14 June 2022

A mediaeval graveyard
for the ‘Outcast Dead’
and ‘Winchester Geese’

Cross Bones Graveyard, close to Southwark Cathedral, was an unconsecrated graveyard for the marginalised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us were in Southwark last week to meet shared friends at Southwark Cathedral and to visit some of the interesting corners of Southwark.

I always find myself taking notice of the stained glass window above the north-west door that depicts Samuel Johnson of Lichfield, creator of the first great English dictionary. Johnson was familiar with Bankside and Southwark, and it seems appropriate that the Cathedral Cat is named Hodge after Johnson’s own cat.

Visitors to Southwark Cathedral are invited to search for Hodge. But during our visit to Southwark last week, we also explored some hidden and often unknown places in Southwark and other parts of London.

Southwark is known for its links with Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims and John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University, who was baptised in Southwark Cathedral, and whose family lived on Borough High Street.

But how many people have ever heard about Cross Bones Graveyard, just a short walk from Southwark Cathedral?

In mediaeval times, this was an unconsecrated graveyard for the marginalised, including the ‘Winchester Geese’ or local prostitutes.

By the 18th century, this had become a paupers’ burial ground, a place for the ‘Outcast Dead.’

In time, not only the dead but their graves were out of sight and out of mind.
The Irish philanthropist Lord Brabazon, who chaired London’s Metropolitan Public Garden, Playground and Boulevard Association, wrote to The Times in 1883 to protest against the planned sale of the burial ground as a building site. He urged the public ‘to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people.’

Lord Brabazon, who was born William Brabazon in 1841, lived at Killruddery House, the family home outside Bray, Co Wicklow. He succeeded his father as the 12th Earl of Meath in 1887. When he died in 1929, Lord Meath was buried not in Southwark but in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Streets and squares in The Coombe, Dublin, named after him include Reginald Street, Reginald Square and Brabazon Square.

Meanwhile, Saint Saviour’s, which would later became Southwark Cathedral, lets Cross Bones Cemetery to Charles Hart in 1896. He set up a steam-driven fairground with nightly attractions, including shooting ranges, steam roundabouts and a ride called the Razzle Dazzle.

But this was soon closed down due to noise complaints.

Cross Roads burial yard only received the Church’s first official blessing seven years ago on Saint Mary Magdalene’s Day, 22 July 2015, when the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, conducted ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration.’

Today, this burial ground is home to a garden of remembrance that has evolved into a contemplative space and a memorial shrine created by local people.

The Liberty of Southwark and Bankside Open Spaces Trust are now working with Crossbones Forum and Friends of Crossbones to safeguard this historically significant site, and working for further enhancement of the burial ground, such as funding and longer opening hours.

Cross Bones has become a garden of remembrance and has evolved into a contemplative space and a memorial shrine created by local people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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