to 2019 Friends of Crossbones worked with Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) to open a public garden of remembrance.
John and Katy now live in Glastonbury and are no longer directly involved in the management of the garden. Having completed 23 years of active service to The Goose and her Outcast Dead, John conducted his last Vigil on 23rd November 2019. He continues to “walk the Goose” around these islands, creating new work and performing special events at Cross Bones to complete the transmission of The Southwark Mysteries, the spiritual heart of the work in eternity – of which the shrine and the garden are wondrous manifestations in time.
The Goose is loose!
Some Friends of Crossbones, calling themselves the Magical Collective, have chosen to continue the Vigils. Some gather in the street by the shrine in Redcross Way at 7pm on the 23rd of every month, using the ritual forms revealed by The Goose to John Crow and used in the original Vigils. During lockdown, diverse Friends of Cross Bones have livestreamed Vigils from their homes, for those who like to have a live connection. To fully participate, or if you’d like to conduct a Vigil, please familiarise yourself with these simple rituals, which are included with the recent individual Vigils on the Events pages.
Details of future Vigils, Cross Bones news, and updates on John Constable’s literary, dramatic and magical works will be posted on this website.
At a LB Southwark planning meeting on 15/06/2020, the planning application for Landmark Court (TfL land adjacent to Crossbones Graveyard) was granted. The planning committee also granted a 30-year lease to Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) for Crossbones Graveyard to be protected and maintained as a public garden of remembrance. The existing garden will be enhanced in line with plans agreed last year following extensive consultations between the developers, BOST and a ‘Vision Group’ including many Friends of Crossbones. Friends of Crossbones support BOST in its stewardship of the Cross Bones Graveyard, trusting that it’ll respect and be guided by the vision of a wild, DIY, garden of remembrance.
To influence the future of the Crossbones Garden by joining BOST’s Crossbones Forum, to volunteer as a warden to keep it open, to inquire about opening times, and for other information relating to Crossbones Garden, please contact BOST: firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 020 7403 3393
For information on guided walks, talks, workshops, performances, The Southwark Mysteries and John Constable’s other work, and for Friends of Crossbones enquiries, please use the contact page on this website.
In memory of Grant Burford (9th November 1972 – 18th April 2017)
– with thanks for his invaluable help with creating this website.
Photos by Katy Nicholls