A few days ago I was walking through the backstreets of Borough, London when I found this:
On the rusting railings of a disused waste ground, thousands of ribbons, flowers, letters, beads, poems and mementos are wrapped, tied and strung from bar to bar. There’s a small plaque in the middle of it all that shows a goose, about to take flight. It says:
“Cross Bones Graveyard
In medieval times this was an unconsecrated graveyard for prostitutes or ‘Winchester Geese’. By the 18th century it had become a paupers’ burial ground, which closed in 1853. Here, local people have created a memorial shrine.
The outcast dead
The Winchester Geese was the name by which the prostitutes of the area were known locally. Their namesakes were the Bishops of Winchester who, for around 500 years, controlled the right to license prostitutes under a Royal Ordinance which had existed since 1161.
I found an interesting piece of writing when I got home. It’s by a Tudor historian called John Stow. In it, the term ‘single women’ is a euphemism for the prostitutes, so it seems that back then they weren’t acknowledged in conversation, never mind in death. This dates back to his 1603 Survey of London:
“I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these 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 Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”
For a long time many thought the land was a piece of folklore, but it was eventually found and marked. And this is what I stumbled upon on my way home.
There have been attempts in the past to develop the site but each has been resisted by the locals. Those buried there sleep now where they once lived, back when the area was known as The Mint: an overpopulated slum, riddled with cholera. You’ll find it now on Cross Street, parallel to Borough High Street and next to a market full of flowers.
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