Borough High Street and Its Inns

Above: Part of Rocque’s map (1746) showing Borough High Street running south from London Bridge. Southwark Cathedral (named ‘St Saviour’ on the map) and the church of St George the Martyr have been coloured PURPLE. The 12 inn yards have been coloured YELLOW with their entrances marked with RED dots.

If you travel to a seaside town in England – like Blackpool, Eastbourne or Brighton (as well as many other similar places) – you are not surprised to find the sea-front lined with hotels or guest-houses as well as an innumerable number restaurants and cafes. That’s what sea-side towns are all about. In medieval times, there was a similar situation in London. Several of the ancient streets were lined with inns where those who were on pilgrimage or were travelling salesmen (going from one market to another selling their wares) stayed for the night, sometimes more. The place with more inns than anywhere else near the City of London was Southwark where both sides of Borough High Street were rather like ‘the sea-front at Brighton’ in that they were lined with an almost endless number of inns. There were also many inns beside Gracechurch Street and Bishopsgate but the evidence in those two thoroughfares has now been completely lost due to later developments.

So, when did inns start and why were there so many of them in Southwark? It is very hard to be certain when inns started anywhere in England but, in Southwark, it would be safe to say that they started in the 12th century and had become a popular place to stay for 14th century visitors. For people in the 12th century, going on pilgrimage – whether short or long – was something that was encouraged by the Church of Rome. In Southwark, pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral started shortly after the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170. The pilgrimage was an act of religious faith with the highlight of arriving at the cathedral and seeing the exact location of Becket’s death and also to see his splendid tomb near the high altar. Becket became even more well-known after his canonisation in 1173. The Pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury had very strong advantages for those wishing to participate because it was for a relatively short distance. The route lay between two major cities across a well policed area, convenient and affordable by a large class of penitents. The pilgrims began and also ended their journey with devotions at the nearby chapel on London Bridge dedicated to Becket’s memory.

Borough High Street had many inns – providing for the needs of travellers setting off from London Bridge. Their number of pilgrims helped with the economic development of Southwark. Not only did pilgrims living in the London area use the route but thousands more travelled across England to stay in London – or more likely Borough High Street – before setting out early in the morning to walk to Canterbury. The journey took four days. It was a distance of about 60 miles which the pilgrims could cover by walking about 15 miles each day and staying at various inns along the route. We have little idea today of just how many people came to Southwark to stay for at least one night at one of the numerous inns in Southwark.

Geoffrey Chaucer provides a good description of the pilgrims in the ‘Prologue’ to the “Canterbury Tales’. Although fictitious, it is an example of what went on at the Tabard Inn. The day they set off, there were 29 people in the group, some riding on horseback and other walking. They deliberately got to know each other just in case they were attacked by robbers. There is always safety in numbers. It has been estimated that visitors to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury ran into thousands every day. Not all of the pilgrims started out from Southwark but, nevertheless, it probably accounted for a large percentage.

In the 13th century, people were not accustomed to regular travel. The pilgrimages we are talking about were ‘once in a lifetime’ events. The inns of Southwark were thronging with those staying for at least one night before setting off early the next day for Canterbury. If they were taken ill or were very tired that stay might last for several days or even weeks. The inns must have been chaotic at times. With nobody booking ahead, the inn-keeper had to deal with on-demand requests for a drink, a meal and somewhere to sleep on a daily basis. In addition, the stables had to provide food and rest for each horse owned by a visitor.

Borough High Street was lined with inns on both sides of the road. The inns were large and the boundary wall of one inn was shared by the neighbouring inn. They extended back from Borough High Street by at least 160 feet (50 m). They were large establishments, even by today’s standards. The ’sea-front at Brighton’ concept really did describe the way that Borough High Street looked in medieval times. The site of each inn occupied land set back from the road with access to a long, narrow yard via an arched entrance from the thoroughfare. There were other smaller buildings facing onto Borough High Street which were shops and taverns. There may have been as many as 50 inns for a visitor to choose from in the street, as well as numerous food shops and taverns.

As time went by, the 17th century saw the beginnings of the coaching inn. England had been reformed from Catholic to Protestant and pilgrimages were less common. However, for those who could afford it, travel by stagecoach was ‘the thing’ and the inns of Southwark adapted to cater for the new mode of long distance transport. We refer to them as coaching inns today. The number of inns declined but there were probably as many as 30 remaining in Borough High Street serving the stagecoaches. Coaching continued into the first half of the 19th century when transport by railway trains put most of those inns out of business.

The first station in London was London Bridge Station which opened in 1836. We know from local accounts that the innkeepers went bankrupt to the extent that by the 1880s there was hardly one still open along the length of Borough High Street. That is not quite the end of the story. Several inns managed to stay open by renting their extensive premises for people to live there and for firms to rent space in which to store their goods – in particular hops stored in sacks and wine and beer stored in barrels. The inn-keepers kept their tap-rooms (usually referred to as pubs today) open for passing trade. It was a meagre existence but it provided some income and, more importantly, kept the inn buildings from being demolished.

Remarkable as it may sound there is remaining evidence for no less than 12 ancient inns along the east side of Borough High Street. This evidence includes what survives of the well-known George Inn. There are also other inns for which the evidence remains if only you know where to look. For that reason, almost all of the land beside Borough High Street is listed. That does not mean that the street looks like a Dickensian film set – if only it did!. However, there is more than you might imagine, providing historians with solid evidence of what those inns once looked like. Eventually, the 12 inns will each have their own page – describing the evidence in detail. It is an important subject for Southwark. There is nowhere else in Inner London that had so many inns nor is there anywhere else in Inner London that retains so much evidence for these now anachronistic buildings.

Shown above is part of Borough High Street – taken from a small section of John Rocque’s map of 1746. Old London Bridge is shown at the north end of the street. All along Borough High Street, on both sides, inns are shown from one end of the street to the other.

South of London Bridge – On the east side are names like the White Horse and the Ship. On the west side, around the church of St Saviour, are shown more inns, including the Green Dragon and the Angel – this name hardly being surprising due to it being so close to a religious building.

South of St Thomas’s Street – On the east side of the street, the map shows the old yards of the inns highlighted in YELLOW. RED dots in Borough High Street indicate the entrance to each inn, usually via a high arch. The names of the inns, working from north to south were – (1) King’s Arms, (2) White Hart, (3) George, (4) Tabard, (5) Queen’s Head, (6) Three Tuns, (7) Christopher, (8) Spur, (9) Nag’s Head, (10) Axe, (11) Mermaid, (12) Blue Maid. Facing them, on the west side, inn names including the Boar’s Head, the Bell Inn, the Greyhound Inn, the Red Lion (Lyon), the Catherine Wheel and the Falcon.

South of St George the Martyr – On both sides of Borough High Street (not shown on the above map) yet more inns are shown but not quite so closely pack together. Names to the east include the Horse and Groom, the Flying Horse, the Unicorn, the Horseshoe, the Bull’s Head and the Artichoke. On the west side are names including the Axe (a second inn by the same name in Borough High Street), the Star and the Crown.

It is probably true to say that nobody has ever attempted to create a full list of all the inns that once stood beside Borough High Street. On Rocque’s map we can see two kinds of establishment – (1) There were the larger ones called inns. They not only served food and drink but also provided accommodation for the guests and stabling for their horses. (2) There were also a multitude of taverns and ale-houses with name similar to the inns whose sites are smaller and are mixed with the inns that are seen on Rocque’s map.

Bringing the story up to date, Borough High Street does still have some evidence for just 12 of the inns. Sadly, nothing remains to be seen of the inns on the west side of Borough High Street, not even side streets bearing their names. All the evidence is bunched together on the east side of the street – between St Thomas Street and the church of St George the Martyr – in the form of the 12 inns already mentioned. Most of the 12 inns were still standing when Rocque’s map was published. Some of them may have already closed as inns and become just taverns. Nobody knows for sure.

The 12 inns highlighted in YELLOW will all eventually have separate pages, describing their history and also explaining what evidence remains today. The land on which those inns once stood is now a conservation area but, in some cases, that does mean the evidence is plentiful. At least some attempt has been made by the local authorities to retain the layout of the side streets as a reminder of one of Southwark’s most important historic features.


This entry was posted in /Borough High Stret, /Sou-Southwark, Subj_Coaching Days. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Borough High Street and Its Inns

  1. John Smith says:

    Thanks Adrian always interested in the Borough Hight Street /Southwark Posts. I remember some of the Inns with their cobblestone alleys, when I was working at the Post office. In the Sixties.


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