At the end of the post, Dan offers a link to some very entertaining information about the cemetery and the “single women” who are buried there.
Back to the topic of London. Back to the topic of its dead. The two, of course, are inextricably linked, in this city full of ghosts. Despite those ghosts, and the ever present weight of the past, we don’t go a bundle for Halloween. Or at least we didn’t when I was a kid. In recent years, it has become more popular, importing from the US the idea of trick or treat and kids bagging a swag of sweets. Harmless fun I suppose. I remember trying it once when I was young, and being greeted with a stern lecture on the iniquity of demanding money with menaces.
A few places enter into the true spirit of Halloween and invoke the dead. One being the wonderfully named Cross Bones Cemetery in Bankside, London, just behind Borough High Street. The picture above is taken at Halloween after a procession has made its way to the graveyard gates – the cemetery closed in the 1850s – and a ribbon tied in memory of those buried, or once buried there, The Outcast Dead as they have become known
It is a wonderful story. The age of the graveyard is unknown, but the place was first recorded in the 16th century as a last resting place for ‘single women’, an Elizabethan euphemism for prostitutes, whose sinful ways precluded them from a Christian burial in consecrated ground. The Bishop of Winchester allowed them to ply their trade because the area was under his jurisdiction and not London’s, and the permissive area he controlled was known as the Liberty of the Clink, given its name by the notorious medieval prison (‘Clink’ is still used as a euphemism for jail over here). He licensed the brothels, and so the women became known as ‘Winchester Geese.’ When they died, some of sexually transmitted diseases, others of smallpox, turbercolosis and other common maladies of the time, they were buried in Cross Bones. As time passed, it wasn’t just ‘fallen’ women who were buried there, but also paupers unable to afford a Christian burial. It was closed in 1853 after becoming ‘completely overcharged with the dead’ and then forgotten.
Excavations for the Jubilee line in the 1990s unearthed the cemetery and its inhabitants. Many were stillborn babies, or ones that had failed to live a week, while many more were infants under a year. Of the adult bodies the vast majority were women estimated to be 36 or over. Since the excavation, a local chronicler, John Constable and a team of fellow devotees have celebrated the graveyard and its denizens, the site of which remains unbuilt on, in writings and performances. Each Halloween they perform to an audience a mystery based on the life of Winchester Goose, followed by a walk to the memorial gates, which are then decorated with hundreds of ribbons and other garlands.
A celebration of the outcast in a city that was built and shaped by them.
There’s a great audio slideshow here.