The mysteries of the dead

This story cross-posted from Medium – you can read it there if you’d prefer.

Stories, history, evidence and fable fill the little patch of London earth called ?Cross Bones?

There is a patch of bare ground in the London borough of Southwark, on the corner of Redcross Way and Union Street. It is behind a pair of gates which must have looked terribly ordinary when they were first erected, but are now hung with a motley collection of notes, drawings, flowers and hand-made objects.

The ground behind the gates looks like any one of thousands of unoccupied spaces in London, another lacuna in the planning process, a piece of dead space represented by a piece of ignored paper in a dusty council office somewhere or other.

But this dead space is here because it has been filled with something else; it?s been filled with a story.

This is the last remaining piece of the old burial ground which at some point in the past three hundred years became known as Cross Bones. London is pockmarked with these little dead spaces – they are dead both literally and figuratively.

But Cross Bones is different, because here, people say, was a burial ground for prostitutes, the old Winchester Geese as they were once known. These messages on the gates are for those unnamed women, and a great many of them are from modern women wishing to pay homage to the awful existences of so many who went before them.

When I started writing my third novel, its title was Cross Bones, and the story began here at this oddly resonant little space. It opened with a young woman watching the burial of an infant, while she herself was watched by another, older, woman, who then led her away.

It was a conscious reimagining of the opening chapter of Great Expectations, but with female rather than male characters. It was to set up the rest of the book, which would be about the awful crimes visited upon women by Regency men – by mad-doctors, by magistrates and most of all by wealthy men pursuing lives of selfish pleasures.

But history?s stories don?t stay in one place. They slip around in your hands like a fish pulled from a stream. When I started doing my research, the picture changed. So much so that I became less comfortable with Cross Bones? position at the heart of the novel. The title became Savage Magic and though the themes remained the same, the places changed in order and priority.

Was Cross Bones actually a burial ground for ?single women?, in the old euphemism? Was there any evidence for this?

I learned that there is quite an industry that has built up around the story of Cross Bones; its evocative past has conjured poems, stories, walks, talks, campaigns and books. But what is all this built upon?

Very little, it turns out. But sometimes, very little is all you need.

Documentary research

Part of Cross Bones was excavated in 1992 as part of the London Underground Jubilee Line extension – the excavation is documented in a Museum of London Archaeology Service monograph, and there?s also data on the Museum of London?s own website.

As is the way of these things, the archaeologists were only able to dig where the existing buildings and the planned redevelopments allowed them to dig. The Jubilee Line needed a new electricity sub-station, and it was going to sit within part of Cross Bones. The area excavated was 35.7m by 19.1m, and the archaeologists dug down to 3.1m – which, as it turns out, is not very far at all.

Only the bodies in this area were disturbed. The rest are still there.

Before they began digging, the archaeologists did their desk research and checked the documented history of Cross Bones. There isn?t much of this. It was known from these sources that the site was an ?additional burial ground? for the church of St Saviours (which is now Southwark Cathedral). This ground was never consecrated.

When Southwark Priory was dissolved in October 1539, the ancient parishes of St Mary Magdalen and St Margaret were merged to form a new parish: St Saviour’s Southwark. The new parish was between London Bridge and Lambeth Marsh, and was surrounded by the parishes of St Olave’s to the east, Christchurch to the west and St Thomas’s and St George’s to the south.

St Saviour?s Parish contained seven burial grounds in the 19th century, only three of which were operated by the parish authorities. These were: the churchyard of St Saviour?s; the St Saviour’s Almshouse burial ground in Park Street; and Cross Bones.

The non-parish burial grounds were Deadman’s Place on Park Street, probably once a plague ground; the Baptist burial ground in Bandy Leg Walk, now part of Southwark Bridge Road; and two Quaker burial grounds, one on Ewer Street and one on O?Meara Street.

The Museum of London archaeologists noted in their monograph that Cross Bones had a ?long-established tradition? as a burial ground for ?single women? – the euphemism for prostitutes – who worked the stews of Bankside. John Stow, in his Survey of London of 1598, says as much, as does a book, The Annals of St Mary Overy, from 1833, which talks of ?an unconsecrated burial ground known as the Cross Bones at the corner of Redcross Street, formerly called the Single Woman’s burial ground, which is said to have been used for this purpose?.

The trouble is, there?s no other real evidence for this. These are the only sources the archaeologists mention. The story may just be a result of the burial ground remaining unconsecrated, which is bound to get imaginative hearts pumping. But, say the Museum archaeologists, this may just have been a legal matter. The land was held on a lease from the Bishop of Winchester, and it was customary only to consecrate freehold land.

What is pretty clear is that by the early 19th century Cross Bones was the parish poor ground – the place where the church buried anyone not rich enough to pay for their own funeral. A plain coffin was provided without ceremony, and people would “sell their beds from under them sooner than have any parish funerals?, according to the secretary of one burial society. Bodysnatchers plagued these parish poor grounds such that iron railings had to be put up and even the coffins themselves made stronger. The resurrection men made pretty free with the dead of the Borough.

Cross Bones was a parish poor ground in a very poor parish. The population of St Saviours parish at the start of the 19th century was just under 16,000. In the liberty of the Clink (one of the three sub-divisions of the Parish) most of the properties were held on only lifelong leases, an enormous disincentive to development and maintenance which led to the place becoming a slum. Once again, leaseholds dictated the people?s stories. It cost a penny a night to stay in a lodging house, and there might be 20 people to a room. The old wooden houses on Ewer Street were livid with vermin. Water was taken directly out of the river, and infants were fed ?pap? – a mixture of flour or breadcrumbs mixed with this water. Infection, unsurprisingly, was rife and wide-ranging.

The skeletons

These, then, were the poor people buried in Cross Bones. In 1992, the archaeologists took 148 skeletons buried over 10-30 years in the mid-19th century out of the Cross Bones ground. The awful truth, to modern eyes, is this – fifty of these skeletons are perinatal. They are the bodies of stillborn babies or babies who died a few weeks after their birth. Another 17 of them are of children who died aged under a year. In total, a hundred skeletons, or two-thirds of the total, were of children aged 11 or under.

These numbers are high, even for London; almost twice as high as a similar dig at St Bride?s on the other side of the Thames. As I did my research, I noted another fact; that there were more adult women than adult men buried in Cross Bones. Almost twice as many, in fact. Might this be a statistical proof of an awful fact? Might it demonstrate that prostitutes buried their poor dead children in Cross Bones, before they themselves were laid to rest in the same soil?

But one needs to be careful around stories like that, and thankfully archaeologists are a good deal more careful than novelists. It may just be that proportions like these are properly reflective of a very poor area like Borough and Bankside. Or, more likely, it may just be the nature of the excavation and where the archaeologists were able to dig.

This is not a control group, remember. There may be more adult females than adult men overall – but the absolute numbers are 27 females to 12 men. It might just have been an accidental result of the part of the burial ground where the archaeologists chose to dig.

As for the overall high percentage of young bodies in Cross Bones – there is a grim explanation. London burial grounds were either large pits kept open until they were full, or a series of stacks kept open in the same way. Either way, children and babies tended to be squeezed in at the top, as the most efficient use of space. When I heard this, I couldn?t not think about stuffing socks down into an overfull suitcase.

And because the archaeologists did not dig all the way down to the bottom of these stacks in Cross Bones, the proportion of children was greater. The further down they might have dug, the higher the proportion of adults there might have been.

More than half of the dead children had some form of infection. In the adult bodies there were cases of syphilis, ear and sinus infections, many teeth had decay, and there was a good deal of trauma to bones and joints. There was evidence of rickets in adults and children, indicating a lack of sunlight. Many of the children had iron deficiencies. When the archaeologists examined the vertebrate bones of the adult males and females in Cross Bones, they discovered signs that almost all of them were engaged in heavy work from a very young age: heavy enough and young enough for the signs to have survived a century and a half of burial.

Only three of the bodies had clothing on them that had survived the years. One adult had a pair of boots, the remains of some trousers and a shirt.

Two children had the remands of a shroud; one of them had on a pair of knitted booties.

The end

By the 1830s, Cross Bones was full, according to the vestry committee. The committee said deeper graves should be buried and older bodies put into them; there was even a proposal to raise the burial ground. It was a pattern repeated across Southwark and the whole of London. As the problem of overcrowding got worse, bodies stored in the ?dead house? or ?bone house? might be left for days rather than just overnight; there is even a story of a woman being left there who was not actually dead.

Cross Bones finally closed in 1853, when a handful of acres were taken in the Brookwood Cemetery founded by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. From that point, pauper burials were transmitted by the Burial Board of St Saviour’s to the Necropolis station at Waterloo, to be taken by train to Brookwood. Two mourners were allowed to attend the burial of each pauper body, to accompany the body from Waterloo and to return. In third-class carriages, of course. The fee charged by the Burial Board was 14 shillings (including the return train tickets) for any deceased aged over 10 years. The cost for under-10s was 10 shillings. You can still see the remnants of the old Necropolis station if you stand under the arches behind the C.P. Hart bath and shower showroom in Waterloo. If you bought your shower from there, imagine those trains full of the dead pulling away only metres above where you first saw it.

Cross Bones was sold as a building site for development in 1883, but this sale was declared null and void under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. Under this Act, construction was only permitted on graveyards if it was an extension to a place of worship. Cross Bones has occupied a strange empty bureaucratic limbo ever since – at least, until the Jubilee Line came along.

But the history of Cross Bones – the popular history – won?t go away. The archaeologists did not dig more than a small proportion of the area; by some estimates, only 1% (which suggests there may be almost 15,000 bodies down there, an extraordinary prospect). And it?s clear that the bulk of these burials took place during and after the population explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But that last detail of the dead – that pair of knitted booties on the skeleton of an infant – shows the power of such images to us. The archaeologists make their careful analysis, file their neutral reports, and cull the narratives they can from sketchy reports. All we are left with is this: no real documentary evidence for Cross Bones having been a ?single women?s? burial ground exists, and no archaeological evidence either. What we see is only evidence of hard, even appalling lives.

What was there before this early Victorian burial ground the archaeologists inspected? The documents don?t tell us. The archaeology we have been allowed to conduct doesn?t tell us. All we are left with is fragments, and our own dangerous imaginations.

I will admit to feeling some personal discomfort with the retelling of the Cross Bones story – with its capture by modern storytellers and polemicists. But they are only filling a void, and an evocative and possibly tragic one at that. All we can say is that ordinary people – labourers as much as prostitutes – lived lives of unimaginable cruelty. We honour them, in our own strange way, by telling stories about them, even if these stories might turn out to only be well-intentioned lies.

The Madhouse Open to the Sky

With just over a month to go until the publication of my third novel,?Savage Magic, here’s a taster: a film shot by my brother Phil Shepherd with me reading from the book over the top of it.

In this segment, Aaron Graham, the senior magistrate of Bow Street (who appeared in my first two books as well) is pondering his life as a resident of Great Queen Street, on the fringes of Covent Garden, as he wanders towards a certain pub to meet a certain pimp to discuss the activities of a certain group of reprobates known only as the Sybarites….

A new book in the U.S., and a new book in the summer

Tomorrow, my second book The Poisoned Island is published in America by the lovely people at Washington Square Press/Atria. I’m hoping things go well – it’s already had a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, so fingers crossed. And I do like the cover.

Poisoned Island

In other news, I’m delighted to say I’ve signed a new two-book deal with publisher in the UK, Simon and Schuster. They’ll be publishing two more books featuring Constable Charles Horton, the first of which is called Savage Magic and is released this coming summer. It’s been a real pleasure working with S&S over the last couple of years, and I look forward to more fun over the coming months. There will be ARCs of Savage Magic available in a few weeks; if you’d like one, let me know.