I first encountered this garden when it was just a few ribbons tied to a fence. Having just visited the nearby Red Cross community garden, I was on my way up to Southwark Street when I noticed a handful of ribbons rippling in the breeze. I paused to read what they signified, and the history gave me goosebumps. The ribbons commemorated the medieval prostitutes who were licensed by the Church yet not permitted Christian burial – the outcast dead. A ‘meanwhile garden’ has recently been established after several years of informal remembrance.
The story of this garden began with the discovery of human bones during the expansion of the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s. Subsequent research recovered a forgotten history: this patch which the local council had categorised as ‘derelict land’ had, in fact, been a place of burial. Most recently, it was a paupers’ burial ground – by 1853, however, it had become “completely overcharged with dead” and any further committals ceased due to public health risk. It is widely believed that, prior to the Victorian era, this was a ‘single woman’s churchyard’ where ladies of the night were buried (although the evidence for this is not conclusive).
In conjunction with the unearthing of these skeletons is the work of poet and writer, John Constable. He described having visions, or visitations, during a session of automatic writing 0n 23rd November 1996 and channelled a character, or spirit, called the Goose ( a term for prostitutes in medieval times). This character was one of the Winchester Geese, who were the sex workers operating within the semi-autonomous manor ‘the Liberty of the Clink’ overseen by the Bishop of Winchester. The Goose emerged in Constable’s writing as a fully formed character, taking the work in a direction unknown. The resulting poem, The Book of the Goose, reverberated with the secret history of Southwark, and coincidentally mentioned an unconsecrated burial ground for women. Later, when investigating the history of the area, and much to his surprise, Constable found that there had indeed been an unconsecrated burial ground, and that it had recently been dug up due to urban development.
John Constable was instrumental in turning this ‘vacant lot’ into a place of commemoration. He leads monthly vigils during which ribbons with the names of the dead (obtained from the London Metropolitan archive) are tied to the perimeter fence: Mary – daughter of William Booth, a lighterman; Margaret Burton, Redcross Street, age 39; Thomas Bushell, workhouse; to name but a few. Constable says: “The Goose’s teaching is about embracing the people who are very often excluded… People who, for whatever reason have been marginalised are brought in and celebrated.” It’s a process of healing, because in remembering and honouring them, “we give them the opportunity to find their way forward”.
The garden itself is a thing of rough beauty. Its entrance is spanned by the ‘goosewing’ archway, designed and constructed by the artist Arthur de Mowbray. Anserine symbolism is found elsewhere in the garden: the Madonna of Crossbones holds a goose in her arms, and figurines of geese stand alongside other items of dedication.
One of the main areas is the ‘infinity bed’, built using a combination of rubble from the site and donated bricks of London stock. A burial mound indicates where skeletons were first discovered, and a focus on red foliage and flowers represent the life force of the people buried here. Other beds have been made using Cotswold limestone, using dry stone walling techniques. The planting is generally in a pastel palette to suggest the Feminine (a stereotype which is my only complaint!)
Possibly one of my favourite symbolic gestures was the presence of bee hotels for solitary bees: “nature’s social outcasts”.
Whatever you think of John Constable’s mystical approach, there is no denying this is a poignant place. Cross Bones has become more than a place of remembrance for outcasts of centuries past. For example, I remember seeing a ribbon on one of my first visits dedicated to the victims of the Crossbow killer, who murdered five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006, and there is a dedication to “all suicides” scribbled on a wooden board in the garden. The Friends of Cross Bones have secured a three year lease for the land, and I hope this will be a precursor for the meanwhile garden becoming permanent.