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.

Hollyhock pathway Crossbones
Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

The history of this place is not confined to some distant past; it’s an ongoing work in progress.

Beginning in 1996, John Constable aka John Crow and Katy Nicholls co-created the Friends of Crossbones network to protect Crossbones and to raise awareness of its historical, cultural and spiritual significance.

From 2006 to 2012, Friends of Crossbones worked with a mysterious ‘Invisible Gardener’ to create a secret guerrilla garden.

From 2013 to 2018, it collaborated with Bankside Open Spaces Trust to open and maintain a community Garden of Remembrance on the site of this ancient burial ground.

Crossbones Garden is currently a haven of peace and quiet contemplation in the heart of London, a place to honour and remember ‘The Outcast Dead’.

This garden is the manifestation of Friends of Crossbones work over the last 25 years.

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.

Rocque's Map 1746 - detail
Rocque’s Map 1746 – detail showing the old burial ground

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.

Old print - Mint Street, looking towards High Street copy
Mint Street, 1853

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

Southwark cover.inddOn 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.

2 The Southwark Mysteries in Shakespeare's Globe 23 April 2000 - photo (c) Juliet Singer
The Southwark Mysteries in Shakespeare’s Globe, 23rd April 2000. Photo (c) Juliet Singer

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.

39 Goose blessing
The monthly vigil, Redcross Way

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.

CLICK FOR photo set by Max Reeves: The Memorial Gates

29 Rededication
Rededication, St George’s Day, 23rd April 2007

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.

CLICK FOR Photo set by Max Reeves: The Invisible Garden

Bankside Open Spaces Trust
and The Garden of Remembrance

Skull by Zanna. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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

Evening Standard 11 Dec 2014
Evening Standard 11 Dec 2014

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.’

CLICK FOR report in London-SE1 news

John Constable aka John Crow at Crossbones - photo by Katy Nicholls
Incense for the reburial of the bones, 2015. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

Blessings & Bards 220715 - The Dean cences
The Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Crossbones, Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day, 22nd July 2015

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.

5. The shrine -photo (c) Katy Nicholls
The shrine. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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

6. The Goose Wing - photo (c) Katy Nicholls
The Goose Wing. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.’

4. The Invisible Garden - photo (c) Katie Nicholls
The invisible garden. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

7. The Invisible Garden in 2008 photo (c) Max Reeves
The Invisible Garden, 2008. Photo (c) Max Reeves

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, 23rd April 2007. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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

8. The Pyramid - photo (c) Katy Nicholls
The pyramid. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

9. The Shard in the pond - photo (c) Katy Nicholls
The Shard in the pond. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

10. The Map of The Liberty - photo (c) Katy Nicholls
The Map of The Liberty. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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

P1110330 - Copy
‘Touch 4 Love’. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

A shrine at Cross Bones gates
The shrine at the Red Gates. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

'The flying gates' - photo (c) Katy Nicholls
‘The flying gates.’ Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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

JC with Green Man
October Plenty. The Green Man with John Crow

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

Our Lady of Crossbones
‘Our Lady’ banner by Jennifer Cooper. Photo (c) Katy Nicholls

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.

CLICK FOR The Outcast Dead: Cross Bones Graveyard by Paul Slade

Songs and poems have been composed by Katy Carr, Jacqui Woodward-Smith, George of Bermondsey and many others.

Katy's Web
Spiderweb totem by Katy Nicholls

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 ‘syphilitic skull’ 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 (BOST) , 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. BOST works closely with local residents, facilitating a regular Crossbones Forum held every couple of months, where ideas and plans for the garden are discussed openly. It is now working with Transport for London and with u+i, the developer of the adjoining Landmark Court site, to obtain a longer lease to secure the future of the garden and which will then make fund-raising easier. To maintain the garden, BOST relies 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

Tel: 020 7403 3393 email: info@bost.org.uk or visit www.BOST.org.uk

Or you can leave a donation in the skull collection box or with one of the friendly volunteer wardens.

Friends of Crossbones continue to broadly support BOST’s management of the Crossbones Garden and to campaign for BOST, TFL and u+i, the developers of the adjacent site, to protect and enhance the garden, guided by the following basic principles:

* Crossbones is a DIY, wild garden of remembrance for ‘the outcast dead’ who’re buried in the Crossbones Graveyard.
* It’s especially dedicated to sex workers and other outsiders.
* It is a sanctuary in the heart of the city, a place for people to remember those buried there and their own lost loved ones, and to reconnect with the past.
* It’s NOT a blank canvas – any proposed innovations can be judged on whether they respond to and enhance what is already here, rather than imposing their own ‘top down’ vision.
* It’s ‘DIY’ in that it has evolved through work by those who feel a strong connection with Crossbones. Its ‘wildness’ reflects its history.
* Any innovations should respect its historical, cultural, emotional and spiritual significance, the history of the graveyard AND the more recent works to reclaim it as sacred ground.

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.

Facebook: Crossbones@GooseandCrow Twitter: @TheGooseSez

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 originally commissioned by Bankside Open Spaces Trust

* * *


Activist Timeline 1990-2020

charting the transformation of Crossbones Graveyard from a derelict industrial site to a world-famous memorial garden and heritage site – with dates and details of key planning decisions, public statements of intent, and actions by Friends of Crossbones and residents of Southwark, London SE1

“… there is one ‘pure’ heritage site in the area that does touch on the lives of local people in the past. It is not an officially designated heritage site. Nor is it a commercially exploited tourist site. It is instead, a bottom-up, locally generated site. Set a little to the south of the main Bankside, less than a 5 minute walk away, is the site of the Crossbones graveyard… The major difference between this and the other heritage sites is the element of popular participation… Instead of being passive visitors or viewers, people can take part in active commemoration and creation of heritage through making emotional connections with the women represented at the site… As a result, Crossbones is the most affective heritage site in Southwark… It is the one place in the area where purely local significance is really evoked, and where the lives of people in the past can be celebrated and remembered. Without physical structures to distract the mind, it can be a site of quiet contemplation and communion with past people.”

Finding People in the Heritage of Bankside Southwark, Don Henson


1991 Freehold to the ‘Landmark Court’ site including Crossbones Graveyard acquired for strategic works on the Jubilee Line extension, completed in 1996. During works on the electricity sub-station, human remains are unearthed.

Museum of London archaeologists remove 148 skeletons, which they estimate represent only 1% of the total burials, more than half of them children. The 1999 MoLAS publication states: “The excavations at Redcross Way were carried out under difficult conditions and due to circumstances beyond the control of the excavators, time pressure was severe. This led to some loss of details in the way the site was recorded.”

Concerns are expressed over the removal of more bones by contractors. The eastern part of the burial ground is occupied by the electricity sub-station. The burials in the surviving western part remain in situ.

1996 Having lived in The Borough for 30 years, writer John Constable begins work on ‘The Southwark Mysteries’, inspired by the story of Crossbones. This compendium of poems, plays and Southwark folk-lore revives the old local tradition linking Crossbones with stories of a ‘single women’s’ burial ground and the ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the Bankside brothels licensed by the Bishop of Winchester.

1998 Another local resident, artist/photographer Zanna Wilford, leads a campaign against plans to erect office-blocks on the Crossbones site.

31/10/98 The first ‘Halloween of Crossbones’: a ritual drama based on ‘The Southwark Mysteries’, culminates in a candlelit procession to the burial ground, where the names of the dead are read aloud. Ribbons and mementos are tied to the iron gates in Redcross Way, creating a shrine to ‘the outcast dead’. The Halloween ritual is conducted annually for the next 13 years.

The Museum of London opens its ‘London Bodies’ exhibition. The poster shows the “skull of a young woman with syphilitic lesions” exhumed from Crossbones. The supposed identity of this young woman is later the subject of the TV documentary ‘Crossbones Girl’.

1999 Publication of ‘The Southwark Mysteries’ and the MoLAS report on ‘The Cross Bones Burial Ground’, raising awareness of the importance of the site.

26/04/99 REF: 99/AP/0911 Planning application for erection of 3 x 4 storey buildings and car-parking. Refused. 26/03/03: allowed on appeal. 26/03/08: expired.

23/04/00 ‘The Southwark Mysteries’ performed in Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral with a large community cast. The play begins with London Underground contractors digging up the Crossbones Graveyard, raising the spirit of ‘The Goose’, the spirit of this place.

14/08/02 Colin Smith, Managing Director, LT Property, reply to John Constable’s enquiry regarding future plans for Crossbones Graveyard:

“… we are very willing to consult with Local Groups and the Local Authority in terms of long term development plans for the site.”

2000-2013 SOUTHWARK MYSTERIES theatre group conduct site-specific performances, guided walks and workshops for Southwark schools and community groups, exploring the history of Southwark with the Crossbones story at its heart.

10/04/02 REF: AP/02/0746 Planning application for erection of 4 storey temporary building for 10 years. 24/07/02: refused by Southwark Council.

2004 Friends of Crossbones is formed by John Constable and Katy Nicholls in response to local concerns about the stewardship of the burial ground. The group highlights the historic, cultural and spiritual importance of Crossbones Graveyard. It campaigns to protect the shrine at the gates and to establish a garden or remembrance on the site of the burial ground.

23/06/04 Friends of Crossbones conduct the first Crossbones Vigil for the Outcast in the street by the gates in Redcross Way: “to renew the shrine and to remember the outcast, dead and alive”. The Vigil is held at 7pm on the 23rd of every month.

2006 Katy Nicholls obtains Southwark’s Cleaner Greener Safer Award for planters and a plaque at the Crossbones gates. The plaque reads: “In medieval times this was an unconsecrated graveyard for prostitutes or ‘Winchester Geese’. By the 18th century it had become a paupers’ burial ground, which closed in 1853. Here, local people have created a memorial shrine. The Outcast Dead R.I.P.”

23/04/07 At the St George’s Day Vigil, Friends of Crossbones go on site to rededicate Crossbones as ‘sacred ground’. The group cleans the site, removing many bags of rubbish. From then until 2011, supporters work with an on-site security guard to create an ‘Invisible Garden’ with a secret entrance from Redcross Way.

17/01/08 REF: 08/AP/0160 application for use of site as temporary car-park to facilitate construction of Thameslink programme. 03/04/08: refused.

09/06/08 REF: 08/AP/1439 application for use of site as temporary car-park to facilitate

construction of Thameslink programme but moving car-park north, leaving Crossbones site untouched.

2008 Friends of Crossbones begin discussions with TfL on the future of Crossbones. Online petition launched: “We, the undersigned, call on Transport For London and all other interested parties to support the protection and conservation of the Cross Bones Memorial Gates and to work towards the creation of a Memorial Garden and public park on the historically sensitive site of the Cross Bones Graveyard adjoining Redcross Way and Union Street.”


London Assembly Question 1938 / 2008 by Valerie Shawcross AM:

“TfL own a very interesting piece of history in Redcross Way Se1 – Cross Bones Graveyard, an un-consecrated medieval graveyard for prostitutes. The land is currently enclosed in London Underground boards, but has a gate with a bronze plaque describing its history. 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 most interesting past?”

Reply to London Assembly Question 1938 / 2008 by The Mayor of London:

“The site is to be used as a Thameslink 2000 project works site between now and 2015. Future development plans have yet to be worked out but will be prepared recognising the archaeological importance of the site. This will include consultation with all parties with an interest in the site.”

26/07/08 Valerie Shawcross AM letter to Commissioner for Transport Peter Hendy:

“My long-term concern is for the future of the Cross Bones Graveyard. You may be aware that there is an historic site on the patch of land being used as a depot. This unconsecrated graveyard was a prostitutes cemetery for centuries and is of huge historical interest in Southwark. It is also a very interesting visitor attraction and helps highlight a piece of our social, economic and cultural

history of tremendous interest to me as a woman politician. I would hope to see the planning brief for any future development on the site make some accommodation for the graveyard – perhaps a piece of public realm garden… where visitors can be taken to pay respects and hear the story in full… Southwark’s ability to attract tourists for the local economy and remain as an attractive community in which to live and work is influenced by such small but important locations as the Cross Bones Graveyard…”

11/09/08: Commissioner for Transport Peter Hendy reply to Valerie Shawcross AM:

“We recognise the history related to this site and the need for that to be managed sensitively alongside a reasonable property development.”

10/09/08: Southwark Council Community Project Bank approves award of £100,000 for Crossbones: “To create a new public open space and memorial garden. This will both create a quiet place for local people and protect an important heritage site commemorating the lives of the 15,000 Southwark poor people buried here in charnel pits. The garden will also further beautify Redcross Way, which is a valuable route for pedestrians visiting or living on this conservation area.”

17/09/08: Southwark Council Project Officer Jillian Houghton, letter confirming Crossbones Memorial Garden as an approved ‘Project Bank’ project:

“The approved project ideas will help planning officers negotiate planning contributions with developers and inform us how the community wants to improve their local area… funding is dependant on availability of suitable Section 106 from new planning applications in your area…”

2009 The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) begins campaigning for Crossbones Graveyard to become a memorial for sex workers. Crossbones is established as a place of community inclusion – a place of pilgrimage for those who have lost their own lost loved ones, those excluded because of race or gender, who identify as LGBTQ+, with mental health and addiction issues, the homeless and… people of “all faiths and none”.

31/10/09 An IUSW representative speaks of the importance of Crossbones at The Halloween of Crossbones XII (2009). ‘The Independent’ magazine includes a review of the event by feminist academic and writer Katharine Angel.

2011 Friends of Crossbones initiate discussions with Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) and with Transport for London (TfL) to create a garden on the site of the burial ground.

Drivers Jonas Deloitte marketing brochure for TfL Landmark Court site states:

“The site is located in an Archaeological Priority Zone and partly within / bounded by two Conservation Areas. The unconsecrated Crossbones burial ground is located in the southern part of the site. Any development at Landmark Court would need to be sympathetic to its heritage.”

The Mayor of London, reply to London Assembly Question 1756 / 2011 by

Valerie Shawcross AM: “I recognise the special cultural and historic importance

of the Cross Bones burial ground.”

22/07/11 The Mayor of London, reply to John Constable (Friends of Crossbones):

“TfL’s officers have assured me that they will continue to work with you and other interested parties, in developing their approach for the site, and they will be looking for proposals that give recognition to the special cultural and historical importance of the Cross Bones burial ground…”

2013 The security guard no longer occupies the on-site caravan, which is broken into. Concerns about anti-social behaviour, expressed by Friends of Crossbones, local residents and police, result in the caravan’s removal.

15/10/13 Responding to Friends of Crossbones campaign for proper stewardship of the burial ground, London Underground Limited issues a licence for John Constable: “To use land at Crossbones Graveyard, Off Union Street, London SE1 1SD for gardening, tidying and general maintenance.”

2014 TfL grants a short lease to Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) to create a garden at Crossbones, and consults with Friends of Crossbones for the gates with the shrine to be relocated from the land scheduled for development to the protected graveyard area. A TfL statement says: “We recognise that this change of location of the memorial gates will be of concern to a number of people. By moving them at this point, it will protect them in the longer term and in the meantime provide a viewing point into the temporary garden. We have asked our contractors to undertake the relocation of the gates in the most careful and respectful manner possible.”

11/12/14 The ‘Evening Standard’:

“Transport for London, owner of the site off Southwark Street, last week granted Bankside Open Spaces Trust a three year lease to turn the burial ground into a community garden, to open to the public early next year. TfL is still thought to be considering selling the land, but the graveyard is protected.”

08/03/15 Public opening of the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance on International

Women’s Day. Helen John’s design retains elements of the ‘Invisible Garden’ whilst introducing raised planting beds and the ‘Goose Wing’ entrance by Arthur de Mowbray. Prior to opening, fragments of human bones are reburied, with prayers said by Fr Christopher of the Church of the Most Precious Blood.

Crossbones Garden of Remembrance receives many thousands of visitors and world-wide publicity. Working with BOST, Southwark Mysteries and Friends of Crossbones present cultural and educational events, with guided tours, performances, open days and festivals. This phase of the garden is supported by long-established local firm C.G. Hacking and Sons.

15/10/15 Southwark Council issues traffic order for closure of Redcross Way during the Crossbones Vigils, recognising the importance of this monthly community event.

22/07/15 The Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Revd. Andrew Nunn, leads a procession to Crossbones to conduct ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration’, in which the burial ground receives the Anglican church’s blessing for the first time in its history. The blessing has since taken place every year on 22nd July, St Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day.

2017 BOST holds extensive consultations with Friends of Crossbones and other local people to develop a ‘Vision Masterplan‘ funded by TfL, to guide TfL’s prospective development partners on the future of the Crossbones Garden.

20/04/17 The Urban Sacred In Southwark

a one day conference to coincide with an exhibition held in London, Berlin and Amsterdam. Three presentations by distinguished academics directly reference the Crossbones Graveyard. Oxford Professor Sondra Hausner speaks about her new book ‘The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard’ in which she explores the Crossbones Vigils as an exemplar of the ‘Urban Sacred’.

11/07/17 TfL announces that Triangle London Developments (TLD, a consortium of u+i and Notting Hill Housing) is its preferred bidder for a joint venture on it Landmark Court site. The TfL press release states: “The Cross Bones Graveyard, a historic graveyard for prostitutes and paupers, adjoining the site, will be safeguarded, with a view to support a high-quality memorial garden.

The ‘Notes For Editors’ accompanying the TfL press release states that:“TfL intends to permanently safeguard the historic Cross Bones Graveyard, which is also located on the site”

and that:

“TfL is keen to see Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) continue their tenancy and are in discussions with them to arrange a new lease that would best suit them in this unique location”

2017-19 The Joint Venture (u+i and TfL) consults with BOST, Friends of Crossbones and other Southwark residents on the proposed Landmark Court development – and specifically on the future of the Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance. Joint Venture makes clear its intention for the design of the future garden to be based on the Vision Masterplan drawn up by BOST following extensive consultations, which was funded by TfL.

30/07/18 Crossbones Graveyard is included in Historic England’s listed memorials that honour ordinary people. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Historic England’s Celia Richardson says: “Crossbones Graveyard is a very moving place… it’s really been taken over by the community. It’s been taken to people’s hearts. It’s become a shrine to the outcast dead, and it’s absolutely covered in ribbons and memorials and mementos of people who died from the 17th century inworkhouses right up to the present day.”

17-20/10/18 u+i hold three days of public consultations on their plans for the Landmark Court development and to protect and enhance the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, based on the Vision Plan developed in public workshops with Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST). Friends of Crossbones broadly supports u+i’s plans and engages with them constructively, guided by these basic principles:

• Crossbones is a DIY, wild garden of remembrance for ‘the outcast dead’ who are buried in the Crossbones Graveyard.

• It’s especially dedicated to sex workers and other outsiders.

• It is a sanctuary in the heart of the city, a place for people to remember those buried there and their own lost loved ones, and to reconnect with the past.

• It’s NOT a blank canvas – any proposed innovations can be judged on whether they respond to and enhance what is already here, rather than imposing their own ‘top down’ vision.

• It’s ‘DIY’ in that it has evolved through work by those who feel a strong connection with Crossbones. Its ‘wildness’ reflects its history.

• Any innovations should respect its historical, cultural, emotional and spiritual significance, the history of the graveyard AND the more recent work to reclaim it as sacred ground.

19/02/19 STEWARDSHIP of the Crossbones Graveyard

John Constable (Friends of Crossbones) writes to u+i, TFL and Southwark Council representatives asking that the upcoming planning application makes clear that “as the freeholder Transport for London (TfL) is ultimately responsible for the protection and maintenance of the Crossbones burial site for the length of the freehold lease”. The letter also asks that the planning application should include a specific assurance that Crossbones Graveyard is not simply ‘other open space’ or an amenity and that it is entitled to proper stewardship as:

a protected graveyard and memorial garden
an historical, cultural, environmental and community asset
a place of spiritual significance to many people

15/06/2020 the planning application for Landmark Court (TfL land adjacent to Crossbones Graveyard) is 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.

Here are the main points of the planning decision as summarised by Helen John (Hej) of BOST:

“1. The lease is now inside the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 which means that BOST now has a right to renew at the end of the 30 years lease term.
2. The landlord one year break clause proposed by TfL which in effect could have removed BOST after just one year, was removed at the request of the Council so BOST now has greater security of tenure.
3. The funding for the wardens and ongoing management is secure beyond the 6 month review period, allowing BOST to adequately fund maintenance and wardening on site.
4. The legal team at Southwark have agreed to review the Other Open Spaces proposed designation to give Crossbones stronger protection under planning law.
5. The restrictive covenant – an agreement requiring the landlord not to redevelop the burial ground – which is proposed for Crossbones will also be reviewed to provide stronger protection
6. The Section 106 agreement will also attempt to ensure that there is always at least 25 years on the lease term to help BOST secure funding for events, educational programmes, workshops etc.”

” Sadly, the 299 years, or the 70 years proposed by Councillor Noakes was rejected; this would have secured Crossbones Graveyard’s future more than any other legal document. The legal advice we’ve received is that although 299 years was not granted at committee, we should never stop asking for a longer lease from TfL.”

” We now move onto the next stage of our journey, which is to enhance Crossbones, raise its profile and educate people about its importance; this more than anything else will help to secure its future. So, on we go!”

” There is still also work to be done on the detailed design for the enhancement of Crossbones, in line with the planning application and BOST looks forward to continuing to work with the developer to achieve this. We’re very much hoping that landscape architect Luke Greysmith from Cookson & Tickner landscape architects, will still be working on the scheme and as soon as I have more information I’ll let you know.”


Thanks to Hej and the BOST team, to Lucy for speaking at the planning meeting, to members of the Crossbones Forum, to all of us who put in so much work on the Vision Group and in consultation with TfL and the developers, and to all Friends of Crossbones who have contributed to our 25-year campaign that is now bearing fruit.

When we began this long journey, many thought we were deluding ourselves by thinking we could save a piece of “derelict industrial land” with an estimated development value of £30 million!

Over the past 25 years Crossbones Graveyard has become a world-famous pilgrimage site, a shrine and a garden of remembrance dedicated to sex workers, outcasts and others who have been excluded or marginalised. Now, for the first time, its historical, cultural and spiritual significance is enshrined in law.

The above timeline is dedicated to future activists.

“The Crossbones Graveyard gatherings are about finding and establishing a sense of community particularly for those who are self-consciously not integrated into mainstream social orders…  Whatever other dimensions ritual may encompass, we know it to assert at least these two – the capacity to integrate and the capacity to resist – in its ability to jointly maintain and shift the social order… If one purpose of the ritual gathering was to create a memorial garden, the commemorative act is done. This story of attempted appropriation, and dogged resistance, refracting out from local to global and back again, is complete. The capacity to mobilize us in the present, for the health of the contemporary world, is the reason for telling this tale.”

The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual and Sexual Commerce in London Sondra L. Hausner, Associate Professor in the Study of Religion, University of Oxford (Indiana University Press, 2016)