Lest we forget: the growing numbers of our outcast dead, destroyed by poverty

Aside Posted on

Priest with a coffin and a sole mourner
‘I have been there, just me and a coffin and the undertaker looking at his watch. I think of Eddie Marsan in the extraordinary film Still Life (above).’ Photograph: PR

From the street up to the adjacent graveyard the ground rises more than a metre. And the reason for this sudden rise is the bodies – 15,000 of them in a mass grave going back centuries. There are no headstones, no specific names to remember. This was the prostitute’s graveyard, the place to take the foreign sailor who had met his end in the bear-pits or brothels of the south bank, the place for the paupers and their children. Indeed, according to those who have been working on the site, the remains indicate that perhaps the majority of them were children.

No, it’s not Chechnya or Iraq, this is central London. And on a handkerchief of land a stone’s throw from the foodie heaven of Borough Market, in what was once one of the capital’s most notorious slums, and now valued at £25m by property developers.

According to an archeological dig conducted by the Museum of London in the 1990s, many of the dead had suffered from smallpox and tuberculosis. This was an inviting place for the body-snatchers from nearby Guy’s hospital. Nobody cared what happened to these people. This was a place for the outcast dead.

Lest we forget, was my thought, as I wandered around the Cross Bones graveyard, with its newly dug borders and Arthur de Mowbray’s magnificent sweeping cloister of an entrance. Fashioned in the shape of a goose’s wing, this cloister is a reference to “the Winchester geese”, a common name for women who had been licensed for sex work by the bishop of Winchester, in whose control the area lay. According to John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London, the Church wouldn’t bury these women in consecrated ground, but it would take their money to license them. Little wonder the dominant spirituality of the site is pagan.

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