Above: The old-fashioned Redcross Way name plate which dates from before 1965.
If you know where Borough High Street is, you may also known that a road that runs parallel to it – on the western side. The street is today called Redcross Way and, apart from one or two points of history, it is a very ordinary street. Its ordinary only to the visitor who does not know its history. As with many place- or street-names in London it has a really interesting derivation.
During the 17th and 18th centuries it was known as ‘Red Cross Street’ which, with the two syllables of the name separated, it immediately makes you wonder where the ‘red cross’ might have been. In order to tell the full story we need to start by looking at Bankside, to the north beside the Thames, and then the meaning of ‘Red Cross Street’ will become clear.
In 1107 the Bishop of Winchester acquired nearly all the land between what is now Southwark Cathedral and Blackfriars Bridges. He built a large London residence known as Winchester House, of which one of the walls from the Great Hall on his estate still survives (but that is another story). The land he acquired was a liberty, meaning that he had full control of the land and was not subject to any other authority. Some time later he was asked if houses could be built there by people wanting to pay rent. Prostitution had been forbidden by the authorities in the City of London and, surprisingly, he gave consent for no less than 18 brothels to operate on his land. The brothels, also known as ‘Stews’, had opened by 1154 and the area became the ‘area of disrepute’ for the City clients. Quaintly, the number of ‘stews’ was limited to 12 in 1506 and the remaining venues were suppressed in 1546.
In terms of a documented mention of the graveyard, the first to do so was probably John Stow who, in his book ‘A Survay of London’, writing in 1598, mentions the ‘Single Women’s churchyard’ as part of his description of Southwark.
What has all this to do with ‘Red Cross Street’ you may well ask. We now come to the point. As most people know, the ‘girls’ were recognised because they wore red head-scarves. There is even a City by-law that ordered them to wear such head-gear. Red has always been associated with the ‘profession’ and we still refer to ‘red light’ districts even today. If you were a prostitute, it was not permitted for you body to be buried in consecrated ground when you died. This led to a dilemma for the relatives who obviously wanted their loved one to be buried somewhere, after holding their funeral.
To alleviate the problem a piece of un-consecrated ground was found where they could be buried. Its site was on the NE corner of where Redcross Way is intersected by Union Street (the latter being laid out in the 18th century). In the last 20 or so years, the site has been in use for storage of construction materials for the building of various railway projects, including the Jubilee underground line in the 1990s.
Local campaigners have lobbied for the ground to lied out as a garden, bearing in mind the number of unmarked graves of ‘ladies in red’ that lie unmarked on the site. It is believed that paupers, who were not in any ways connected with prostitution, were also buried on this land and the estimated total has been out as high as 15,000 bodies. The answer is that we really do not know. An archaeological dig was conducted by the Museum of London in 1992. They uncovered 148 graves – some of adults and many of very young babies (seven days to 22 weeks after birth). Many of the adults were women aged 36 years and older. It should be realised that not all the bodies would have been prostitutes. By 1769 it had become a pauper’s cemetery, servicing the poor of St Saviour’s parish. The burial ground was finally closed in 1853.
Bearing in mind what has already been said. It is more than likely that, when a prostitute died, the relatives may not have had much money and so they erected a simple wooden cross to mark the grave. It may also be the case that they tied her red head-scarf to that cross – in much the same way as soldier’s caps are placed on their coffins today. All this is speculation but, if it is correct, it would not be surprising if people had referred to the graveyard as where the ‘red crosses’ were to be seen. It would only be a short step to the street beside the graveyard being called ‘Red Cross Street’.
Above: A metal plaque erected a few years ago to remember those un-named people who lie buried on the land.
Of recent weeks there have been calls by local lobbyists for the untidy patch of land to be turned into a garden on the grounds that there should be some respect for those who lie buried there. A metal plaque was placed on the security gates a few years ago and there is growing support for a garden to be laid out and for the public at large to be allowed to walk on the land. Until now, for reasons of health and safety, no public access has ever been permitted.
As a footnote, it should be noted that local tradition refers to the ‘ladies in red’ as ‘Winchester Geese’. The phrase was certainly in use in the 16th century. It even appears in one of William Shakespeare’s plays. However, although ‘Winchester Geese’ may sound as if it refers to women it actually refers to men. In Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ the Bishop of Winchester is called ‘Thou that giv’st whores indulgences in sin’ and and from the same play a man made to suffer from the consequences of illicit love is called a ‘Winchester Goose’. It will be seen that the originator of the metal plaque had not done his research!
Above: Part of John Rocque’s map, 1746, showing the position of ‘Red Cross Street’ to Borough High Street. It is clear from the map that ‘St Saviours Burying Ground’ was in existence by this date. Its name shows that it was loosely related to the parish of St Saviour (whose church is now known as Southwark Cathedral). Click the image to see a larger version of the map.
We end by looking at two maps. Firstly we take a look at Rocque’s map of 1746 which is the first detailed street map of London ever produced. The graveyard is clearly shown and labelled (at the junction of ‘Red Cross Street’ and the yard that led west out of the Greyhound Inn. Looking at the map, below that inn is ‘Red Lyon [Lion] Inn’, then ‘Maypole Alley’ then ‘Red Cross A’, meaning Red Cross Alley. These alleyways have all disappeared. It would seem that ‘Red Cross Alley’ was a name in the locality.
Above: Horwood’s map, 1799, showing a similar street layout. Click the image to see a large version of the map.
Horwood’s even more detailed map, some 50 years later, shows the graveyard as an open rectangle. The site of the Greyhound Inn has been replaced by Union Street. The name ‘red Cross Alley’ has been replaced with ‘Red Cross Court’.