Cross Bones Graveyard

It was a beautiful sunny day, a good day to get out and about and rain had been forecast for the rest of the week, so we decided to seize the moment and hop on a tube to Borough (one stop beyond London Bridge), where today's adventures begin!

Sometimes, we're so excited we forget to alight at the appropriate stop but, today, we were on the ball, eyes on the prize. Disembarking at the correct stop, we were doing well and, map in hand, we wandered along deserted Redcross Way, anticipation mounting.

Almost at the very end and just before an old railway arch, was some London Underground hoarding, and just next to that were the cemetery gates of Cross Bones Graveyard that we had come to see.

Cross Bones Graveyard is thought to be the final resting place of about 15,000 destitute children, single women and prostitutes. The unconsecrated cemetery in Southwark was used from the 16th century until it closed in 1853 to bury the remains of prostitutes who were licensed by the church to work in the area. It became a paupers graveyard in the 18th century. Up to half of those buried are thought to be children. In the 1990s archaeologists turned up 148 skeletons on the site, and it's now a place of pilgrimage. The iron gates at its entrance are adorned with all sorts of trinkets, beads, feathers, flowers and hundreds of brightly coloured ribbons. At 7pm on the twenty-third of each month, anything from 30 to 100 people take part in a ceremony to honour these unsung dead.

The bronze plaque on the gates bears the epitaph:
Cross Bones
In medieval times this was an unconsecrated
graveyard for prostitutes or "Winchester Geese"
by the 18th century it had become a paupers'
burial ground, which closed in 1853.
Here, local people have created a memorial shrine.
The Outcast Dead

A little shrine behind the locked gates


Cross Bones has been in the news a lot lately because, sadly, the land, part of a 1.8-acre site owned by Transport for London (TfL) and Network Rail, is up for redevelopment. One London paper recently ran the headline, "For sale...15,000 lost souls" and went on to explain that the graveyard could be the site of new flats.  The area has gone from being the poor relation of London to a prime piece of real estate.  Campaigners insist that any plans for upmarket apartments, shops or offices should incorporate a public garden of remembrance.  Anthony Bickmore, head of Property at TfL, said, "The future use of the site would be a comprehensive redevelopment and we have been working with the community to sensitively address local concerns." 

There is such a strong sense of respect and heartfelt sympathy here for those passed, demonstrated by the care that has obviously been taken in decorating these rusty old gates, that it would be a huge shame to lose this awe-inspiring, wonderfully quirky but profoundly moving memorial. 

On the way to the graveyard, we visited the Red Cross Garden, also on Redcross Way, which the street takes its name from. 

In April it's ablaze with red tulips in honour of the Red Cross, which sounded blooming lovely, so we'd picked the perfect time to visit. On arrival, it didn't look like much from the outside but looks can certainly be deceiving and, wandering around the little park, we realised there was a lot more to it than first meets the eye.

Like these little cottages on the far side of the park.  The garden and the cottages were laid out in 1887 by Octavia Hill, who saw the importance of places to play, relax and enjoy nature for poor people living in the cramped and squalid conditions of 19th century Southwark.

These cottages are not almshouses.  They were built for the "working poor" of Southwark, who paid rent.  Octavia provided individual, small-scale homes and demonstrated that such housing could be well-managed and offer homes people would want to live in.  She was right, they are still managed as social housing today and are very popular.

"These cottages will be most tempting and happy little homes, I hope." - Octavia Hill

To the left is the hall Octavia developed to give local people activities like acting, dancing, gymnastics, crafts, reading, lectures, parties and the Southwark Flower Show

The front door of No. 1

The land was owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who were getting a very bad press in the 1880s about the state of housing which they owned around Southwark. They were worried enough to bring in Miss Octavia Hill, who they heard had been doing a grand job in improving conditions in housing in Marylebone and other areas in London, whilst also managing to collect rents and manage repairs.

Octavia Hill worked for some time in the area but became increasingly concerned that the slum houses were being pulled down and people were being moved into tenements, which had no outdoor space for children to play. She wrote to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, asking for some land to be made over to her in trust so that she could make a garden.

She was successful in her request and given this site, then covered by a derelict paper factory (in the days when paper was made of rags). She and her supporters spent six weeks burning the remaining paper to clear the site. Imagine the smell, along with that of local tanneries, vinegar factories and breweries.

But who was Octavia Hill? Born in 1838 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, she went on to:

- Co-found the National Trust
- Compaign for open spaces such as Parliament Hill and Hilly Fields
- Found one of the earliest housing trusts
- Pioneer social work
- Create the profession of Housing Management
- Co-found the first Civic Amenity society
- Found the Army Cadet movement (just here, right in the hall you can see across the garden)
- Stage anti polution exhibitions

This remarkable woman died in 1912 and had a splendid memorial service, held just up the road from here, in Southwark Cathedral.  She is buried in Crockham Hill in Kent.

On a notice board in the garden - how perfectly lovely and charming!

Then there were the mosaics, both new and old.

There were two wall mounted plaques underneath the mosaic.  The first reads:

IN 1896

and the second reads:



Another, more recent, brightly coloured mosaic in celebration of the garden

After the cottages and mosaics, we got really excited by the little pond.  It was a veritable nature reserve, filled with tadpoles and newts and pond skaters, and I was transported back to my childhood.  There we were in our office attire, on hands and knees, happily examining the little critters, undeterred by the large party of elderly sightseers who had just entered the park, obliviously happy, head nearly in water, snapping away.

Little, wooden ladybird houses on stilts, to encourage insects to thrive in the garden

On the way to the garden, we passed a couple of buildings of note. Firstly, there was a little blue door with a rather unfancy plaque mounted on the wall to the left.  Aparently, this was the house of Janet Johnson, pioneer welfare worker.

Secondly, there was the intriguing Ragged School on Union Street.  The Ragged School Union and Shaftsbury Society was opened by the Marquis of Northampton in 1907. A Christian mission, set up to educate and assist impoverished children in the Southwark area - "The noisy crowd of London's dirtiest and most ragged children," according to The Right Hon. R. K. Causton M.P..

Ragged schools were charitable schools dedicated to the free education of destitute children in 19th century England. The schools were developed in working class districts of the rapidly expanding industrial towns. In 1844, the Ragged Schools Union was established to combine resources throughout the country, providing free education, food, clothing, lodging and other home missionary services for these children.

The Ragged School movement grew out of recognition that charitable and denominational schools were not beneficial for children in inner-city areas. Working in the poorest districts, teachers (who were often local working people) initially utilised stables, lofts, and railway arches for their classes. There was an emphasis on reading, writing, arithmetic and study of the Bible. The curriculum expanded into industrial and commercial subjects in many schools. It is estimated that around 300,000 children went through the London Ragged Schools alone between 1844 and 1881.

There is a Ragged School Museum in the East End of London that shows how a Ragged School would have looked - it is housed in buildings previously occupied by Dr Thomas Barnardo.

In 1843, Charles Dickens began his association with the schools and visited the Field Lane Ragged School. He was appalled by the conditions, yet moved toward reform. The experience inspired him to write "A Christmas Carol". While he initially intended to write a pamphlet on the plight of poor children, he realised that a dramatic story would have more impact.

Dickens continued to support the schools, donating funds on various occasions. At one point, he donated funds, along with a water trough, stating that it was "so the boys may wash and for a supervisor"! (from a letter to Field Lane). He later wrote about the school and his experience there in "Household Words".  In 1837, he used the area called Field Lane as a setting for Fagin's den in his classic novel, "Oliver Twist".

WWII saw the Saint Mary's Working Girls Club take over the premises. During the 60's, 70's and 80's the building housed a Gentleman's drinking establishment and pool hall, which closed down in 1985. The building remained unoccupied for ten years until it was acquired by filmmaker and photographer, Zanna, and has since been used as a photographic studio, film set and exhibition space.

What with The Red Cross, Octavia Hill, Janet Johnson and The Ragged School, the area has been a huge draw for humanitarians and good causes.  However, due to its proximity to the City, the area is no longer the "poor relation of London" but an eclectic mix of new and old, derelict and eccentric, and you get a strong sense of its past exploring its streets, and certain reminders of its history remain.

After the buildings of note, park and graveyard, we headed in the direction of London bridge to catch our train back to work, but not before stumbling across a few other places of interest that we hadn't planned on. It was a fascinating area to get lost in. First there was the derelict "Goods Inwards" building from about the 1860s at 34-36 Southwark Street, with its dilapidated arches, pasted grafitti head and the warning, "Dangerous Structure Keep Out".

Then there was the grand old blue-columned building further along at no. 24, a Grade II commercial premises built as a hop and malt exchange with offices and showrooms.  A beautiful building from the front, it was also interesting to note on the approach just how narrow it is (see first pic below, taken from The Victorian Web).

And finally, more hop-related architecture at the crossroads, the "WH & H LeMay Hop Factors" red brick building. 

All three buildings clearly demanded more attention than we were able to give on our rush back to work.  There are also a lot of historical pubs in the area but we'll have to save the hop-related beverage sampling for another time.


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