Above: The Founders’ Arms pub shortly after being opened. The pub has fine views across the Thames towards the City of London.
In the 1960s, the western end of the street called Bankside was a very unused area, with old derelict buildings and a general look of black sooty walls and the need for change. Many plans for the land were being prepared but the casual visitor would never have guessed that anything was about to happen. Gradually the area started to change. On the Thames, a large coal jetty still remained from the days when coal had been delivered to the nearby Bankside Power Station. That huge building was still mainly standing empty although parts of it were still in use as a power station until 1981 and the announcement to use the building for the new Tate Modern art gallery did not come until 1994.
Just west of the old power station, a new development called Falcon Point was built. It took its name from a once very famous tavern called the Falcon which had been known to Samuel Pepys. Falcon Point was built on the site of one of the London Hydraulic Power Station. That had ceased to be used and the land became available for a development of apartments with commercial premises at ground level.
A new pub called the Founders’ Arms and the development called Falcon Point were both opened in 1980. The pub was on a new site but not far from where the ancient Falcon Tavern had once stood. Many people thought that the new pub would use the old name and continue the memories of the once famous Falcon watering-hole. However, the name Founders’ Arms is just as appropriate because the site had, indeed, been a foundry at the time of Sir Christopher Wren. In fact, Wren is known to have lived close by while the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral was bring being constructed. A Blue Plaque had been placed on the boundary wall of the old London Hydraulic Power Station recording the fact but all that has been swept away. The foundry was where the wrought ironwork was made that surrounds the high altar in St Paul’s Cathedral and which can still be seen today.
Above: High view of the power station in the 1970s. Notice the old coal-jetty on the Thames which was by then no longer in use.
There are plenty of people still around who call the building by its old name. Old habits die hard and, very often, the first name that people think of is the old one. The land on which the power station was built has had its fair share of industrial use. There was a gasworks on the land; part it was in use as a London Hydraulic Pumping Station; from 1891 onwards there was Bankside Power Station which produced electricity until 1981.
At first, the building was powered by coal. The coal jetty remained on the Thames until about the 1990s. The coal-fired boilers produced smoke that was discharged from the very tall chimney. There is many a photograph, like the one above, showing smoke coming from the chimney. The trouble was that, with prevailing winds from the southwest, much of the smoke spread to the City of London and St Paul’s Cathedral in particular. There were many complaints and they resulted in fines. However such fines were quite laughable by today’s values. In January 1903 the company was fined £20 plus costs for “creating smoke”. The London County Council undertook tests to measure the deposition of grit in the area during the summer of 1950. They estimated that up to 235 tons per square mile of grit were deposited from Bankside ‘A’ power station during September 1950. The power station still carried on regardless. As more power was required, a second Bankside ‘B’ was brought online. Due to an issue with being powered by coal, it then used oil-fired boilers.
Bankside B had a flue-gas washing plant to mitigate air pollution at its central London location. Only two British power stations had previously been fitted with such equipment – Battersea Power Station and Fulham Power Station. The process was a good idea in theory but it was not very efficient. With the days of tighter regulations, it has been realised that much more should have been done to reduce pollution. Much of the erosion to the stonework on St Paul’s Cathedral was found to be caused by the power station smoke when a large cleaning and restoration programme was put into effect in the late 1960s.
Eventually, the power station was closed. If you have ever wondered why London’s power stations were sited beside the Thames there are two reasons. Firstly, most of them started by being powered from coal whose transport was most efficiently carried out by colliers. Secondly, the power stations needed water-cooling and being built beside the Thames, there was always a ready source of water.
The next question was ‘What to do with a large brick building like Bankside Power Station?’. It stood empty for several years. Applications to list the building in 1987 and 1992 were refused. The government wanted to sell the site and listing would have restricted how developers used the building. It was given a ‘Certificate of immunity from listing’ on 3 February 1993.
In April 1994, the Tate Gallery announced that the building would be the home for the new Tate Modern. The conversion by Herzog and de Meuron, costing £134 million, was completed in 2000 and a further tower extension was later opened in 2016. The largest space inside the building is the Turbine Hall which is probably its finest feature. Amazing views over the City are to be gained from the high floors within the converted building. There was talk of a viewing gallery at the top of the chimney but, so far, that has not materialised.
For many people, the new gallery is just considered to be the use of an existing building that should have been knocked down years ago. For others, they see the enormous brick-built structure as one of the finest edifices ever created in modern London. You can take your choice as to which side you are on. When the building first opened, it was rather hard to get to. It was quite a walk from London Bridge Station and an awkward walk from Blackfriars Station which then only had an entrance in the City of London. Since then, Blackfriars Station has been rebuilt with entrances to the platforms from the City end and also from the riverside walkway on Bankside. In addition, the Millennium Bridge now allows pedestrians to walk straight from St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames to the Tate Modern. The added bonus for that route is the magnificent views of the Thames for people as they walk over the new bridge.
Above: Looking east (probably from Southwark Bridge) at part of the street called Bankside in about 1950. To the right of the pile of boxes in the distance is the entrance to the Anchor Tavern. Notice the steam engine on the viaduct leading to Cannon Street Railway Bridge. In the view are two cranes. Behind the one on the right is the tower of Southwark Cathedral.
The street that ran beside the river was the result of having started as a footpath along the top of an ancient earth dyke that had been formed to try to prevent the Thames from flooding the land on the south side of the Thames in early times. When the dyke was completed is not known for certain but it is likely to have been constructed in Norman times – possibly by about 1300. There is a record in 1352 of William Thorpe, James Husee and William de Fifhyde being appointed commissioners for “viewing and repairing the banks at the stews in St Mary Overy’s and in the places adjacent, by the breach whereof divers lands and meadows lay then totally drowned”. Similar flooding occurred when the banks burst in 1359 and 1368. In 1444 there is a further record of the banks being repaired along the Thames at Lambeth and the Paris Garden. Parts of the dyke are shown on the Agas map (c1561).
The land immediately south of the dyke – and what became the path and eventually a roadway – was itself very marshy. It was low-lying, only a few feet higher than the height of the Thames at high tide. On exceptional annual high tides – which occurred particularly in the spring and the autumn – flooding was almost inevitable. The land had many drainage ditches cut to help the water run away into the Thames. Several streams crossed the land and also flowed into the Thames. Some of those streams were dammed and used to power tide mills.
A large part of the land was what was known as the Liberty of the Clink. A liberty was a piece of land – often descended from royal ownership – on which there were rights of ownership that exempted the person holding it from any local laws or regulations. Hence the name of ‘liberty’ meaning that the owner was at liberty to make his own rules and was not subject to any local laws nearby. For example, it was outside the rules of parish law. To the west of Borough High Street stood the Priory of St Mary Overy (or Overie) which had its own precinct near the Thames. When the priory was suppressed at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536), the monastic church was given to the parishioners of Southwark for an additional parish church. In 1905 that church was created Southwark Cathedral.
On the west side of the priory precinct, was St Mary Overy Dock, a free landing place for parishioners, mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086).
From that point, the land to the west – as far as today’s Holland Street – was all part of the Liberty of the Clink. It was extensive, including land well to the south of today’s Southwark Street. That land was acquired by the Bishops of Winchester on which a large London house was constructed. The property was used by them when they made their annual visit to Westminster to attend the Court.
The house was lived in by successive Bishops of Winchester and walls from the ancient Great Hall are still standing for all to admire. However, the land that went with Winchester House was far in excess of anything they would ever need and so, in the main, it was rented out for locals to use for a variety of purposes. Probably the most well-known is that no less than 18 brothel-owners set up in business on the land. It appears that, as long as they paid their rent, the Bishops of Winchester were not fussy about what activities took place!
Being a Liberty, the Bishops were also free to do as they pleased and a small prison was built – the Clink Prison – which gave us the expression ‘In the Clink’. It is very unlikely to have been the terrible place that we have been led to believe. People were only locked up in the Clink for infringing a by-law of the Liberty. The well-known phrase is likely to have been meant as a ‘send-up’ of the prison rather than a description of some terrible place of incarceration.
The fact that the land was a Liberty, was also the reason for some of London’s theatres to be built on the land. Theatres were banned in the City of London and those who wanted to build such establishments had to find ways of erecting a building that was near where people lived. The Bishops, once again, agreed to the theatres and three were built on their land – the Globe, the Hope and the Rose.
Bankside became an area of small streets and humble residences. Many of the houses were lived in by those carrying on a craft or a trade. One of the more unusual was a mustard mill, where the mustard seed was ground into a fine powder. Brewing and dyeing are trades that are also known to have been conducted on Bankside. The theatres, in the main, had their heyday in late Tudor times and were later suppressed during the Puritan era. Many famous names in the theatre lived on Bankside, including Philip Henslowe, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Edmund Shakespeare, younger brother of William, had been living on Bankside when he died in 1607 and was buried in the nearby church (now known as Southwark Cathedral).
Around the 1670s, Sir Christopher Wren lived on Bankside while he was supervising the building of St Paul’s Cathedral. By the way, there is a very misleading plaque on Bankside saying that he lived in a house that stands near the modern replica of the Globe Theatre. That is complete fiction. Wren’s house no longer exists but it stood on land further west, where the modern Founders’ Arms pub now stands. The name of the modern pub relates to the fact that Wren lived beside an iron foundry – not any old iron foundry, it was the one that made the impressive iron gates near the altar for the new St Paul’s Cathedral!
In the 1960s and 1970s, you could take a walk along Bankside – by day or by night – and hardly meet a living soul. Hardly anyone was living in the area and nearly all the small factories had closed down. A scene of dereliction greeted you. In fact, it was part of its charm. Gradually things ‘hotted up’ in the 1980s and 1990s. Bankside Power Station had closed down and was converted into the Tate Modern art gallery. Sam Wanamaker eventually found enough money to build a replica of the original Elizabethan Globe Theatre. How much it resembles the original will never be known because there are no exact plans for any of the Bankside theatres. The area is now trendy and, on a sunny day, you can hardly move for visitors walking along footpaths beside the river. They call it progress but those of us who can remember when you had the streets all to yourself rather yearn for those times to return.
The street known as Bankside once extended west from Cannon Street Railway Bridge to Blackfriars Railway Bridge but in the 1970s it was truncated due to the new park and riverside walkway which were laid out. The land in front of Falcon Point was extended about 60 feet (18.3 m) further north into the river to permit more open space to be laid out and continue the riverside walkway. What was once a narrow street, with access for cars and lorries is now mainly pedestrianised. Many of the large Victorian warehouses have been demolished and, in their place, are new developments with cafes and restaurants. Bankside even has a pier for the River Bus, providing a useful stopping point for tourists who want to explore the south side of the river.
Above: Looking west at the entrance and open air beer terrace. The Thames is to the right. The pub is within the floodlit brick building.
This is a riverside pub which, in spite of the name containing the word ‘Old’, is not as old as they would have you believe. Until the 1970s, the land on the west side of St Mary Overy Dock was occupied by very attractive large brick-built warehouses. They were important Grade II listed structures standing beside the Thames. They had not been used for many years and they had become derelict but, even so, they had not lost their elegance of charm. The brickwork and the floors were all sound.
From this point in the story, the facts turn rather sinister. Many people were ‘in the know’ that about a certain weekend when there would be a fire in the warehouses and sure enough, that is exactly what happened. Not only was there a fire that reduced the buildings to ruins but across the Thames from the warehouses is a City fire station that did not attend the fire – probably because they were not called. The result was that the remaining ruined buildings were demolished because they were in danger of collapsing. It is not hard to imagine the scenario of why the fire occurred and within a short space of time, a developer moved onto the site to construct offices with a new pub on a new site beside the river.
The building was designed in the style of much older premises – to give the effect of it being old. However, the facts are that the pub was opened on 2 July 1986, which hardly qualifies as ‘old’. While on the subject of accuracy, the premises also carry the name ‘inn’ which is strictly not so. The premises are licensed to sell alcohol and so it is a ‘pub’ but not an ‘inn’. There is a large open space between the pub and the dock that is usually filled with drinkers sitting at the many outside tables, admiring the views of the City, Fishmongers’ Hall, The Monument and London Bridge. There is no doubt that the pub is a great asset to the area – but at what cost to the historic site on which it stands!
Inside, the pub continues its deception. There is an impressive flag-stone floor and also an elegant iron spiral staircase to a lower floor, giving the impression that the pub premises were probably the result of building conversion. Few people realise that the whole building is itself less than 40 years old. The premises are known as Pickford’s Wharf. They stand on the north side of Clink Street.
Calling a pub that stands beside the river, the ‘Old Thameside Inn’ is hardly very original but that’s developers for you. No doubt it fools most of the tourists who come to soak up some of the atmosphere of ‘Old London’!
Above: View looking north in Borough High Street from a point just north of Borough Underground Station. The tower of Southwark Cathedral is partly hidden by buildings standing on the island site. The tall office block, now called Tower 42, stands in the City.
Calvert’s Buildings [West]
Just south of the island site on the west side of the street is the entrance to Calvert’s Buildings. The exact age of the building is not known but it is probably around the 18th century. It was, at one time, the site of a medieval inn and it still has a timber-framed building that can only be glimpsed through the ornamental iron railings.
Field and Sons [West]
Immediately south of this building is a Georgian building, at No 54, which was once a shop on the ground floor. It was used by an estate agent called Field and Sons which had been established in 1804 – the oldest independent estate agent in London. Some of the inns lining Borough High Street have photographs in their latter days with a signboard showing the name Field and Sons who were acting as estate agents for selling the property. The name of ‘Field and Sons’ is still to be seen on the building but, of recent years. the name over the door is now Dexters. Times change, even for estate agents!
Maidstone Buildings [West]
Also on the west side of Borough High Street (but further south) is a turning called Maidstone Buildings. It is lined by large elegant buildings that were probably built as hop warehouses. In recent times they have been redeveloped as apartments and now have security gates across the entrance from the street.
Christopher Inn [East]
Today’s pub stands on the site of an ancient Southwark inn – the Christopher Inn, at No 121. During the 1980s, the pub had been called the Grapes. How long either side of that date it had been known as the Grapes is not known. The pub is on the ground floor of a Georgian building whose elegant three-storey facade faces onto Borough High Street. The old yard on the south side has been known as Kentish Buildings since at least the mid-1900s. The name probably referred to the fact that the yard led from Borough High Street to large hop warehouses on land behind (to the east of) the pub. The yard has a separate address to the pub – of No 123 Borough High Street.
Premier Inn [East]
Further down, on the east side of the street, is now a Premier Inn. The entrance was once the yard of the Spur Inn – a coaching inn during its final days. The yard and surrounding buildings were in a very poor state until about 2015 when the whole site was developed on behalf of Guy’s Hospital. The site of the ancient inn became a Premier Inn and beside the pavement, new shops were created, one of them taken by a mini-Tesco.
Newcomen Street [East]
Walking further south, the turning on the left is Newcomen Street. It is part of a crossroads, in fact, with Union Street on the west side. On the south corner of Newcomen Street is an entrance to an old yard beside which are Victorian warehouses, once used to store hops. They have been converted for use as small commercial premises. The warehouses stand on the old site of the old Marshalsea Prison which was finally demolished, providing the land on which the warehouses now stand. Because of the shops in Borough High Street (to the south of Newcomen Street) the very large warehouses are not visible as you walk down the street.
Fry’s Timber [East]
In the 1960s and remaining until probably the 1980s was a small timber shop on the south corner of Newcomen Street called Fry’s. The shop was long a narrow, extending back along Newcomen Street. There were no glass windows. At night it just had wooden roller shutters. When the shop was open, the whole frontage was accessible to the public and it had popular sizes of timber in the shop. That shop was where the shopkeepers for the company were based. If a customer had a request for a large amount of timber or timber of an unusual size, they were taken across Borough High Street to a much larger timber yard in Union Street. Fry’s had several timber yards because, although the shop at Newcomen Street was quite small, the company was very large indeed. Very often, in the 1960s, when timber was delivered, it was stacked on the pavement of Borough High Street, outside their small shop. Such a practice probably would not be allowed these days. At the north end of Redcross Street today, near the junction with Union Street, is a Travis Perkins depot which is on land that was part of a Fry’s timber yard.
Mermaid Court [East]
On the east side of Borough High Street, to the south of Newcomen Street, is a curious turning called Mermaid Court which is entered on foot or by a vehicle under a building that is probably either Georgian or Victorian. On the south side of Mermaid Court used to be a shop selling tiles, called Langley London Ltd. The company opened in 1920 at Nos 163-167. The company sold other commodities including roof tiles and electrical goods. The roofing business was eventually sold in 1999 and the ceramic tile business was sold in 2000. Those responsible for running the company then diversified into an altogether different business – becoming financial brokers and dealing with shareholders.
Blue Eyed Maid pub (East)
Further south, also on the east side of the street, the next turning is Chapel Court – because at one time there was a chapel standing in the alleyway. In early times the court had been the site of an inn-yard called the Blue Maid Inn. That is probably why the pub standing on its south corner, at No 173, has a similar name. The pub is Victorian and is unlikely to have been anything to do with the earlier inn.
John Harvard Library [East]
A new lending library opened in a newly erected building in the 1980s. It was named after John Harvard who had lived in the street before emigrating to America when in 1637 he sailed with his wife to Massachusetts. At the rear of the lending library is a local studies library containing all the material collected by the Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark over the years. The library reopened in 2009 after a major Lottery funded refurbishment.
Nettlefold and Moser [West]
Walking south as far as the junction with Marshalsea Road, on the west corner was an enormous shop called Nettlefold and Moser. They stocked just about every tool used in the building trade that was ever made. You could walk into that shop and whatever you requested, they would have one. Builders from far and wide knew the shop and used it regularly. The shop probably closed down in the 1980s and a new development stands on the site. One possible problem for customers was that there was no parking allowed outside the shop. For a builder, buying heavy goods, that was no doubt a difficulty.
St George the Martyr [East]
The elegant church of St George the Martyr stands on the corner of Borough High Street and Great Dover Street.
Borough Underground Station [West]
Borough Underground Station is on the south corner of Borough High Street with Marshalsea Road.
Borough Post Office and Sorting Office [East]
Walking a short distance south of the busy crossroads, was the Borough Post Office. Around the back was a very large parking area for vans that collected the mail because there was a large sorting office also on-site, known as the SE District sorting Office. That post office – a Crown Post Office – closed in 2007. A smaller sub-Post Office was then opened in Great Dover Street. The building is still standing empty.
Opposite the Borough Post Office site is a large pub, built in the half-timbered style. Many pubs looking like this one were built all over London. It stands at No 202-206 Borough High Street. The pub’s name had been St George’s Tavern until 1889 when the name was changed to the Hole in the Wall but nobody seems to know why. Its name was changed in 2014 to The Trinity. It was acquired by Fullers in 2019 and given an impressive refurbishment.
Car Spraying Company [West]
In either Lant Street or Great Suffolk Street (which are both turnings off the west side of Borough High Street) was a company just a very short distance from Borough High Street that used to respray motor cars in the 1960s and 1970s. The space in which they worked was quite cramped and to prevent the walls from being covered in spray paint, one wall had water constantly running down it to catch the spray particles. It was an unusual sight and seldom seen these days.
Southwark Police Station [East]
At No 323, nearly at the southern end of Borough High Street, stands a Police Station. This point of the street was once known as ‘Stones End’ because it was at the southern end of Southwark. It was here that the roadway formed of stone sets ended. People described it as ‘where the stones ended’ because the continuation was just a rough track. There is a plaque explaining this on the wall of the Police Station and, near the opposite side of the road, is a turning called Stones End Street.
Above: View looking north in Borough High Street while standing on the pavement near the entrance to the George Inn. The HSBC bank stood on the island site. To the right is the old entrance to Borough Market. The old girder Borough Market Bridge can be seen carrying the railway across the street. Beyond the bridge is the pale brown No 1 London Bridge which is a large office block, built in the 1980s at the southern end of London Bridge on the east side.
Walking down Borough High Street for more than half a century, one notices many changes. After such a long time, it is also surprising how much you forget. Borough High Street joins onto the southern end of London Bridge. That too has had some changes since the 1960s. This imaginary walk will start at the southern end of London Bridge and continue until Borough High Street meets up with Newington Causeway. Places being described will be labelled on the ‘east’ or ‘west’ side of the street [in square brackets] for ease of locating them.
Since the 1960s, London Bridge has been rebuilt. The old bridge was taken down in thirds – first the eastern side, then the western side and finally the middle of the bridge. The external blocks of masonry were carefully numbered before being dismantled and then shipped to America. They were used for the external covering of a bridge at Lake Havasu City, in Arizona. The new bridge was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in March 1973.
No 1 London London Bridge [East]
On the east side of the bridge had been a large 1930s building, in use by the Egg Marketing Board. The building was rather ugly and was demolished in the late 1970s. It was replaced in the early 1980s by a very large office block that was arguably even more ugly. Called No 1 London Bridge, it is a curious design with a single leg supporting the NW corner of the building with a large overhang of the upper floors. It is too overbearing for the area and detracts from the line of far more modest buildings nearby. It was erected when the north side of Tooley Street was under the control of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) when no planning consent was required by any other local authority.
Tooley Street [East]
When the medieval London Bridge was in existence, Tooley Street met Borough High Street at a T-junction. When the 1831 bridge was built, Borough High Street not only had to be realigned but it also had to have a slope to meet with the new bridge which was almost level and raised well above the Thames at high tide. This meant that Tooley Street also had to be altered with a ramp being added to the western end, called Duke Street Hill.
At the top of Duke Street Hill, a second roadway leads into the forecourt of London Bridge Station. That roadway would have been laid out in the 1830s. The station opened in December 1836. At the western end is a curious curved wall beside an abutment supporting the old girder railway bridge. Built into the abutment is Findlater’s Corner with a shop and a clock that has not shown the correct time for decades.
Just before you get to Southwark Cathedral, on the west side of the street, there is a large pub with the unlikely name of Barrow Boy and Banker. Its name, of course, alludes to the Borough Market nearby. The pub opened in 1996 in converted Victorian premises.
Southwark Cathedral [West]
A short distance south of the end of London Bridge is Southwark Cathedral, standing in its extensive churchyard. When old London Bridge (the one with houses on it) was in existence, Borough High Street ran further to the east – to align with the old bridge which was on a different site from today. When the 1831 road bridge was constructed, the new site was slightly to the west of the old one. The roadway had to be realigned with the result that many buildings near Southwark Cathedral were demolished to make way for the the realignment. This included the demolition of a chapel that was at the eastern end of Southwark Cathedral. The result has been that Borough High Street runs closer to the cathedral site than it did before 1831.
Borough Market Bridge
This old girder bridge remains from when it was first built and still carries trains travelling between London Bridge Station in the east and Charing Cross and Cannon Street in the east. In 2011 a new railway bridge was put in place to carry an additional two tracks on the south side of the old one. This increased the capacity of the railway tracks from four to six and meant that many more trains could be brought into service, alleviating one of the main bottle-necks on the system in Southwark.
Borough Market [West]
The old offices for Borough Market stand on the west side of Borough High Street, to the south of Bedale Street. Borough Market was for wholesale distribution of fruit and vegetables. As one market trader once put it, “This was designed as a horse and cart market” and by the 1980s it was certainly showing its age. It had been declining for years because access by greengrocers who came there with their vans and lorries to buy produce was becoming a problem. Wholesale traders were down to single figures and everyone thought that the market would cease trading. A brilliant plan was put into operation whereby the wholesale market continued, with a farmers market for the public being inaugurated. In addition, office space was created along with commercial units for restaurants and other purposes. With the combined income from the diverse uses, the Borough Market was able to become financially viable once more. In short, it is a grand success story. A new all-glass structure now sits under the new railway bridge, affording more space for traders.
A Row of Shops [East]
Facing Borough Market are a row of shops situated between the railway bridges and St Thomas Street. Several of them have changed hands over the years.
Post Office – For many years leading up to the 1970s, one of the buildings was a Post Office. Its entrance was beside the pavement and it was a long narrow building. The hustle and bustle up to the 1970s in the Borough meant that this Post Office was always busy. The long building hid a secret that few people walking up and down Borough High Street ever noticed.
It was during the 1980s that the narrow post office building was demolished. Leaving a large gap between the pavement and a very tall stone building. The wall had been there all the time but, due to the Post Office in front of it, few people ever noticed the tall building behind it. The enormous stone building had been part of the old St Thomas’s Hospital that stood in St Thomas Street until the middle of the 19th century. When the hospital relocated to Lambeth, this vast block stood empty for some time. A new Post Office was created within the western end of the block with a new entrance from Borough High Street – on the west side of the stonework. The Post Office remains in use and the large stone building has been in use for some years as offices for British Transport Police (BTP).
Stephenson’s – A hardware store that stood in Borough High Street was Stephenson’s. It stood in the row of shops that are on the east side of the street, between the railway bridge and St Thomas Street. The shop sold mainly tools as well as hardware – like screws and nails. Peter Stephenson owned it. He was an interesting man. As well as running the shop, his hobby was photography. He took black-and-white film which he developed and processed before printing large photographs of about 20 by 30 inches. Whether he was religious is not known but one of his favourite pastimes was to take pictures inside Southwark Cathedral. One particular picture became his obsession. He realised that, on the longest day of the year, the sun shone on a particular part of the choir. When he had successfully produced the picture, he was showing it to someone and he explained that he was particularly pleased with the result because it had taken three years to produce what he was after. He had been ready to take the picture one year but it was cloudy so, he had to abandon his efforts. The following year was very sunny but, just at the vital moment, a train was held at a red light on the nearby viaduct, casting a shadow over the scene and the moment was lost. The third year had been a success – with brilliant sunshine and no obstructions on the railway tracks. Such was his dedication to his photographic hobby.
St Thomas Street [East]
This street derived its name from St Thomas’s Hospital standing on its north side.
Shops and Inns [East]
Walking down Borough High Street from St Thomas Street is a motley collection of mainly food outlets and cafes. The shops are interspersed by gaps of narrow streets that once formed the entrance to yards of large inns – some of the Southwark coaching inns that had been in use during the 18th and 19th centuries, having derived from ancient inns. There is little to attract the eye and the general effect is of the mundane.
Southwark Street [West]
Leading off to the west of Borough High Street is the equally wide Southwark Street. The elegant Hop and Malt Exchange is to be seen near the junction of the two thoroughfares.
The Island Site
Borough High Street at this point has a curious feature of an almost triangular piece of land on which there were large commercial premises, including a Nat West bank which closed many years ago. It was probably operational until just after the millennium.
At the southern end of the island-site is a war memorial. On the wall nearby is a second bronze Great War memorial to those who died while serving as soldiers who had previously worked in the hop trade. The hop trade was once one of Southwark’s most important sources of employment until about the 1970s or the 1980s when it went into rapid decline.
W H & H LeMay Hop Factors [East]
This unusual building stands just north of the George Inn, on the same side of the road. Henry and Herbert Le May were Hop Factors – that is to say, they were dealers in hops which were brought to The Borough in the autumn each year to be sold at the Hop and Malt Exchange. The hop trade was a significant part of Southwark’s commercial past until the early 1970s. In Victorian times there were endless warehouses in the area storing and dealing in hops. The ornate building in Borough High Street is Grade II listed.
George Inn [East]
Mention must be made of the George which is opposite the island site, on the east side of Borough High Street. In 1676, Southwark suffered a disastrous fire, destroying all the famous inns along with many shops and houses. The George Inn was one of the buildings to be destroyed. It was rebuilt soon afterwards and a small part of the original galleried inn is still in use as a pub and restaurant.
Among the 29 pilgrims that set off from the Tabard Inn to visit Canterbury in Chaucer’s ‘Prologue, were just a few women – a Prioress, another Nun and a lady described as ‘A Woman of Bath’. All the others were a large cross-section of men – from the Knight all the way down to the ill-mannered and foul-mouthed miller, with many interesting characters in between.
We will take look at the ‘Woman of Bath’. Chaucer starts by informing us that came from the City of Bath, which is towards the West of England, in the county of Somerset. Although she was ‘somewhat deaf’ Chaucer admires her skills in what he called ‘making cloth’, probably meaning weaving. As Bath was a centre of the cloth trade, it is possible that one of her husbands had been a cloth-maker. According to the trade custom of the time, that would have given anyone who married his widow the right to succeed to his place in the cloth-maker’s guild which might account for the Wife’s own skill in the craft.
“A worthy woman from beside Bath city Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity. In making cloth she showed so great a bent She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent.”
A strange character description then follows which includes mention of her expensive taste in clothes, including a ‘kerchief’ which was usually a triangular or square piece of cloth tied around the head, face or neck for protective or decorative purposes. Chaucer writes –
“In all the parish not a dame dared stir Towards the altar steps in front of her, And if indeed they did, so wrath was she As to be quite put out of charity. Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground; I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound, The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head. Her hose were of the finest scarlet red And gartered tight; her shoes were soft and new. Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue.”
This ‘Woman of Bath’ had certainly seen her fair share of life as well as having travelled extensively on pilgrimages –
“A worthy woman all her life, what’s more She’d had five husbands, all at the church door, Apart from other company in youth; No need just now to speak of that, forsooth. And she had thrice been to Jerusalem, Seen many strange rivers and passed over them; She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne, St James of Compostella and Cologne, And she was skilled in wandering by the way.”
She must have been quite an imposing sight and a lady to whom you paid attention. She was obviously someone who was well-dressed, a little plump and could certainly ride a horse. In addition, she was clearly very good company and was probably what we now call ‘the life and soul of the party’. Not only does Chaucer mention that ‘she liked to laugh and chat’ but she also ‘knew the oldest dances’ –
She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say. Easily on an ambling horse she sat Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat As broad as is a buckler or a shield; She had a flowing mantle that concealed Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that. In company she liked to laugh and chat And knew the remedies for love’s mischances, An art in which she knew the oldest dances.
Chaucer does not mention that she had a lady companion which confirms that she was happy to travel alone – maybe, looking for her sixth husband! Who knows? Although much has been made of her character by other writers and in dramatisations of her tale, she remains very modern in her outlook. She would not look out of place in today’s society.
Above: Print showing how the Tabard looked in the 15th century.
In the ‘Prologue’ to the ‘Canterbury Tales’ written by Geoffrey Chaucer, the account tells us that he was among a group of pilgrims who met at the Tabard Inn. Sadly, there is no long description of the inn (If only there was!) but there are a few details which Chaucer weaves into the narrative, along with brief mentions of ‘The Host’ – meaning the innkeeper.
“It happened in that season that one day In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay Ready to go on pilgrimage and start For Canterbury, most devout at heart, At night there came into that hostelry Some nine and twenty in a company Of sundry folk happening then to fall In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all That towards Canterbury meant to ride. The rooms and stables of the inn were wide: They made us easy, all was of the best.”
Further into the ‘Prologue’, we learn a little more about the Tabard Inn –
“In Southwark, at that high-class hostelry Known as The Tabard, close beside The Bell. And now the time has come for me to tell How we behaved that evening; I’ll begin After we had alighted at the Inn,”
The Tabard Inn was one of the larger inns which stood beside Borough High Street. In Chaucer’s day, it was a well-known inn and there is little doubt that he had visited it as he walked up and down the street in connection with his everyday work. Chaucer may even have known the innkeeper. He certainly gives him a fine write-up –
“Our Host gave us great welcome; everyone Was given a place and supper was begun. He served the finest victuals you could think, The wine was strong and we were glad to drink. A very striking man our Host withal, And fit to be a marshal in a hall. His eyes were bright, his girth a little wide; There is no finer burgess in Cheapside. Bold in his speech, yet wise and full of tact, There was no manly attribute he lacked, What’s more he was a merry-hearted man.
The Host was obviously someone that Chaucer approved of and probably admired. We then hear a little of what the Host was planning –
“After our meal he jokingly began To talk of sport, and, among other things After we’d settled up our reckonings, He said as follows: Truly, gentlemen, You’re very welcome and I can’t think when – Upon my word I’m telling you no lie – I’ve seen a gathering here that looked so spry, No, not this year, as in this tavern now. I’d think you up some fun if I knew how. … I’ll go along with you myself and ride All at my own expense and serve as guide.”
Although Chaucer states in the ‘Prologue’ that there were 29 people who went 0n pilgrimage to Canterbury, he counts himself in the number and also includes ‘The Host’. Therefore, the people in the ‘Prologue’ are actually only 27.
While on the subject of the Tabard Inn when Chaucer knew it (in the 1380s), we should not think of the building looking anything like the prints we have become so familiar with – showing a galleried inn that we associate with those in Borough High Street. The Tabard Inn is likely to have looked rather like a series of separate buildings all standing side-by-side. The only visual representations are prints like the one shown above. Even that has no certainty about how accurate it is.
With Easter fast approaching, our thoughts also turn to the pilgrims of old who, according to Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ set off from Southwark to walk or ride on horse-back to Canterbury. The last journey that Thomas a Becket made, just a few days before his awful death, was to ride from the Priory of St Mary Overy, at Southwark, and return to Canterbury Cathedral. That journey inspired so many pilgrims to follow in his footsteps, arriving daily at Canterbury in their hundreds – sometimes in their thousands. This year we look at the description of The Host of the Tabard Inn and at another character to pay homage to Chaucer’s remarkable work. Other characters from the ‘Prologue’ have already been considered in previous years on these pages.
Above: Aerial view from Google Earth of the Cathedral.
The Metropolitan Cathedral Church of St George, usually known as St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, South London and is the seat of the Archbishop of Southwark.
The first Roman Catholic church to be built in England since the Reformation, it was designed in 1848 by Augustus Pugin and opened on 4 July 1848. It remained the only Catholic cathedral in London until Westminster Cathedral was opened beside Victoria Street about 50 years later.
St George’s was destroyed by fire caused by an incendiary bomb on 16 April 1941, during the Second World War. Much of the original design remains but within the external structure of Pugin’s building, Romilly Craze designed a rebuilt 20th-century Gothic revival Cathedral. The restored building was re-opened on 4 July 1958 – 110 years to the day since its original opening. The building is Grade II listed.
Before the wartime damage, there were two organs, one by Willis and one by Bishop & Son. Both were destroyed. They were replaced by a 72 stop John Compton organ in 1958 although it has since been modified by both Ellis Scothon and by Whitwell Green.
Above: Looking along the nave.
The stained glass in the bombed Cathedral was by the prolific stained glass artist William Wailes. In the rebuilt Cathedral, the window above the West Door shows the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. The East Window depicts the Crucifixion and Saints of England and Wales. Both East and West windows are by Harry Clarke of Dublin. The stone tracery in the East Window by Pugin.
The cathedral is the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Province of Southwark which covers the Archdiocese of Southwark (all of London south of the River Thames including Kent and north Surrey) and the Dioceses of Arundel and Brighton, Portsmouth, and Plymouth. It is the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Archbishop of Southwark.
The building stands almost opposite the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth Road.
Above: The old street name plate on the old Dewhurst building (now better known as the OXO building), photographed in 1977. The building stands on the east side of the original alleyway that led to Barge House Stairs.
On the western boundary of the London Borough of Southwark are to be found Barge House Stairs. The stairs are still there but there are no other clues as to why they were so-named. Some time around 1530, on a site just west of today’s Blackfriars Bridge, stood the dwellings of the Royal Barge Master and sheds for the State Barges which were on the river bank at this location from the time of Henry VIII. There was a long, gently sloping beach at this point on the Thames which was the ideal place for building and storing the large impressive London barges and boats.
The barge house stood near a branch of the river Neckinger which formed the western boundary of Paris Garden. According to Lillywhite [n9556 p318], in the 1660s a tavern by the name of ‘Kings Barge Hovse’ stood nearby.
Above: The stairs and causeway, seen from the river at low tide in 1981. The warehouse to the left was then owned by Dewhurst, a company well-known for their butcher’s shops.
Very little documentation remains describing the building but the large ceremonial barges are recorded in several paintings made during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Thames. They show state occasions taking place on the river and a procession of the splendid vessels.
Barge House Street recalls the name today. The narrow passageway called Old Barge Alley used to lead to Barge House Stairs. The location has been ‘tidied up’ since the river view was taken. There is now a pedestrian walkway beside the Thames and the old warehouses have all been demolished, apart from the OXO building which has been ‘smartened up’ beyond belief compared to how it used to look in the 1970s. The old stairs are still there. The long stone causeway, once used as a landing place for a ferry crossing, is gradually being eroded by the powerful tides.