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Chapter 18: John Crow’s megaphone

By Paul Slade
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Cross Bones
Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

Nothing that happens in Southwark remains consigned to the past for long and that turned out to be as true for the theft of human remains as everything else. In April 1998, jurors at Southwark Crown Court heard the case of Anthony-Noel Kelly, a local artist accused of stealing body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons to use in making casts for his sculptures.
Kelly was arrested after showing the resulting work at a 1997 art fair, which alerted Sir Laurence Martin, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy, to the sculptures’ origin. He called in the police, whose search of Kelly’s Southwark studio uncovered 30 stolen body parts. These included three human heads, six arms, ten legs (with the feet still attached), three torsos and a brain. He’d paid Niel Lindsay, an RCS embalmer, Ł400 to wrap these body parts in black bin-liners, smuggle them out of the college in his rucksack and deliver them to the Southwark studio after dark. The thefts, described by prosecutor Andrew Campbell-Tiech as “exceptional, unusual and macabre”, were carried out between June 1991 and November 1994.
Geoffrey Rivlin, the judge hearing this case, was forced to grapple with the same issue which had protected so many body-snatchers in the past: under British law, only an item defined as property could be stolen and human remains were firmly excluded from that category. Rivlin’s answer was to rule that the skilled work of dissection which the RCS had invested in the stolen parts effectively transformed them into college property. When the jury came back with a guilty verdict, Kelly and Lindsay became the first people ever convicted in England for stealing body parts. Rivlin gave Kelly nine months in jail and Lindsay a suspended sentence of six months. The lesson would seem to be that, if you want to steal human body parts in London today, you’re probably safer targeting a graveyard than a hospital. (152)
Press stories like this have helped Southwark maintain its grisly reputation even today. There have been a host of features recounting the Cross Bones story in British newspapers since 1998 – many of which I’ve already quoted here – and a fairly regular trickle of items on London’s local TV news programmes too. The BBC’s decision to build that 2010 episode of History Cold Case round the site kicked TV’s contribution up to a national level. All this media activity, combined with John Constable’s tireless efforts to publicise the site’s uncertain future, has ensured Cross Bones seeps a little further into the public consciousness with every passing year.
Novelists have also been quick to do their part. A simple search of Amazon UK’s book pages turns up not only the David Orme novel I’ve already mentioned, but also Kathy Lynn Emerson’s Face Down Among The Winchester Geese (2007), John Walsh’s Sunday At The Cross Bones (2008), Kate Rhodes’ Cross Bones Yard and Judith Arnopp’s The Winchester Goose (both 2012). Orme’s novel was published in 2012 too, suggesting the supply of these books is accelerating fast. Most seem to operate in the area where historical fiction intersects with either crime or romance novels.
For my money, Walsh’s is probably the most intriguing book of the lot, telling as it does the story of Father Harold Davidson, the self-styled “prostitutes’ padre” of 1920s London. I particularly like this little verse from the novel’s frontispiece, which Walsh dates to about 1880:

The Working Girl’s Life
Monday in the nursery ward,
Tuesday in the schoolyard,
Wednesday painting lipstick on,
Thursday going with George and John,
Friday at the Crown with Billy,
Saturday weeping down the ‘Dilly,
Where will she rest from her tears and moans?
Sunday at the Cross Bones. (153, 154)

Musicians have begun taking an interest in Cross Bones too, with the past four years alone producing songs about the place from Stuart Forester, John Crow, The Unbending Trees, Pillarcat, Gaggle and Cherry Choke – details of which you’ll find elsewhere in this account. The KLF’s multi-talented Jimmy Cauty chose a photo-montage poster called Geese and Bones for his own contribution, copies of which John Constable found him pasting to the Cross Bones wall one night in June 2008. He invited Cauty inside to inspect the site for himself and the two men evidently hit it off. “Jimmy especially liked John Crow’s Shrine for Dangerous Helpers with its broken gin bottle and cigar tin, its black feathers, its hairy Patron Saint of Addicts and verses giving thanks for being ‘set free from mental slavery’,” the Cross Bones website says. (155)
It was also Cauty who suggested inviting Banksy - perhaps the most famous graffiti artist in the world at that time - to paint a piece on Cross Bones’ surface tarmac, “so they can’t dig up the bones without destroying his work”. This floor mural (or “floral” as Constable dubbed it), could make a fine replacement for Banksy’s 2002 Chequebook Vandalism piece on the Clink’s outside wall, which Southwark Council foolishly painted over. “Sorry, Banksy,” Constable told the artist when he wrote to him with Cauty’s suggestion. “Please can we have another one?” (156)

The effect of all this publicity can be clearly seen in the changing tone of developers’ plans

In 2007, Constable also wrote to the Tate Modern on Bankside, playfully suggesting that it might want to buy the Cross Bones gates as part of its Tate in the Community project and then give them a permanent exhibition in the gallery. “Here is a unique, textured, living artwork, deeply rooted in the local community and the history of this site”, Constable reminded the Tate. “[This site’s gates are] the manifestation of a deep creative response to it, constantly changing as new artists contribute.” The Tate replied politely that it could buy only works produced by a single identifiable artist – and preferably a recognised one at that. In May 2008, it put together an art trail through Southwark, inviting people to find the work of various Madrid artists sited along the way, but once again Cross Bones didn’t get a mention.
And perhaps that’s just as well. Rather than relying on the high art establishment, it feels much more fitting that Cross Bones should be immortalised by the ordinary people who find such inspiration and interest there. There are well over a dozen short amateur films about Cross Bones on YouTube, ranging from simple footage of the latest vigil to John Constable interviews and a cabbie’s jokey ghost tour. As I write this in September 2013, the most popular of these has already racked up close to 17,000 views.
The effect of all this publicity can be clearly seen in the changing tone of developers’ plans for the site they now call Landmark Court. As recently as 2002, Transport for London’s documents seemed keen to deny Cross Bones’ significance altogether, stressing that “the site has been previously developed”, that “there is no reason why development should not occur in the future” and quoting planning inspectors’ remarks to that effect in TfL’s 2002 Department of the Environment appeal. But any developer with an eye on Cross Bones now knows he must spotlight his determination to treat the site sensitively and be sure to include plans for a memorial garden there along with everything else.
Anyone hoping to get away with mere lip-service to these ideas will find Constable waiting to remind them of any promises they later break. His ceaseless campaigning for Cross Bones has given John Crow a powerful megaphone – and everyone knows he won’t be shy to use on the Goose’s behalf. “The only card we’ve got to play is public relations,” Constable reminded me. “Ten years ago, when they talked about developing this site, they just talked about vacant land, derelict land – made it sound like it was just an eyesore with no significance at all. Now it’s the Cross Bones Graveyard. That’s a small, but very important achievement.”