Today’s guest blog is by debut novelist Kate Rhodes. She has had two collections of poetry published and her poems have been published in the Guardian and the Independent newspapers. Her debut novel Cross Bones Yard is the first in a series of novels featuring Dr Alice Quentin a Psychologist at Guy’s Hospital.
The idea for my first crime novel Cross Bones Yard arrived one evening, when I was out walking with my husband. I was working in Borough, and we often used to walk the city streets, because I’d grown to love this area of London. It seemed so full of history, and I loved stumbling across buildings which are mentioned in Dickens’ novels, like the brick wall in Angel Place, which is all that remains of Marshalsea Prison, where his father was incarcerated for bad debts. Every turning seemed to draw me further into the city’s history, from Shakespeare to Frances Drake.
The first time I saw Crossbones Graveyard I couldn’t believe that it was a burial ground. We stumbled across the site without looking for it in 2005, on Redcross Way. I was curious about the locked gates, adorned with ribbons, dolls, and other tributes left by well wishers. Then I saw the bronze plaque which marks the place. I stared at the black tarmac behind the gates. It was hard to believe that such a derelict, neglected space contained the bodies of thousands of sex workers, who gave their lives for the pleasure of others. It seemed very sad that the rest of South Bank had been expensively gentrified, while the burial ground had been forgotten and ignored. I felt compelled to write about it, and when I came to begin my first novel, Crossbones had to be the starting point.
My interest in Crossbones inspired me to do some research, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Crossbones became a burial ground for 'single women' in 1598. ‘Single women’ being a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in Bankside's brothels or 'stews'. From the 12th to the 17th century, Winchester Palace stood between Southwark Cathedral, and the Clink Prison, and it was the Bishop of Winchester who gave licenses to the prostitutes. Many activities that were forbidden behind the City walls were permitted in Southwark. By Shakespeare's time, this section of the South Bank was firmly established as London's pleasure quarter, containing theatres, bear-pits, taverns and brothels. The brothels were sanctioned by Thomas Becket, and it’s ironic that although the sex workers enjoyed protection from the church while they were alive, most were denied a Christian burial.
By the 19th century, the story of Crossbones had become part of local folk-lore, and Redcross Way was an overcrowded, cholera-infested slum. When Charles Booth conducted his survey of London poverty, he described it as ‘a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding, is unrivalled in anything I have hitherto seen in London.' It was also the haunt of body-snatchers, seeking specimens for the anatomy classes at nearby Guy's Hospital. As early as 1831, concerns were being raised about the condition of the graveyard. Following reports from the Board of Health, Crossbones was closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was 'completely overcharged with dead.' In 1883, it was sold as a building site, prompting Lord Brabazon to write: 'with a view to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people.' But just one year later the sale was declared null and void, under the Disused Burial Grounds Act. Attempts to develop the site were fought by local people, and Southwark residents are still campaigning to have it declared a sacred site, with a memorial garden to commemorate the dead. In the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line Extension. Prior to the work, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation, removing some 148 skeletons. It’s estimated that 15000 people still lie buried at the site.
The shrine at the gates attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year, and it features in many guidebooks, on guided tours and in television coverage of the vigils held by local people. For more than ten years Friends of Crossbones have pioneered a campaign to protect the future of the site. They propose that the memorial gates and the oldest part of the graveyard (between the memorial gates on Redcross Way and the junction with Union Square) should be protected and opened to the public as a community garden, local park, heritage site and visitor attraction - the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance. If my book helps in any way towards the campaigners’ goal, I would be delighted. But the city still seems to be struggling to find an appropriate way to acknowledge and pay respect to the sex workers who lie buried in Crossbones Graveyard.
It will probably seem strange that after becoming mildly obsessed by the history of Crossbones, I hardly mention it in the novel, apart from using the site as a murder scene. I was anxious not to overburden or bore readers with too much information from the past, because the story unfolds in present time. But the story looks closely at the neglected lives of exactly the same women who worked in the Crossbones area for hundreds of years. I found myself wishing while I was writing the book that sex workers enjoyed better legal rights in the UK. I think my strong belief that prostitutes should enjoy better protection comes from the fact that I lived in Ipswich while Steve Wright carried out his horrific series of murders on London Road. There’s no doubt that all of the women who died in Ipswich would still be alive, if they had worked in regulated centres. One of the characters, Michelle, in Crossbones Yard, works the streets of Borough, risking her life by getting into clients’ cars.
On the 3rd of May, my publisher, Mulholland, is running a guided walk around the sites which are mentioned in my book, including Crossbones Yard itself. The book’s heroine, psychologist Alice Quentin lives in Southwark and goes running in this area of London, which is so rich in history. When I lived in London I used to run along exactly the same routes, and the area still makes me feel proud to have been born and raised in South London, despite its complex past. As my book developed it became increasingly important to me to describe a part of London that I know intimately, as accurately as I could. Alice the central character in the book lives in Shad Thames and from her office at Guy’s hospital she can see the murky Thames rolling by, full of dark secrets. I wanted to make Alice as real as possible, with complex family and work relationships, and for readers to see her walking through real locations. I was thrilled to hear that Mulholland have put maps on their website, so readers can walk the same streets as Alice if they choose to, because I love becoming immersed in the settings my favourite authors choose for their books. One day, I’m looking forward to making a trip to Edinburgh, so I can walk the same streets as John Rebus. It would please me hugely if any reader enjoyed my book so much, they felt inspired to explore Alice Quentin’s London. If anyone does decide to go looking for Crossbones Yard, wear comfortable shoes, take a camera, and allow yourself plenty of time. The place has a way of drawing you in.