Shrine of many ribbons at the entrance to Crossbones Cemetery.  Photo Kay Nicols. 

It’s harder to find a more sadder place in South London than the site of Crossbones Burial Ground, Redcross Way,  which is a side street tucked away off the busy Borough High Street, South London.   It’s safe to say that many Londoners are not aware about the existence of this sad place so hidden away is it.  John Stow first mentioned the burial place in 1598 in his History of London.   He wrote “ I have read of ancient men of good credit report that single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Womens churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”

Those buried there were the poorest of society and predominantly women and children. A large number of these women were prostitutes known as ‘Winchester Geese‘  so named because the Lord of Manor at that time was the Bishop of Winchester who  licensed  and taxed the Southwark brothels which lay just outside of the stricter jurisdiction of the City of London.    This taxation secured another source of income for  the church to add to their ever burgeoning coffers.  The crown also tried to regulate the Southwark brothels then known as ‘stews‘ and In 1161, Henry II laid down 39 rules known as the “Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark Under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester.  These rules included :

No stewholder was to prevent his ‘geese’ from entering or leaving the premises at will.  Each prostitute had to pay 14 pence per week for her chamber.

Constables were to search each brothel regularly to check that no woman was being held there against her wishes.  Any such woman was to be escorted to safety and out of reach of her stewholder.

No stewholder was  to lend one of his prostitutes more than 6 shillings and  8d.  This was designed to prevent girls from being enslaved by running up large debts.

No prostitute to be prevented from boarding wherever she wished.

No stew to open for business on a religious holiday except between the hours of noon and 2 pm.

No stewholder to knowingly accept a nun or another man’s wife for whoring without the Bishop’s permission….I know.. I know…you couldn’t make it up…!

No stewholder was to imprison any customers on the premises for not paying their bills.

No prostitute to wear an apron which was the garment of a respectable woman

Prostitutes were not allowed to throw stones of pull faces at passers by if they refused to enter the stew.  

Nevertheless completely unabashed from profiting financially from their Winchester Geese the church ordained that they would not be allowed burial in consecrated land.  In such highly religious times this must have been devastating for those unfortunates who no doubt  would have found it impossible to extricate themselves from prostitution.     After 1769 as well as the Winchester Geese the cemetery also became the last resting place of paupers, people who had died in the local work house, and unfortunates found drowned in the River Thames.     Over the centuries they were buried there, layer upon sad layer, and in  1832 a letter from parish authorities had noted the ground was “so very full of coffins that it is necessary to bury within two feet of the surface,” and that “the effluviem is so very offensive that we fear the consequences may be very injurious to the surrounding neighborhood.” 



  1. Typical two-faced conduct from the Church of Double Standards, which stood for money-making before all else! Excellent post, sparkypus!

    Liked by 1 person

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