that, I think, is just about that. The only remaining question is what will happen to Cross Bones next and whether its unique role among London’s historic burial grounds will be honoured by future developers on the site.
One thing we can say for sure is that there’s going to be a building put up there one day. London’s city-state economy has weathered the austerity of the past five years far better than the rest of Britain and that’s particularly true of the financial firms now colonising Southwark from their base across the river. A 2004 study showed that the new Jubilee Line extension, completed at the turn of the Millennium, increased the value of Southwark real estate by a total of about £800m and the Thameslink extension programme now underway can only boost it further.
At the end of October 2013, Southwark Council sold a dilapidated six-bedroom block on Park Street, about 150 yards from Cross Bones, for an astonishing £2.96m. “The building needs extensive repair and refurbishment, but its proximity to the Shard and fashionable Bankside area of the capital puts it in a prime part of a borough where house prices have risen by almost 10% over the past year,” The Guardian’s October 28 issue reported.
The £450m Shard tower, opened just streets away from Cross Bones in February this year, makes the area equally irresistible to office developers. Already, the commercial property agent Deloitte has coined the name Landmark Court for Cross Bones and is advertising its availability online as “a rare opportunity to acquire a largely-cleared landmark development site […] in an area undergoing significant enhancement”. It hopes to hear from anyone wishing, “to comprehensively develop the site”. (181)
Anyone planning to build at Cross Bones would have to remove all the site’s human remains first and see to it they got a proper burial elsewhere. John Harris of TCS Exhumations, who handled the removal and reburial on Canvey Island of 15,000 bodies at Southwark’s nearby Globe Academy site in 2008, discussed this process with the Financial Times four years later. “Clearing bodies is awkward,” he said. “Licences are needed from the Home Office and, in some cases, ecclesiastical authorities. Sometimes, especially when the property market is suppressed, the cost of exhumation can mean a site becomes uneconomic to develop”. But my guess is that the potential profits from building at Cross Bones already look big enough to make the added cost of exhumation worth bearing – and even if that’s not true now, London’s ever-rising property prices will take care of the issue soon enough. (182)
Various local politicians have pledged their support for Cross Bones’ unique character, with London mayor Boris Johnson promising no further development work will be allowed there till at least 2015. When Val Shawcross, chairwoman of the London Assembly’s transport committee, asked Johnson about the prospect of a memorial garden at Cross Bones, he replied: “I am aware of this issue and recognise the cultural and historic importance of the Cross Bones Burial Ground. The deputy mayor for transport is discussing this issue with Transport for London.” That’s all impeccably meaningless stuff, but we can draw a little more comfort from Southwark Council’s attitude.
In 2002, the council refused planning permission for a proposed office development on the site of Cross Bones, citing community concern about the spot’s sensitive history. TfL managed to get that decision over-turned with a Department of Environment appeal, but in the end the developers thought better of it and allowed their planning permission to lapse without a sod being turned. Most likely, it was a combination of the exhumation costs mentioned above plus the threat of bad publicity that put them off – but there’s no guarantee the site will be so lucky next time. In 2008, Southwark Council added the development of a memorial garden at Cross Bones to its own list of possible projects for the area, but chose not to label it a priority. That year, the council’s Community Projects Bank voted to allocate £100,000 to eventually creating a Cross Bones memorial garden, but whether that money remains on the table today is a different matter. “I’d like to know that myself,” Constable said when I asked him.
Another possibility is that any planning permission Southwark Council does eventually grant on the site comes with a quid pro quo that the developers include a worthwhile memorial garden in their plans. This sort of scheme relies on what Britain’s councils call “Section 106 money”, a portion of the developer’s budget for the site allocated to council-approved community projects, such as improvements to a local park or school. “We would fight very strongly for that,” Constable told me. “If there was a development on the rest of the Cross Bones site, then the Section 106 money could be put into the making of the garden. Have a development on Southwark Street, which is a commercial street ideal for development, but a park tucked away down Redcross Way which is accessible to all the people who work there – if they want to have their lunch there, things like that.”
That’s what Patricia Dark hopes can eventually be done with Cross Bones too. “I’d like to see it turned into a garden,” she told me. “Mint Street Park isn’t very big and it would be nice to have something with some trees, some flowers, a couple of benches. Some place that says, ‘We understand this is City South with the hustle and bustle of modern business life, but here’s a place you can just sit and contemplate things. In particular, it would be nice if there was a place to contemplate all those people who just get ground under the wheels of history.”
This raises the question of how much of Cross Bones’ messy, outlaw history could be acknowledged in any memorial garden built by what amounts to a corporate sponsor. The monument to Britain’s sex workers which many suggest including would be a touching tribute both to the murdered women named on the site’s gates today and to their many Southwark sisters of the past, but a hard pill to swallow for corporate PRs. “If you’re a Jew, a fire officer, a woman in the war, a dogs’ home, you rightfully have a tree, a plaque, a remembrance day,” campaigner Chris Student said at the gates of Cross Bones in 2012. “But if you’re in the sex industry, you have nothing. Why? Because it’s too ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’. But prostitutes have always been a part of society whether society likes it or not.” (42, 183)
The gates at Cross Bones have played an important part in acknowledging uncomfortable truths like that in the past decade and that’s why Constable would like to see both a tombstone and a plaque honouring the site’s outcast, pauper past incorporated into any memorial garden’s design. Too determined an attempt to erase Cross Bones’ awkward history, he believes, would risk turning people’s affection for the site into something more like rage. “If they stripped the gates, something would come back,” he told me. “And it might not be as gentle. It’s more likely that, if they really did that, people would start putting more scary images on the gates. They do appear sometimes, but they’re always drawn into the context of something much more compassionate and embracing and unifying. Likewise, if they sealed off the garden, I think a lot more people would be minded to try and push down hoardings or climb over the wall.
“I’ve always argued that what we’re doing offers a channel for people to express their love and care for the graveyard. And that, I suppose, is where our work at Cross Bones is connected to a much bigger agenda – and that is the agenda of how we value life itself.”
If you’d like to help protect Cross Bones and add to the pressure for a Garden of Remembrance there, please sign the Friends of Cross Bones petition.
Many thanks to John Constable, Katy Nicholls, Jennifer Cooper and Andy Hulme for their tireless work preserving and beautifying Cross Bones – and also for their help with this piece. Thanks also to Patricia Dark of Southwark’s Local History Library and to Max Reeves for permission to use his photographs here.