Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cross Bones: The Spirits of Winchester Geese

“Winchester Geese” was a medieval term used for prostitutes in London. The brothels or “stews” they worked in the 1600s were located south of the river Thames in the district of Southwark. 

The Bishop of Winchester was the lord in charge of this area---hence the name Winchester Geese. 

His Liberty Clink * in an area called Bankside was outside the London City walls, so it was used as a “pleasure quarter,” which included: theatres, bear-pits, taverns, and brothels. The bishop was not displeased by this activity because he was licensed to tax these licentious houses –which he did liberally.

While living, these Winchester Geese enjoyed a measure of protection from the church, but in death, they were denied a Christian burial. So when these prostitutes died of syphilis, childbirth, etc. they were buried one on top of another in an unconsecrated graveyard on the bishop’s property. 

This graveyard was known as the ground for “single women”—a euphemism at the time for prostitutes. It was next used as a plague pit for cholera victims. 

By the mid-1760s, this cemetery was known as “Cross Bones” and was being used as a pauper’s field. This field also became a popular place for body snatchers who were seeking specimens for the anatomy classes at the nearby Guy’s Hospital.

In the early 1830s, concerns were raised about the condition of this graveyard. The Board of Health under pressure from petitioners ordered Cross Bones closed in 1853 because it was “completely overcharged with the dead.” It was deemed that further burials would be “inconsistent with regard for the public health and decency.” 

In 1883, this field was sold as a building site, which prompted a public outcry that the area could not be desecrated and that it must be preserved as open space. This worked for the land was kept vacant for the next century.

However, in the 1990s, part of the cemetery was commandeered as an electrical sub-station for the Jubilee Line along the London Underground. ** 

During this time a partial excavation was undertaken—148 skeletons where removed—most of them were women and children. It is estimated that there are 15,000 souls buried in this area—60% of them infants and children. One skeleton that was removed was that of a female child goose—a child prostitute.

Needless to say, this area is haunted. Early on, constables in the area would not walk past this graveyard after dark and never alone. 

The history of human suffering in Cross Bones has resulted in one legend being shared in more recent years. One local London writer who lives in the area had an exciting experience one night in November of 1996 when a female spirit or “muse” who claimed to be that of a Winchester Goose—a prostitute that was buried at Cross Bones--visited him. 

This female spirit led him to Cross Bones in an area he had never noticed before. She wanted him to know she was sad she had been denied a Christian burial…

Ever since his encounter with this spirit, he has led a group to Cross Bones on Halloween to pay homage to these victims. Many local residents have set up a memorial to commemorate the Winchester Geese. 

Since the early 1990s, thousands of people have visited this small memorial, which is marked by hundreds of ribbons, flowers, letters, poems, beads, and other mementos. They are wrapped, tied, and strung from the rusted railings that enclose this cemetery. A small plaque in the middle shows a goose that is 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 pauper’s burial ground, which closed in 1853. Here, local people have created a memorial shrine.”

“The Outcast Dead”
        “ RIP”

* Liberty Clink was Bishop Winchester’s notorious prison.

** The London Underground is a subway.

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