You wait years for a grotesquely mutilated skeleton in a gibbet, and then two come along at once. Well, they do if you walk along the riverfront near London Bridge.
For years now, the area's been home to a pair of swinging skeletons, the ghastly ambassadors of nearby visitor attractions.
But which one is the best?
The Clink Prison Museum
1 Clink St, SE1 9DG
A skeleton has decorated Clink Street for as long as we can remember. Its swaying bones are there to promote the Clink Prison Museum, serving up tales of torture and incarceration since 1989. (It's on the site of the real Clink, a notorious prison whose origins lie in medieval times.)
Not that we're connoisseurs of decaying corpses, but this fellow looks decidedly realistic. There's clearly a fair amount of wear and tear on his/her/their (pronouns unknown) appendages. The lower legs appear nibbled to a vanishing point, while the torso is caked in pseudo-organic matter. A wisp of white hair can still be glimpsed upon that unfortunate crown. Meanwhile, the surrounding brick structures provide a characterful backdrop to the deceased.
The gibbet hit the news in 2021 during an argument between The Clink's management and Southwark Council over some gaudy lighting next door (not the signs shown above, weirdly). “These new frames and lights have ruined the look and feel of my entrance along with obscuring the view of our gibbet,” claimed Ray Rankin, the long-time owner of the museum, in a unique instance of NIMBYism.
The London Bridge Experience
The Rennie Vaults, 2-4 Tooley St, SE1 2SY
A similar spectacle can be enjoyed a few hundred paces to the east, where this spindly local keeps guard beneath London Bridge. This skeleton has nothing whatsoever to do with The Clink, nor its erstwhile neighbours the London Dungeon (we'd talk about muddled branding, but that's a very different form of torture). Rather, it's a gruesome advertisement for the London Bridge Experience.
That attraction opened in 2008, peddling a heady/headless mix of history, showmanship and gore. We were lucky enough to spend the night down there a few months before it opened, among the very real bones of plague victims, who'd recently been excavated.
The bogus bones hanging outside seem to have been installed around 2019 (curiously, we can't find a planning application). They're very similar to those at the Clink. Here, a whole lower leg has gone missing; a popliteal bolt protrudes tellingly from the femur. The upper body is an entanglement of rags while the surviving face-parts scream in agony.
It's not a bad effort, but the ensemble is let down by the setting. Whitewashed concrete does not have the same period charm as Victorian brickwork when it comes to presenting a corpse. The stone arch (a surviving part of the previous London Bridge that was largely shipped off to Arizona) retrieves some of the character, however.
The Clink's more venerable specimen is a clear winner. It has age on its side, and looks much more 'ye olde' with its brickish backdrop. But wait... we have a late entry into our necrocopia of Southwark skeletons.
A few paces south of the London Bridge gibbet can be found the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret (9a St Thomas St, SE1 9RY), a small museum and performance space devoted to the history of surgery and medicine. Its displays include a genuine skeleton who's much more pleasant to look at. Make no bones about it — this place is our recommendation for the Best Body-Based Building in the Borough.
All images by the author, Matt Brown. A real gibbet (minus skeleton) can be found in the Museum of London Docklands.