The Crossbones Graveyard

The Crossbones Graveyard

As new residents in Borough, having recently moved from Waterloo, we’ve been settling in to life a little further East.

One of the fascinations with Borough is the contrast between London’s modernity and heritage. There’s something quite unique about drinking down modest backstreets like Old King’s Yard whilst in the shadow of the Shard.

Hidden in plain sight opposite our new home is the Crossbones Graveyard, a site with a dark and extraordinary history.

For centuries it was a pauper’s graveyard for the area formerly known as “The Mint”, one of London’s most violent slums.

It also became a burial ground for Southwark’s countless criminals, and with unlicensed bear baiting, bull fighting and brothels, there was a steady supply of untimely deaths.

By the early 1850’s the graveyard was at bursting point, with one commentator writing that it was “completely overcharged with dead” and soon after was left abandoned.

Then in 1992, due to the ongoing construction of the Jubilee Line, the Museum of London was commissioned to excavate the site.

Of the 148 graves they excavated, all dating from 1800-1853, two thirds were bodies from infants aged 5 or under.

The level of overcrowding they revealed was shocking, with bodies piled one on top of each other. Causes of death were consistent with common diseases at the time, including smallpox, scurvy, rickets, and tuberculosis.

Some of the most shocking stories belong to young girls, infected with syphilis aged in some instances as young as 5, and eventually dying from the disease.

In recent years, an informal group known as the Friends of Crossbones have worked alongside Bankside Open Spaces Trust to transform the site into a garden of remembrance.

The garden, led by local people, is designed to respect the outcast dead who are buried beneath, with shrines to loved ones amongst the greenery.

It is a place to consider the plight of poverty and the importance of dignity for human beings in both life and death.

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