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Celebrating Life at a Forgotten Cemetery for Sex Workers

Nov 27 2015 2:50 PM
Celebrating Life at a Forgotten Cemetery for Sex Workers

All photos by Steph Wilson

At the Crossbones Graveyard, well-wishers light candles and pour out gin for the medieval prostitutes of south London.

In the UK, we're accustomed to sober monuments celebrating politicians, royalty and fallen soldiers: Big grey blocks of stone with oversized men sat on bronze horses. But now, from the belly of a Transport for London building site in South London, one of the most powerful, colorful, and exciting monuments has risen up celebrating the unlikeliest of British heroes: 12th century sex workers.

Crossbones Graveyard is a small plot of land on Redcross Way, just off Southwark Street in Borough. The Shard skyscraper looms overhead in an area now known for expensive sausage rolls and posh coffee. But for hundreds of year, this tiny and unassuming site was an unconsecrated burial ground for paupers, prisoners, and prostitutes. A bronze plaque on the gates reads "The Outcast Dead," surrounded by thousands of ribbons, photos, jewelry, and gin bottles.

Read More: My Grandma, the Sex Worker

The graveyard hasn't always been a highly decorated folk shrine. It lay forgotten for over a hundred years, until London Underground discovered 148 skeletons in the 90s, during preparations for the Jubilee Line. The Museum of London said at the time these remains were "less than 1 percent of the total number of burials that were made at this site". The most famous exhumed bones became known as the Crossbones Girl, the subject of a 2010 BBC documentary. She was between 16 to 19 years old, was likely a child prostitute, and had erosive lesions on her skull from syphilis.

The shrine at Crossbones Graveyard.

Back in the 1100s, the Bishop of Winchester was given the southern bank of the Thames. The area was known as Liberty, because you could get away with all the things you weren't allowed to do in the City, like go the theatre, enjoy bear baiting, and partake in prostitution. The Bishop even collected collected cash from Liberty's brothels, giving them some form of protection. In death, he denied the women a Christian burial.

"When I first heard about [that], you go through this period of being very angry about what happened to the people here," says Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, a member of the Friends of Crossbones. The group has saved the graveyard from development, and Woodward-Smith is now one of the people who helps to lead its monthly vigils. "The community that has grown up around it, of people that are so accepting of everyone—that's why I like it. I've been in a lot of groups—Goddess groups, all sorts of things—that you'd think would be very allowing, but they sort of coalesce around an idea that everyone has to fit in."

Mourners gather by the iron gates of Crossbones.

Crossbones Vigils are held on the 23rd evening of each month and have attracted a diverse range of the curious, the respectful, and the spiritual for 19 years: pagans, christians, the homeless, bankers, sex workers. I'm here at the 138th vigil. It's a freezing and dark evening in November, and yet there's at least 24 people stood on the road at 6.45 PM sharp, wafting incense, burning candles, and throwing gin around like holy water. Last month's event had hundreds, because Time Out made it the second best thing to do in London for Halloween.

"I'm not an entertainer in any way so I find that side of it quite difficult," says Woodward-Smith. She catches herself getting angry with people who come and talk over the poetry, the songs, the blessings. "It teaches me. I was like, 'But remember where we are'. And I thought, 'If the Geese were here they'd be those people making a racket'. It pricks my pomposity at all times, this place."

The "geese" are the Winchester Geese, another name for the forgotten women of Crossbones, the Bishop of Winchester's licensed prostitutes who were unworthy of a respectable burial. This gaggle of outcast women were the inspiration behind an epic poem: The Southwark Mysteries by John Crow.

Crow is an alias for the playwright and performer John Constable, who uses this much more extroverted character to help him push the boundaries of his work. He is also the enigmatic leader of many of the vigils. I spoke to the real John the morning after the vigil.

John Constable reading his poem at the vigil.

"The poem you heard me do last night was written 19 years ago in a single night," Constable tells me. He had always planned to write a literary work about Borough, the place he lived, but he wasn't sure what. Then on one night in 1996, he was drawn to the anonymous iron gates on Redcross Way, where he says the poem was "waiting" for him. The experience of "receiving" this poem does not sit easily with him. "It took me a few months to even trust myself, the Goose, this unquiet spirit, or whatever one frames her."

The poem is a Chaucerian masterpiece full of blood and guts, rape and religion, and hits out at the hypocrisy of the old City which came to Liberty for their vice. At the heart of the work is feminine sexuality. "Which," John explains, "has been regarded for centuries really as the contrary, and almost the negation of, the spiritual life. The more spiritual dimension of the Southwark Mysteries was bringing back in human sexuality, particularly recognising female sexuality as being this hugely creative force."

A woman pours out gin for those buried in the graveyard.

The vigil grew out of regular performances of this poem, with others from the group being invited to add their own creative offerings. But can a man be the catalyst for healing the landmark of dishonoured women, by celebrating female sexuality? Woodward-Smith doesn't view gender as an issue. "There are a lot of women's voices [at Crossbones]. I find it beautiful that a man is so central to it. It's healing a wound between the masculine and the feminine."

These vigils have helped save Crossbones. After years of campaigning, Transport for London gave a temporary lease in 2014 to Friends of Crossbones and Bankside Open Spaces Trust to have a garden on the site. They've built a pyramid, pond, a shrine, and a beautifully crafted, wooden goose wing for shade and shelter.

Another woman holds up a sign to commemorate the dead.

The religious power of visiting the gates has worked. Like magic, it's helped foster the energy to protect the site. Now over 50,000 people visit the site a year to pay their respects, including clergy from Southwark Cathedral, Russell Brand and corporates looking for an interesting day out.

For Woodward-Smith, however, the successes are deeper than a land lease. "I'm a priestess, and to me nuns are priestesses with the sex taken out, and sex workers are priestesses with the sacred taken out. Two parts of women that have been split apart, and to bring it back together is the powerful thing for me."

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