Southwark Stories: Forgotten Prostitutes & Outcast Dead

Strapped by its horn to a cast iron gate on Redcross Way, a pink ‘My Little Pony’ peeks out sheepishly from behind a sea of ribbons. Just a couple of metres to the right, hanging by a single shoelace, is a weathered brown Timberland boot. As I’m walking along, captivated by this eclectic mix of offerings, a man stops to ask, ‘You know what this is, right?’ A small featureless effigy, covered in tin foil, crackles as a gust of wind blows through. Honestly, I can’t even begin to imagine what this is.


Beneath my feet under thick slabs of concrete, lies the bodies of 15,000 prostitutes, paupers, spinsters and children. The area has an alluring and sordid past. Part of the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ – one of five lawless districts in Southwark – it was rammed full of bear-baiting pits, dingy prisons and infamously, brothels; licensed – rather hypocritically – by the powerful Bishop of Winchester in the Middle Ages.


The prostitutes became known as the Winchester Geese, and are documented in many literary and historical texts. Margaret Willes, a historian and prolific author, currently writing a book on Southwark, speculates they were named such due to the screeching sound they reportedly made, which reverberated around the streets.


‘The prostitutes had many regulations,’ Margaret informs me, as her cat, Pepys, flits across the garden. ‘Some were to protect them. But mostly it was to regulate prostitution and make it seem more socially acceptable. For example, they were supposed to stay all night and sleep with a man in the brothel, and they were not allowed to accost people in the street by grabbing them.’ This offence would cost a prostitute 20 shillings. Southwark was a potential tinderbox, Margaret tells me, ready to go off at any time.


Despite being licensed by the church, the Winchester Geese were buried in the mass unmarked graveyard at Crossbones, their lives and histories lost and forgotten. That is until, John Constable, playwright, poet and activist, had a vision. 


On the 23rd November 1996, the spirit of the graveyard, known as the Goose, disclosed the secret history of Crossbones to John – revealing the location of the burial site of outcasts and outlaws who had been neglected in memory. John has been the driving force behind the curious Garden of Remembrance on Redcross Way, as well as the co-founder of the Friends of Crossbones: a network of ‘sex workers, poets and activists; oddballs and outsiders of all kinds’.


‘Welcome to the ‘200th-and-quite-a-few’ vigil for the Outcast,’ Bee Durban, member of Friends of Crossbones, says to a virtual room of people on Zoom. For 16 years, every 23rd of the month without fail, a vigil has been held to remember the Outcasts that are buried at Crossbones. The pandemic would not stand in the way. ‘Zoom has been a wonderful thing,’ Bee says, ‘It allows people from all over the world to join in the vigils’. Indeed, there is a man from Australia – where it is 4am – who has tuned in to watch, smoking a cigarette and sipping his tea, wrapped up in a blanket and wearing a beanie. 


Before Covid-19, the vigils took place in person at the gates of Crossbones, where people would gather to complete the five-part ritual of remembrance. Some ‘rebel spirits’ who continued to congregate there during the lockdowns were condemned by the official Friends of Crossbones group for flouting the government’s guidelines.


Since it closed in 1853 due to an overflow of corpses, Crossbones graveyard has been entrenched in contention and conflict. With the construction of the jubilee line in the 1990s, many bodies were dug up to make room for the new Underground and the area has been consistently bid for by property developers over the years. Currently, ‘Landmark Court’, a joint regeneration project headed by Transport For London and the U+I group advertise their retail and office space by capitalising off and trivialising the dark history of the Liberty of the Clink, describing how there were ‘Prisons around every corner to welcome all those who made a bit too merry.’

Winchester Palace, Southwark

This small piece of sombre land with a relatively inconsequential history has become a significant part of people’s lives. It is a microcosm of modern London; abundant with an assortment of people projecting their own meaning and emotions onto an otherwise vacant lot. It is Londoners, both past and present, that make this city what it is.

If you ever find yourself in Southwark, take a ten-minute walk around, to just look. Look upwards, look downwards and side to side, past the shiny façade of chain restaurants and glass high-rises. Look past the hustle bustle of Borough market and London Bridge and a whole other city will open up to you. A historical city riddled with secrets and tales of a violent and unruly time. 

Just a short walk away from the graveyard of shunned women, overlooked in both life and death, is the peaceful site of Southwark Cathedral. It is a place that holds an extraordinary silence whilst a lot is being said. Recently the Church has taken accountability for not giving the women a proper Christian burial. The Dean of Southwark now regularly holds an ‘Act of Regret, Remembrance and Restoration’ at Crossbones Graveyard. Next door to the Cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace, once home to the mighty Bishops of Winchester. It has now fallen to ruins, only a section of the banquet hall remains. Attached to a Pret A Manger, the building is a shadow of its former grandiose self; which was fully equipped for luxury living, complete with tennis court, bowling alley and pleasure garden.

‘I sometimes go to the gates and look through the bars to relate to the outcasts buried there,’ Bee explains. For her, it is a privilege to be involved with Friends of Crossbones; it is both a political and spiritual affair, but above all, it is a healing space where she reflects upon and remembers all different types of victims of discrimination and inequality as well as those who are buried there. Through remembrance of those who were isolated and forgotten, a strong community has developed that have built long-lasting and global connections.

Crossbones is a mystical and melancholy place. The garden of remembrance has a triangular pond where, on a bright day, the Shard reflects off the glassy surface. Stuck all over the gates and on the doors, there are stickers advertising a football club for the ‘neurodivergent ultras’. As I walk out of the garden, with a Southeastern train thrumming across the tracks behind me, I spot two leaflets: a brief guide to caterpillars and an advert for baby massage. Honestly, I can only begin to imagine what this place really is.


(Header image by G Travels)

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