ONLINE ONLY: A Spiritual Corner of Southwark

Modern Britons have little time for established religion, unless they are getting married of course. On such occasions the local florist and photographer will sing more hallelulahs than a Harvest congregation. There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that computer-bred youths are unlikely to adopt religious or spiritual practices of their own accord. These old traditions that tied communities together are dying out. But still the human spirit yearns for a deeper purpose to life. Now a study reveals that those of us who take a “spiritual” approach to life are more likely to suffer mental-health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists. Researchers at University College London found that people who describe themselves as “spiritual” are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses. Furthermore they are more likely to have eating disorders and drug problems. 

Professor Michael King, who led the research, wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.” 

It is more than a pity that young people in England have no access to the spiritual foundations of life. The transcendent seems to be boxed up in dusty relics of purposeless religions or psychiatric questionnaires. Thus we stand by as dynamic Islamic preachers take a hold on unformed minds looking for answers to identity and mystery. The vulnerable flock to those with strong dogma and penetrating voices. Those who are possessed of more finely calibrated sensibilities find their own approach to the mysteries of life and death.

Madness is an option – whether it is the organized madness of extremist Islamists or Evangelical Christians, or the fanciful ramblings of poets.  London used to resound with their voices: the greatest classical scholar of his generation was Christopher Smart, or “poor Kit Smart,” as Dr Johnson called him. He is the patron saint of eccentrics. As a religious visionary his poetry was sublime. As a classicist, his rhetoric was divine. Then came Blake, Samuel Palmer, Turner, and the decidedly occult Osman Spare. Voices spoke through them and inflamed their art. They had visions. Their gods spoke to them. Away with the fairies, they flouted convention. They were “touched”, in more ways than one.

This contact they described in poems and art was felt as a physical experience. It had nothing to do with opium-based dreams and fancies, which faded on waking. Those who have experienced epiphanies, damascene moments, and the like will testify to this. When these visions add up to belief, mercy is found to be the touchstone of religious or spiritual experience. The religious visionary, the eccentric, and those who lead a “spiritual” life are those whose lives are touched by mercy. But these voices are mildly derided in their own lifetimes, or romanticized after death by virtue of their weirdness and obscurity.

One who may be said to follow in this strange and peculiar tradition is alive and kicking in contemporary southeast London. In short, John Constable, a playwright from Southwark, has composed an epic poem that celebrates a patch of wasteland behind the famous cathedral. In the guise of his alter ego John Crow, he names this land as a sacred place for the city’s outcast dead. He knew nothing of its existence until the words came into his head. On further research, he found out that the bodies of 15,000 paupers and prostitutes lie buried a few metres from some of London’s biggest tourist attractions. The story Constable tells is remarkable. More than that, the story has a deeply spiritual vein to it and a moral, in the sense that this story shows mercy to and levels us all.

From the 12th to the 17th century, the Bishop of Winchester was the Lord of a manor – the Liberty of the Clink – that he ran as his own. The manor was in Southwark, and his London residence, Winchester Palace, stood between the church, now Southwark Cathedral, and the Clink Prison.

Milord permitted and regulated prostitution within the Liberty. By Shakespeare’s time, the Bishop’s stretch of Bankside was London’s demimonde, with theatres, bear-pits, taverns and “stews” (brothels), licensed under Ordinances dating from 1161 and signed by Thomas Becket. Winchester Geese, a euphemism for prostitutes, were famous all over London.

In his 1598 Survey, John Stow referred to a burial ground for “single women”, another euphemism for prostitutes. Stow wrote: 

“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.”

The geese were licensed to ply their trade during their lifespan. On death, however, they were denied a Christian burial. The prospect of such a fate for men and women of this time was frightful. A pauper’s burial was bad enough, but to be dumped without ceremony on unconsecrated ground was damnation itself. The land lay within the Bishop’s park-lands, and the lease for the Cross Bones ground was eventually assigned to the churchwardens of St Saviour’s parish in 1665, the year of the plague. By then, the stews had been closed by royal proclamation and Bankside’s fortunes were in decline. In 1853 the graveyard was closed as it was deemed to be “completely overcharged with dead”.

Cross bones became a piece of local folklore and although attempts were made to build on the land, they were always thwarted. In the meantime, this part of Southwark had become rife with cholera and criminality. Redcross Street in particular was one of “a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding, is unrivalled in anything I have hitherto seen in London.” This was according to Charles Booth’s survey. The graveyard itself became a haunt for body-snatchers, or Resurrection Men, seeking corpses for anatomy lessons at nearby Guy’s Hospital. Then it was forgotten about. 

In the 1990s, the London Underground built an electricity sub-station on the grounds as part of the Jubilee Line extension. Prior to building, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation, removing some 148 skeletons. One finding in particular attracted media attention. The Crossbones Girl, as she became known, was four foot seven and aged between 16 and 19. Before death claimed her, it was revealed that her nose and cheekbones had crumbled under the weight of flesh-eating lesions. Her legs were bowed from rickets. Lack of exposure to sunlight and over-exposure to industrial pollution had caused the bending of her bones. The Great Scourge was responsible for what had happened to her face. The disease was sufficiently advanced for researchers to conclude that the Crossbones Girl had been a child prostitute. London was the Whore Shop of the World. The age of consent for girls was 13. It was believed that sleeping with a virgin cured syphilis. More than sixty per cent of the skeletal remains found at Cross Bones belonged to infants. The girl’s Christian name, incidentally, was Elizabeth. A reconstruction of her skull showed deep-set eyes and a square jaw. It was the face of a girl with strength of character. 

The entrance to Crossbones graveyard is entirely covered with tributes in the form of streamers, garlands, dolls and memento mori tied to the iron bars of the gate. Songs and letters are dedicated to the spirits of those who lie within. Their names are memorialized on white ribbons also tied to the gate. For centuries Cross Bones was a burial site for outcasts. It is now a place of pilgrimage and home to unusual celebrations, led by John Crow, in honour of our city’s ancestors. It is a spiritual occasion that is free for all. According to Constable, the vigils that his alter ego conducts on the 24th of each month are “inclusive, secular events open to all faiths and none”. These spiritual-secular-poetic events have the mark of Blake, Smart and Dickens on them. They attract the mad and the lonely, the good and the curious, the tourist and the sensitive soul, young and old.

The July 23 vigil ties in with Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day and the Goddess Isis who was worshipped at this time of year in Ancient Egypt. “The vigil allows space for creative offerings and other acts of beauty.”  Forgiveness is the name of the day, and self-expression forges identity in common with others – just the ticket for those who do not know themselves. Those who attend the vigil will attest that taking part is a restorative act of faith.

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. As the Friends of Crossbones website states, Transport for London has earmarked the site for potential development. Friends of Crossbones petitioned the Mayor of London that the site be converted to a memorial garden. In response to Question Number 1938 / 2008 Cross Bones Graveyard – SE1, Boris prevaricated thus:

“The site is to be used as a Thameslink 2000 project works site between now [2008] and 2015. Future development plans have yet to be worked up but will be prepared recognizing the archaeological interest of this site. This will include consultation with all parties with an interest in the site.” 

I wonder what a fundamentalist would say to that?

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