28-03-2022

DJ Angryness & Crossbones Graveyard

Nestled in a quiet backstreet near the lively streets of London Bridge lies Crossbones Burial Ground. For centuries this area of bankside was one of the most notorious slums in London, a hotbed of criminality and hedonism known as ‘the pleasure quarter’. Our latest documentary explores the burial ground of the outcast dead, the narrative follows the life of Jason 'Angryness/Brimstone' Fisher.

+
https://weeklytales.com/media/pages/articles/dj-angryness-crossbones-graveyard/7eb2ba2a7b-1647640757/img_20200229_0008.jpg
+
https://weeklytales.com/media/pages/articles/dj-angryness-crossbones-graveyard/7eb2ba2a7b-1647640757/img_20200229_0008.jpg

The first historical documentation of the gravesite is found as far back as 1598 where it is cited in historian John Stow’s Survey of London:

‘I have heard ancient men of good credit report, that these single women were forbidden the rights of the Church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore, there was a plot of ground, called the single woman’s churchyard, appointed for them, far from the parish church.’
Survey of London by John Stow

The ‘single women’ mentioned by Stow were medieval sex workers referred to as ‘Winchester Geese’, a name derived from the fact they were licensed and taxed by the Bishop of Winchester. A feudal lord of the manor, the bishop played the role of the chancellor or treasurer to the king. The land he presided over was located just outside the jurisdiction of the City of London authorities, known as the ‘Liberty of Winchester’. This later became sarcastically known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’, in reference to the infamous prison in Bankside.  

The bishop collected licensing fees from the owners of the bankside brothels colloquially dubbed ‘stews’. Southwark became London’s premier red-light district with Henry of Blois, who worked under King Henry II, being the first bishop to license the ‘Winchester Geese’ in 1161. The women were afforded some protections by the bishop but also a list of 39 rules they had to adhere to known as the ‘Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark Under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester’.  Despite their connection to the clergy, due to the nature of their work, they were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground and so Crossbones became necessary to provide them with a final resting place. 

By the 18th century, the burial site had evolved to accommodate any Londoners prohibited from Christian burial, including paupers, criminals and the working poor. The inhabitants of Crossbones were buried hastily in cheap coffins that were stacked up on top of each other which subjected the site to frequent visitations from grave robbers. The burial ground was closed in 1853 at the behest of Lord Palmerston, who stated the area had begun to pose a threat to public health and safety as it had become ‘completely overcharged with the dead’. 30 years after its closure, the land was sold to be developed which was met by protestation from Lord Brabazon who fought to ‘save this ground from such desecration and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people’ and so the site was saved under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. 

As years went by no long-term plans for the site ever came to fruition. Briefly housing a fairground attraction and a timber yard Crossbones would ultimately lie vacant until the end of the 20th century when it was acquired by Transport for London. During the construction of the Jubilee line extension project between 1991-1998, numerous archaeological excavations were conducted on the site by the Museum of London. The study was carried out on 148 skeletons and discovered that over 60% of them were infants aged 5 or younger and many of these deaths were determined to be from diseases common at the time such as smallpox, scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis. The researchers overseeing the study estimated that this was likely to be about 1% of the total number of burials in Crossbones, somewhere around 15,000. 

Coverage of these excavations ushered in a new wave of interest in Crossbones and its historical significance was more apparent than ever. In 1996 John Constable and Katy Nicholls undertook the arduous task of transforming the derelict site into one of remembrance, providing peaceful refuge from the bustling city.  Constable, a playwright and poet who also goes by the moniker, John Crow: the Urban Shaman, claims he ‘stumbled on Crossbones in the middle of writing a poem’. He attributes his discovery of the site to a mystical awakening he experienced one night in which his shamanic counterpart was visited by the spirit of a Winchester Goose. The spirit led him on a seemingly aimless wander around South London, talking and singing into his ear until their perambulation came to a halt at the gates of Crossbones. John, unaware of the site’s history at this point, began fervorous research on the mysterious burial ground to which he had been taken. Constable went on to write ‘The Southwark Mysteries’, a collection of poems and plays birthed from his initial poem which would go on to be performed in its entirety at the iconic Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, a short walk from Crossbones.  

In 2004 Constable and Nicholls founded the ‘Friends of Crossbones’, describing themselves as an ‘informal network of sex workers, poets, activists, oddballs, and outsiders of all kinds’. That year they also hosted the first ‘Crossbones Vigil for the Outcast’ which has convened on the 23rd of each month for the past 19 years, outside the gates of Crossbones. These vigils were usually led by Constable performing in his John Crow persona until his retirement towards the end of 2019. Every Halloween a special festival is held by the Friends of Crossbones. The tradition was established in 1998 with participants singing songs, reading poems and acting out scenes from The Southwark Mysteries.

Andy Hulme, personal gardener and muse to fashion icon Vivienne Westwood, was living in a caravan on the site when approached by John Constable. The two struck up a friendship and he opened up the site for John to add shrines to the garden and gave him access to the site. Hulme collaborated with the Friends of Crossbones between 2006-2012 tending to the original incantation of what was dubbed ‘The Invisible Garden’. This was a guerrilla garden, meaning that it was created on land that they did not have legal permission to cultivate. In 2013-2018 Crossbones volunteers worked with Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) to open the community Garden of Remembrance. This version of the garden was developed by Helen John and officially opened to the public in 2015. It still features some aspects of the Invisible Garden, but now an intricate entranceway shaped on a Goose’s wing by local woodworker Arthur de Mowbray guides visitors through to the remembrance garden where they can find sculptures and iconography from a variety of different cultures and religions. The most prominent part of the Crossbones garden is a large railing that backs onto Redcross Way known as the ‘Memorial Gates’. The bars of the railing are wrapped in vividly coloured ribbons alongside feathers, trinkets, photographs, notes, poems, and even shoes memorialising their loved ones.

Dave 500 at Crossbones Graveyard

Among the plethora of shrines left on the beribboned gate, one memorial is especially eye-catching. The sign, dedicated to Jason ‘Angryness/ Brimstone’ Fisher, includes a portrait of Jason posing in a baseball hat next to graphics of a radio mast and bright red, angry emoticon symbol. Underneath Jason’s photograph are the date of his birth and death with the words, ‘A Genius, A Legend’ and on the opposing side is the phrase ‘Pirate Radio Is Good for Your Mind’. Laminated to ensure extra protection from the elements, this unusual memorial was created by his father, Dave Fisher. Dave relays that the symbols on either side of Jason’s photograph denote key parts of his life and the very same symbols can be found on Jason’s headstone in Camberwell cemetery.

'He ran a website called angryness.com. It was based on a phrase he used when he was young, when he was frustrated he'd say "I'm angry and I'm bored", I would then have to find something for him to do, like break something up'.
Dave Fisher

Jason was a pirate radio DJ in the early noughties, performing under the moniker of DJ Brimstone he was one of the hosts of Essence FM which broadcast on FM 105.1 from a tower block in Margate, Kent, most weekends. The station mainly played Drum & Bass, Garage, House and Happy Hardcore. It was Dave who initially got his son interested in radio: ‘I’m a radio man you see, I taught him what I knew about radios until he reached an age where he knew a lot more than me’. This passion then naturally drew Jason to the pirate radio scene that was thriving in the noughties.

‘When he first told me he was going out for the night to climb up a radio tower I was saying to him, do you really have to do this? I just wanted him to be safe. I soon realised that I couldn't hold him back from doing what he had his mind set on & by the fourth or fifth time he was telling me he was off up a tower again, I was used to it’.
Dave Fisher

One night in 2003, Jason and his associate DJ Frantic were arrested after climbing a radio mast. Their arrest is documented in a newspaper article found via the blog ‘History Is Made at Night’:

Jason Fisher of Priestwood House, Drummond Road, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 and Michael Pruce of Philip Walk, Peckham, London, SE15, both 23, were each given 18 months conditional discharges and ordered to pay £150 costs after being found guilty of participating in the running of a pirate radio station calling itself Essence FM.

Dave recalls that on that night, ‘when they caught Jason and his mate up there, they told the police they were simply up there to enjoy the “aerial views”’.

Upon losing Jason in 2011, Dave channelled his bereavement into chronicling everything Jason achieved in his short lifetime. This resulted in him spending 3 and a half years vigorously working on a biography of Jason, collating stories from Jason’s friends as well as anyone with who he had been in contact over the years. ‘I was constantly learning new things about him, things he shared with mates that I never got to hear as a father’. At 192,000 words, he’s extremely proud of the book he refers to as his ‘Brimstone PhD’. ‘I’ve never written anything before, and my spelling and paragraphs may be a little off on occasion but that doesn’t matter to me, it’s for Jason and that’s what’s important really’. His inquisitive nature and penchant for investigation are what initially brought him to Crossbones. He first came across the site whilst researching his family’s genealogical history. He decided to join the Friends of Crossbones in 2009, finding the petition to save the graveyard, which led to him becoming widely known there as ‘Dave 500’, a nickname bestowed upon him as he was their 500th signatory. His interest in Crossbones became even more important to him a few years later when Jason died, he felt that it was the perfect place to memorialise his son.

Dave’s flat has become the unofficial Brimstone Museum, with a multitude of monuments to Jason on display. A shrine to Brimstone has been created on a small table as well as along the mantelpiece in the living room. Jason’s signature baseball hats, his old mobile phone and pager as well as a huge set of keys used for gaining entry to tower blocks across London’s skyline are all exhibited. At the end of the hallway is a room full of computer parts and cables with speakers stacked up to chest height and a desk with 3 monitors all still running on Windows XP. When going through Jason’s computer files Dave found a video of him in 2013 and decided to upload it to YouTube with the title, ‘Jason Fisher talking about the pain and suffering in the world’. The 7-minute-long monologue gives a first-hand insight into his sensitive nature, ‘Jason was an empath you see, he loved to help other people and he had this ability to understand their pain. He even corresponded with prisoners in the U.S. he would send letters to them, he wanted them to know someone was there to listen to them’.

Over a decade since Jason’s passing, Dave still manages to unearth new information on his son as he spends countless hours trawling the internet for mentions of him, then corresponding with those online who remember Jason. He also hosts the Angryness/ Brimstone Appreciation Society which meets once a year around Jason’s Birthday at the Hollywood Bowl in Surrey Quays, his favourite spot where Dave and Jason’s friends can gather to remember him. ‘All of us were gathered around a table and did much talking, mainly focused on Jason. Stickers were given out as part of the joining process as I jokingly said, "Welcome to the Angryness/Brimstone Appreciation Society", but now it's real’. Dave often heads over to Crossbones and speaks at the vigils, spreading awareness of Crossbones history and telling fascinating stories from Jason’s life, ‘I’m doing it all for him, to keep his memory alive and to let everyone knows how incredible he was’.

In a quarter of a century, a strong community-led initiative of passionate volunteers dedicated to preserving local history has transformed Crossbones from a vacant site condemned to be another forgotten obscurity lost in London’s architecture into a world-renowned historic site visited by thousands. Volunteers who campaigned tirelessly to get Crossbones recognised as a protected heritage site have managed to provide a dignified space for remembrance and celebration of the world’s outcast dead from medieval times to the modern day.

‘The history of this place is not confined to some distant past; it’s an ongoing work in progress’.

DJ Angryness & Crossbones Graveyard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wA9WH_iRGE8

Contribution

In loving memory of Jason 'Angryness/Brimstone' Fisher. A pioneer of pirate radio.

With thanks to Dave Fisher, whose passion for his son's legacy inspired this documentary.

Thanks also to Helen John of Bankside Open Spaces Trust for opening the Crossbones Graveyard to our film.

Additional thanks to Neil Transpontine (History is Made at Night), whose research helped us to touch base with Dave in 2018.

This article was written by Jared Phanco. Some photographs within the article were kindly offered by Dave for use on our website.

Share Article