A visit to a hidden Dead Space in South London
This was my thought process: I have wanted to go to Crossbones for years and now here is my chance. It's a very sunny day and I hear there's a garden there now, as well as the gate full of ribbons. I'm not really sure why the gate full of ribbons is there - I think it has something to do with remembering outcasts and paupers and every forgotten person, and so I resolve to look it up - but for now I will just go there and see what there is to see. This is how every cemetery/dead space visit begins. I am not always completely sure exactly what I am going to find, but a combination of curiosity and research will see me through.
I look it up on Google Maps because I am sure I will get lost. I end up walking through the grounds of Guy's Hospital - I stop at Sainsbury's Local with all the doctors and nurses in multicoloured scrubs to get lunch. The Guy's site is all gleaming and shiny because bits of it have recently been done up. Everything here is modern. I keep walking and turn the corner into a neighbourhood pock-marked with poverty - grubby council estates that do not go with the image of SE1 that Southwark Council would probably like you to see. Then I think I am lost, so I get out my phone again but then I see a skull and crossbones on a wall, and a covered wooden walkway that leads into...where? It looks green and spacious. I walk inside and ask if it is free, and the volunteers say it is, and I emerge into greenery and take a seat under a tree. And now I am here - this is Crossbones - this is where thousands of whores and paupers are buried, right under my feet, right now. But there are no gravestones here.
Crossbones closed as a burial ground in 1853. Things were moving on and times were changing - overcrowded inner city burial grounds had been foregone in favour of lavish garden cemeteries outside of the city centre and here, in this part of London once known as 'The Mint', with the poorest and most deprived slums right on the doorstep of this burial ground, around 15,000 people had been 'laid to rest'. Burials on top of burials, over decades upon decades and centuries upon centuries. It's unknown exactly when Crossbones was established, but there are records showing that it was acquired as a burial site around 1769. A dig in the 1990's uncovered this very thing - people buried on top of people buried on top of people. Complete chaos. Women and children and babies and foetuses. Once the graveyard closed, the land was apparently sold off as a building site and right from that time there were protests to keep it from being built on. The land was unconsecrated then and it's unconsecrated now. Meaning that there's nothing stopped it from being sold on and used for the next thing. Except for the people that keep on protesting, century after century. Right now, the garden exists. But it's in the last year of it's 3 year lease, and the land is owned by Transport for London. Who knows what will happen to it next?
Imagine being poor and living in the 19th Century, and knowing that when you died, you couldn't afford a private burial and so would be thrown in an unmarked, common grave, like the one at Crossbones. Knowing you would be forgotten and one day you might be built on, and your remains, instead of being marked with a nice cross and allowed to rest in peace and silence away from the noise and bustle of the city, would play host to a modern block of flats that will be rented out to young professionals who have no idea what this land was once used for. Or that a train line might run through here, in which case you'll probably be disturbed and dug up. This actually happened in the early 1990's, when the eastern part of the site was dug up to make way for the Jubilee Line.
I am now standing in this beautiful garden, trying to imagine the people buried under my feet, and I can't, because it is so bright and sunny, and there are living humans having their lunch in relative peace and harmony. It doesn't SEEM like a cemetery here. It doesn't feel like one. It feels ALIVE. But then, don't all cemeteries feel alive? It's part of what I love about them. And this garden has been put here so that we might Remember, whilst having a green space that promotes community. It has trees and flowers and bees and a little pond, and it also has placards and wall art, explaining via poetry and song the story of Crossbones, the story of what came before this garden. So that you can learn and relax, remember and look forward, all at once. This garden is a Good Thing. It should stay.
I am bewildered, so I ask one of the volunteers about the land. The lady I speak to is obviously passionate about the cause. 'Why can't they just consecrate the land?' I ask her. 'There are too many politics' she tells me. Apparently, even today, nobody will do it. 'Consecrate' means to 'make sacred' and it's what a priest or bishop does to a piece of land where burials have or are due to take place - so that the land will be holy and protected. If this land could be consecrated - and it should be - then nobody could build on it. It seems so easy. Maybe it is - but this is a prime spot. The empty plot next door has just been given the nod by the new major of London for flats. Will this plot be next?
All of London is a graveyard. People are buried everywhere and every time a new rail tunnel is dug, more bodies fall out and into the new tunnels and it becomes more and more apparent that at one time or another, there was no stone in London unturned. In a city where the death rate often outstripped the birth rate, all those people had to be laid to rest SOMEWHERE. But THIS place has a huge following. The volunteer tells me about a woman who comes here every day to sit and drink gin, and where she has finished the bottle she leaves it as an offering. There are vigils at the gates on the 23rd of every month. Every Halloween, a procession takes place and people light candles and remember the outcasts buried here. The story of Crossbones resonates with people. After all, so many of us can relate to the idea of being an 'outcast'. Most of us have been outcast from something at some point in our lives. So many of us know what it's like not to fit in.
After I have walked around and around the garden, trying to soak in how it feels to be here, and after I have sat in peace under the tree for half an hour to read my book, I walk out and go round the corner to the gates. Before the garden was here, the gates were here. They are covered in a spontaneous shrine - thousands of ribbons and messages and trinkets tied to the gates - all left here for the 'outcast dead'. And here is all the evidence you need that people relate to the idea of being outcasts. People have tied photographs of their friends and family members who have died. Some had committed suicide. Others have written messages for the living. Someone has left a photo of their cat.
This graveyard has obviously captured the imaginations of so many. It deserves to be left alone doesn't it? But this is a city that once again, is overcrowded. Nothing is apparently sacred anymore. City-wide, local authorities are beginning to suggest that their cemeteries are opened up to new burials even though they are full. Let's open up the graves and put more bodies in there. Let's pile them on top of one another. Let's not waste an ounce of space. Really, nothing has changed since the middle ages. And so Crossbones probably won't survive. So go now, while you can. And when you go, leave a message in the visitors books so that the volunteers have prove that the garden is used and loved, that it is important, that it should stay. It's open 12-3pm, Monday to Saturday.
Click the links throughout this post to learn more about Crossbones and the history of the area.
All photographs © Christina Owen 2016.
The correct word for a cemetery enthusiast is a 'taphophile' and I used to think I was the only one. Now I know that there are others out there who find cemeteries to be peaceful and fascinating places. This section of the blog is called 'The Cemetery Diaries' and it covers traditional cemeteries as well as dead spaces of all kinds, which are found everywhere, all the time. The past is never too far away, and these dead spaces are often more alive than you'd think. Check back here for a record of all things Cemetery and my adventures in finding life and blazing colour in the most unlikely of places.