We come now to the tricky question of what name I should use for the man who officiated at the Cross Bones vigil last October. Was it John Constable running things that evening, or John Crow? Constable’s own answer can be found in Dr Adrian Harris’s 2010 paper Honouring the Outcast Dead. “A newcomer to Cross Bones, apparently a little unsure about which John had shown her around the graveyard, asked if his name was John Crow,” Harris writes. “‘Yes,’ he said and added with a smile, ‘especially here’.” So: John Crow it is. (18)
Greeting a few familiar faces in the crowd, Crow picked up three or four of the candles waiting at the base of the gates and handed them out among the crowd. The women he’d chosen clutched the candles reverently to their chests, the light dancing on their faces from below. Suddenly, our gathering looked like a carol service and that proved quite an appropriate image for the ceremony that followed. Two of the evening’s helpers shrugged into yellow high-visibility vests and shuffled us all a few steps forward out of the narrow road to form a close-packed congregation around Crow and the gates behind him. These were the Goose Samurai, he explained, and the yellow “no parking” lines which now separated us from Redcross Way could be viewed either as a simple marker to keep us safe from traffic or, more mystically, as the boundary of our ritual’s “liminal zone”. The Goose Samurai themselves preferred a more playful term: “Please keep within the Lines of Death,” they reminded us every time a car passed.
On the dot of 7:00pm, Crow rang a tiny bell to mark the beginning of the ceremony. He told us a little about the history of the site and the ideas behind tonight’s event, explaining that each month’s vigil had a slightly different theme. I smiled when he mentioned in passing that every July’s vigil was dedicated to Isis, thinking what a pleasing echo this made for the ancient Roman worship nearby. Often, the vigil’s theme is a seasonal one, drawn from the pagan calendar, and tonight we were to celebrate Samhain (“sou-wain”), an old Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
Jennifer, another of the helpers, handed round a bundle of black cardboard leaves, about six inches long, cut carefully into shape and with a handwritten message added in silver marker pen. On one side, mine read, “The Goose and the Crow bring you the Samhain gift of…”. Flipping it over to complete the message, I found “…open pathways”. These, Jennifer explained, could be kept as our own souvenirs of the evening, added to the gates as an offering to Cross Bones’ dead, or passed to someone else in the crowd as a gesture of goodwill. I kept mine. (19)
As we settled into the ceremony, an atmosphere of quiet respect spread through the crowd and one which even the sillier “new age” aspects of the proceedings could not dispel. As Crow began telling us about the type of people condemned to a Cross Bones burial, for example, it suddenly felt very wrong that I should still be wearing my cap, so I found myself removing it and spent the rest of the evening bare-headed.
Crow dotted two or three songs throughout the ceremony, performing them with an acoustic guitar and encouraging us all to sing along. That’s a big ask for a thoroughly-repressed white Englishman of my generation, but even when it came to Hoof & Horn’s hippyish insistence that we are all “one with the Goddess”, I did my best to join in. I was quite emphatically not there to mock what was going on and once I persuaded myself to surrender a little, I had to admit the evening was surprisingly moving. Twenty minutes in, I found myself so swept along by the ceremony that I was reaching forward to touch the gates and chanting along with the best of them.
At the heart of every Cross Bones vigil are the long white ribbons distributed to everyone attending, each with a name, a date of death and an address or occupation inked on to it by hand. These are drawn from a list of about 150 names which Constable compiled from the St Saviour’s Parish burial register, selecting those individuals whose circumstances marked them as likely candidates for a pauper’s grave. The parish records don’t distinguish between the various different graveyards in St Saviour’s, so this is the best hope we have of putting a name to any of Cross Bones’ dead. “The truth is, the vast majority of people, we don’t even know their names,” Constable told some visitors at the gates in 2006. “These names are really symbolic of all the people who are buried here.” (20)
“It’s a tricky thing, because people like absolute certainty,” he added when I questioned him about the ribbons last year. “I went to the Metropolitan Archive and found two microfiches full of names from the 18th and early 19th centuries. My guide was really just professions and addresses. Somebody from the workhouse, somebody found dead in the street, all that kind of stuff. Someone with an address like Redcross Way, or Union Street or one of those neighbouring streets. And jobs – the sort of good, honest, working-class job that might still indicate you’re likely to end up at Cross Bones. I think the most we ever tied on the gates was 123 names at one of the Halloween vigils.”
The ribbon Jennifer handed me at last October’s vigil was labeled, “3rd November, 1838. Eliza Hennacey, Gravel Lane, aged 4 months”. When everyone in the crowd had taken one, Crow asked us each to read our own ribbon’s details aloud, over-lapping or taking turns as we pleased and then to step forward and tie it on the gates. He asked the veterans there to take a lead and about half the rest of the crowd followed suit, the names and dates spilling out to fill the night air around us. (21, 22)
When a moment’s silence opened up, I read out Eliza’s name in a strong clear voice, trying to give my tone a touch of extra poignancy when I reached her age, then tied her ribbon firmly to a bare spot on one of the gate’s upright bars. All around me, others were doing the same thing. Crow turned to face the gates and recited some Japanese verses beneath our jumbled chorus of names, dates and ages. A slight sense of absurdity seemed to strike him at this point and he said something about the vigils including some elements which seem thrown in almost at random, but that’s just the way things have evolved over the years. (23)
After another song – I believe it was John Crow’s Riddle – we turned to future plans for Cross Bones and the City of London’s new interest in Southwark. With the £450m Shard development now completed so close to Cross Bones, Crow explained, pressure to build here could only increase. Our own concerns about the site came in a long historical tradition, he added, calling forward another Cross Bones helper to illustrate this. She read aloud from an 1883 letter to The Times protesting at plans to use Cross Bones as a building site even then. In the letter, Lord Brabazon, chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, called on the authorities, “to save this ground from such desecration and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people”. (24)
In an ideal world, that’s what the Friends of Cross Bones would like too, with the site turned into a public park and turned over to the local residents. In our later interview, though, Constable acknowledged that some development there is probably inevitable and the most realistic strategy is to insist that this incorporates a small memorial garden to acknowledge Cross Bones’ significance. “Clearly, the land is worth millions,” he told me. “To tell Transport for London, ‘You can’t develop any of it’ would be insane. But at the same time, it cannot be simply about the financial value of the land – it needs to take account of what that land means to people.” (25)
Back at the gates, Crow took us through a little more of the site’s history, then asked if anyone there would like to step forward and perform a song or poem of their own. The first to oblige was Zana, a woman in wooly hat and glasses who looked rather like a put-upon librarian. She read her own poem about coming to the Cross Bones site every time she felt lost for some reason and the way it helped her celebrate a wild side to her personality which found no outlet elsewhere. Next up was a painfully shy young man called Sergai with long black hair and a black beard, who borrowed Crow’s guitar to sing a few verses which he said had occurred to him that very moment. He sang and played very quietly for a minute or two, then dissolved in a cloud of self-consciousness, handed back the guitar and melted into the crown again. “That just came from the moment, didn’t it?” Crow said as we clapped. “That’s lovely.”
Crow gave us one more of his own songs then, after about an hour of ceremony, it was time to wrap things up. We shuffled even closer in, those at front almost burying their faces in the be-ribboned gates, and Crow led us in a couple of final chants, one dedicated to the Goose herself and one to the gates’ role as an improvised shrine. As we repeated each line, Jennifer circled behind us, drizzling gin on the ground to bind us all inside the ritual’s sacred space. The gin’s juniper scent infused the air like incense and we chanted the hour-long ritual’s final words:
“Here lay your hearts, your flowers,
Your book of hours,
Your fingers, your thumbs,
Your ‘Miss you Mum’s,
Here hang your hopes, your dreams,
Your ‘Might have beens’,
Your locks, your keys,
Your mysteries.” (10, 26)
As our scrum round the gates broke off into knots of two or three, Jennifer passed the goose-shaped wicker basket round for donations to help defray the cost of the evening. The taller guys present were drafted to untie the Guadalupe bunting so it could be safely stored for another day, one or two of us took the opportunity to buy a copy of Constable’s Southwark Mysteries paperback and, amid many hugs, people started to drift away. As I turned back up Redcross Way towards the Tube, I heard a final voice from the gates behind me. “Someone finish off the gin,” it said. (27)