11:08

Bankside

After a meeting near London Bridge I was walking down a small road called Redcross Way. It runs alongside a waste ground surrounded by hoardings. On some gates are ribbons, trinkets, flowers, and messages. The messages are of sympathy - ‘we remember you’ and the like. Above is a plaque with the epitaph ‘RIP: the outcast dead’. This was a prostitute’s graveyard known as Cross Bones. It was here, outside the consecrated ground of what is now Southwark Cathedral that girls, some only children, working in the ‘stews’ of Bankside were buried when they succumbed to the diseases of poverty – syphilis, TB, cholera – or to the endemic violence of such a place.

With Borough Market now a middle-class haunt and the Globe a sanitized facsimile of Shakespeare’s theatre it is hard to imagine the squalor of Bankside. In Shakespeare’s time it was a place of vice: across the river from the City and away from the eyes and laws of the City corporations, it was a place of gambling, taverns, theatres and brothels - swept by plague, ruled by pimps and frequented by sailors.

Its effluent, the bodies of the girls whose poverty drove them to such a place, lie under the waste-ground on Redcross Way – a piece of ground that has resisted the developers’ attentions to this day. Every attempt to build over it has met implacable local opposition.

As you contemplate the messages of remembrance it brings to mind the flowers on the gates of Kensington Palace in the wake of the death of Princess Diana. Whereas that was mawkish and hysterical sentimentality, here, on the rough gates guarding a patch of overgrown wasteland, there is something much more moving - and invested with genuine pathos.
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