Cross Bones Graveyard: Excavating the Prostitute in Neo-Victorian Popular Culture

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Cross Bones graveyard, an unconsecrated burial site in Southwark, London, was rediscovered in 1989 when Transport for London sought to extend the Jubilee Line, part of the Underground railway network. Subsequent archaeological investigations estimated that about 15,000 bodies were interred at the site, which covers only about 2000 square yards. From its late medieval origins until 1853, when it closed due to its being ‘overcharged with dead’, Cross Bones was synonymous with poverty and disease.1 Historically, Southwark was also the home to the licentious, the criminal, and those escaping justice, and has a unique legacy and history which informs how Cross Bones has been received and interpreted. Under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, medieval Southwark was outside the conventional law of the King and the City, and as such, entertainments such as bear-baiting, playhouses (including Shakespeare’s Globe), and prostitution became commonplace, and effectively licensed by the church.2 By the Victorian period, Southwark was marked by low-standard housing: ‘each house is occupied by several families – indeed, the houses are crammed full of the poorest and most wretched of our inhabitants. The houses being so old, and built of wood, are literally alive with vermin’.3 Museum of London Archaeology’s excavation of the graveyard bears witness to these conditions: the pauper coffins and the fact that bodies were stacked nine or ten deep, point to the poverty of the people who lived nearby. Cross Bones is also frequently identified as a prostitute’s or ‘single woman’s’ burial ground, licensed as such by the Bishop of Winchester, but where such women were denied formal religious rites in death.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-261
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Issue number2
Early online date2 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2018


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