The Cross Bones Graveyard and the Winchester Geese



Small plaque on the gates leading to the Cross Bones Graveyard in memory of the Outcast Dead


In 1824 the 12 year old Charles Dickens found himself placed in lodgings in Lant Street in The Borough. This was because his father had been committed to the nearby Marshalsea Prison for debt and the boy needed to be lodged somewhere nearby. We know that from his earliest years Charles Dickens was a keen walker and spent much time exploring the environment in which he lived, so it is highly probable that from Lant Street he walked a few hundred yards north along Redcross Way and saw, as a young boy, the paupers cemetery now known as the Cross Bones Graveyard, called at the time the St. Saviour’s Burial Ground and traditionally called the Single Women’s Graveyard , which is located at the junction between Redcross Way and Union Street. In truth, it does not matter whether Charles Dickens went to this particular place or not, because we know both from his novels and from all the literary research that has been done that he developed a keen sense of the horror and desperation that plagued the lives of the poor of London. As an adult he was aware of the gigantic sea of poverty that lay at the heart of our capital city, from Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey to the opium dens of Limehouse. As a young boy In Southwark his vision may have been more limited, but he found himself face to face with all the greatest horrors a rich imperial city could offer, and he probably looked at all of it.


So what was this Single Women’s Graveyard? Well, during the Medieval period and up to about the nineteenth century, the church had two major power bases in England, which were Canterbury and Winchester, each with an archbishop in charge. But because London emerged as the real political centre of power, both Winchester and Canterbury realised that they needed to establish a presence near London where they could be close to real power. So they built two palaces which would be the London residences of their archbishops. Canterbury had Lambeth Palace in Lambeth, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury lives to this day, and Winchester had Winchester Palace in Clink Street, Southwark, where their archbishop lived, until the place burnt down in the nineteenth century. It was never rebuilt, so it more or less became forgotten.


In the City of London, prostitution was forbidden. This is not to say it did not happen, it did. But it was against the law. However, in the area controlled by the Palace of Winchester, which is the area of The Borough, prostitution was licensed by the church and was legal. It was known as the Liberty of Winchester, or the Liberty of The Clink. The result was that the whole place filled with prostitutes and related activities, such as the theatres used by Shakespeare and bear pits and cock pits and the like. The prostitutes became known as the Winchester Geese, for some reason I do not know. It is possible that the name came from the habit of religious establishments of keeping geese in their cloisters, I would guess for their own benefit at Christmas time. To this day, Barcelona Cathedral keeps a flock of geese in its cloister, which is a great tourist attraction.


The earliest mention of the phrase that I know of appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Written in 1591, Shakespeare has the Duke of Gloucester accosting the Bishop of Winchester with the words:


Winchester goose, I cry, a rope! a rope!
Now beat them hence; why do you let them stay?
Thee I'll chase hence, thou wolf in sheep's array.
Out, tawny coats! out, scarlet hypocrite!


Calling the Bishop a Winchester Goose is clearly intended as an insult, just like calling him a whore, and calling him a scarlet hypocrite in the last line rings true. With remarkable hypocrisy, the Church taxed the prostitutes on their income, but refused to let them be buried in sacred ground. Instead, they had to be buried in unsanctified ground as though they were garbage to be disposed of. The place chosen for ‘the outcast dead’ was in Redcross Way, at its junction with Union Street, and here was established the ‘Single Women's Graveyard’, which was a polite way of saying prostitutes. By the Eighteenth Century it had become simply a pauper’s cemetery, a place for poor people considered of little importance.


In 1853 the Cross Bones Graveyard had become so full of human remains that it was becoming a he alth hazard and was closed. Once closed, it became totally forgotten, so much so that people eventually thought it was a kind of urban myth, a legendary graveyard for the whores and paupers of London that was said to exist somewhere in Southwark. But in the late 1990s, London Transport, now Transport for London, aimed to build a new electricity sub-station to power the Jubilee Line extension, and while digging they ran into a mass of human remains under the site at Redcross Way. They had found the lost Cross Bones Graveyard. The vast majority of remains they found were women and perinatal babies - perinatal meaning from 22 weeks into pregnancy till 7 days after birth. They had rediscovered the burial ground of the Winchester Geese.


Virgin Mary with Geese

Statue of the Virgin Mary with Geese, one in her arms


The site is now derelict and a great battle is going on between Transport For London, who initially wanted to redevelop it as office blocks, then as a car park, and local residents who want to preserve it as a monument to the Winchester Geese, ‘The Outcast Dead’, and who would like it to be called Goose Garden.  Something like 148 bodies have been recovered from the site, but there are probably thousands more still there under the ground, and this gives it an importance as part of London’s heritage that cannot be ignored. The campaign to preserve the site has been led by the poet, playwright and performer John Constable, who adopts a rather shamanic persona, writing under the influence of an alter-ego known as John Crow, a great trickster. He penned the verse:


For tonight in Hell, they are tolling the bell
For the Whore who lay at the Tabbard
And well we know how the carrion crow
Doth feast in our Cross Bones Graveyard.


John Crow’s Riddle, The Southwark Mysteries, John Constable.

Despite the new-age romanticism that the verse expresses, the idea of giving recognition, much belated recognition, to ‘The Outcast Dead’ in Cross Bones Graveyard is deeply moving and worth fighting for.



The Gates to the site of the Crossbones Graveyard