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Cross Bones: Introduction

By Paul Slade
<<<Contents  –  Introduction   –  Chapter One>>>
Cross Bones
Murder Ballads
Secret London

“I have heard ancient men of good credit report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church so long as they continued their sinful life and were excluded from Christian burial. And therefore, there was a plot of ground, called the single woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”
                                - John Stow’s Survey of London, 1598.

“Sleep well, you winged spirits of intimate joy.”
                                - Note taped to Cross Bone’s fence, 2011.

“Where to, mate?” the cabbie asked as I settled in my seat.
“To London’s outlaw borough,” I thought. To the sanctuary sought by every runaway Roman slave; to the Liberty of the Clink where London’s own jurisdiction is left far behind. To the home of whores, killers and cut-purses throughout our capital’s dark history. To the city’s dumping-ground for its desperate and its despised; to the streets where Victorian industrialists placed their filthiest factories; to the site of London’s wildest acid house parties of the 1990s.
Where to? “To Shakespeare’s London,” I thought. To the site where he and his friends built the original Globe theatre with stolen timbers; to the taverns and brothels where he found his models for John Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet. To the broiling nightlife of bear pits and dogfights, where the young Bard himself was dragged into court for threatening another man’s life. To the home of so much great London theatre today.

This site's become one of the most neglected, yet most potent, landmarks in London today

Where to? “To Shard City,” I thought. To the latest tumour spawned by London’s financial district, where Renzo Piano’s jagged office block is now the tallest building between Guangzhou and Chicago. To the equally soulless developments coming in its wake. To a place of female power, now overshadowed by the biggest prick in Europe; to a giant shiv waved in the face of London’s poor.
Where to? “To a patch of unquiet graves,” I thought. To the site where London’s paupers were buried in unconsecrated ground; to a cemetery built for the Bishop of Winchester’s licensed whores, but later annexed for outcast burials of every kind. To graves which were routinely emptied after only a few months to make room for the newly dead; to the shallow pits where victims of London’s regular plague epidemics were hastily consigned. To a burial ground where London’s most notorious gang of corpse-snatchers knew they’d always find easy meat.
Where to? “To a modern shrine,” I thought. To the spot where a shamanic local writer has led over 100 monthly vigils to honour its humble dead; to a site which now attracts 50,000 visitors a year. To a pair of gates which Britain’s prostitutes have made a memorial to their own; to perhaps the only place in Britain where the murdered women of Ipswich, Bradford and Nottingham are given their due. To the display of a thousand fluttering white ribbons carrying the names of three centuries’ dead; to a patch of wasteland made beautiful by an invisible gardener. To one of London’s most neglected, yet most potent landmarks.
“Where to?” he asked again. “Redcross Way,” I replied. “It’s in Southwark.”

Film studies: The Red Gates star on YouTube

Cross Bones has spawned a host of short amateur films on YouTube. These are a few of the most popular.

Crossbones – A Secret History of Southwark, by DrWot (July 2008)
Views to date: 16,884.
Includes interviews with Dr Stephen Humphrey of Southwark Local Studies and Joyce Newman, whose mother lived in Redcross Way in 1899/1900.

The People of the Crossbones Graveyard, by Michael Travis (Feb 2010)
Views to date: 8,263.
At ten minutes running time, this is the longest and best of the various Cross Bones films I’ve discovered.

The Red Gates, by LuceProctor (Oct 2009)
Views to date: 6,925.
Includes interviews with James Manning of the Sex Workers’ Union and Vee, one of the working girls who likes to visit Cross Bones.

Where the Prostitutes were Buried in London, by JandBFrench (August 2006)
Views to date: 5,975.
Includes footage of John Crow speaking at the Cross Bones gates. How bare they look compared to today!

Crossbones Graveyard, by Jamie Gregory (June 2007)
Views to date: 3,275.
When I first watched this video, a pop-up ad appeared under its footage of the Cross Bones plaque: “Enjoy exclusive offers at Liberty”. Sadly, this turned out to be not the Bishop’s Liberty of the Clink, but the fancy store in central London.

All viewing figures represent a snapshot taken in September 2013.