St George’s Cathedral

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.


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Barge House Stairs

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.

See also – Searle’s Boatyard, Lambeth


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Hop and Malt Exchange

Above: Looking west towards Borough High Street at the Hop and Malt Exchange building with its graceful curve.

The grading and selling of hops were until the middle of the 20th century one of Southwark’s major trades. A look at an Ordnance Survey large scale map will show the large number of huge warehouses in and around Borough High Street that were used to store hops in the 19th century – and well into the 20th century. Not only was Southwark associated with the hop trade, but it also had several breweries which were operational until the 1970s and 1980s.

Hops were brought by horse and cart from the many hop fields in Kent. The dried hops were packed into very large sacks, known to those in the trade as ‘pockets’ and conveyed to Southwark where they were stored in large warehouses. This took place in late autumn. The hops were handled by ‘hop factors’ – men who had showrooms where samples were inspected under natural light. Southwark was so involved with the hop trade that even the telephone exchange had the dialling code ‘HOP’ on the old dials showing letters. In fact, the original code for Southwark of 407 is still in use.

The Hop and Malt Exchange stands near the fork of Southwark Street with Borough High Street. While Borough High Street started as a Roman Road, Southwark Street was laid out in 1860 by Joseph Bazalgette and opened in 1864. The site is constrained between Southwark Street and the railway viaduct on the north side – which had only just been completed in the early 1860s. The Exchange was built in 1866-67 as a speculative development under the name of the Hop and Malt Exchange, designed by R H Moore. Inside was a large trading floor with surrounding offices. It was built immediately after Southwark Street had been completed and its gracious curve followed that of the new street. On the north side, the building is so close to the railway viaduct that it is possible to look into the offices as you pass by on a train travelling westwards on the southernmost track.

The hop exchange in Southwark Street is one of the great surviving local reminders of the trade. It is certainly the grandest Victorian commercial building in Southwark and without doubt a great asset, but ironically it had less to do with the hop trade than you might think.

Hop factors in Southwark had their own premises and did not need an exchange. To quote a few figures, in 1878, only two hop factors, twelve hop merchants and forty hop traders had moved their business to the exchange. That was the largest number ever to use the building but a small number when compared to the available space. By 1920, the figures had dropped to five. The hop merchants remained in their old premises and their customers we happy to come to them in the warehouses. The stalls that had been set up in the central hall for exhibiting their wares only lasted some 18 months. The exchange was just used by the merchants as an extension to their own warehouses. As a consequence, the building was divided up into general offices and for many years it was known as Central Buildings. Some hop firms and associated trade organisations did rent offices in the building, but most of the occupiers represented other types of business.

Above: Detail of the ironwork on the gates showing the hop design.

On 20th October 1920, the building suffered an extensive fire. Until that date, the building had been two storeys taller. The fire totally destroyed the two upper storeys which meant that it was then only about half its height. To the visitor, the building may look impressive but the original one was even grander. The ironwork of the gates and other railings incorporates the design of hops and their leaves as a reminder of its original purpose. Nearby, in Borough High Street are two yards called Maidstone Buildings and Kentish Buildings which both used to lead to hop warehouses.

Prices of hops in the mid-20th century were set largely by the Hops Marketing Board. From that time major changes gradually started to take place. Warehouses were being built at Paddock Wood, in Kent, rather than in Southwark – to replace those that had been bombed in the Second World War. Hop pellets and concentrates came into widespread use. In fact, the demand for hops declined by almost half between 1950 and 1980. There was a trend away from the aroma hops such as ‘Goldings’ and ‘Fuggles towards the new high-alpha varieties, which meant that brewers needed fewer hops and the trend for less bitter and more lager had the same effect. Finally, exports from England diminished as countries such as Australia and South Africa grew their own hops. There was a marked decline in hops being traded in Southwark by the mid-1970s. A few firms continued for another few years and the last firm closed about 1991.

The Hop and Malt Exchange also has an enormous cellar, with an area of about one acre. It was acknowledged as one of the finest and largest private cellars in the country. In 1903 a company called ‘Hop Cellars’ moved into the below-ground space and was responsible for buying and storing all of the wines and spirits for J Lyons. They did not own the Hop Exchange until 1944 when they bought the entire freehold of the building. Hop Cellars, which later changed its name to Lyons Wine Cellars, continued to use the basement until 1972 when they required more space and moved to Greenford.

Today, nobody using the Hop and Malt Exchange is connected with the hop trade. The building is used for general office space by various companies. Occasionally, the main hall is rented out for functions.


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Spur Inn, Borough High Street

Above: Looking at the ancient site of the yard of the Spur Inn, with the hotel entrance at the back.

This in is one of 12 inns that once stood in Borough High Street for which some evidence remains today. It is number 8 of the 12.

The inn is shown and named on the ‘Map of Southwark’ (1542) making it among the earliest of the Southwark inns. According to Lillywhite [n13655 n511] in his ‘London Signs’ the inn was first described 1542-96 as ‘The Spore Inn’ and in the 1590s as the ‘Spurre Inn from the Marshalsey towards London Bridge’. During Elizabeth I’s reign, the Spur Inn was owned by William Emerson – a well-known Southwark worthy of his time – whose son Thomas is recalled by Emerson Street – whose name is still to be seen on modern maps of Bankside.

The Spur Inn is one of the ‘fayre Innes for receipt of travellers’ mentioned by Stow in his ‘Survey of London’ (1605). It is also listed in the ‘Carriers’ Cosmography’ (1637) by John Taylor with an entry saying – The Carriers of Tenterden and Penshurst in Kent , and the Carriers from Battle in Sussex, ‘do lodge at the sign of the Spur in Southwark’. They ‘come on Thursdays, and go away on Fridays’.

In 1720 it is described as ‘pretty well resorted unto by Waggons’. It lists the ‘Epsom Carrier, Spur Southwark, thurs’, ‘the Dartford Coach, Spur Southwark , every day’. There is also a mention of the ‘Spur Inn, Borough’ in a guide book called ‘Leigh’s New Picture of London’, published during the 1820s. It is in a ‘List of the principal Inns at which Mail and Stage Coaches put up in London’. Mention is made of a ‘Coffee Room and Hotel’.

The London County Council (LCC) ‘Survey of London’ (1950) states that the Spur Inn ceased to be an inn in 1848. That means that it is almost 175 years since a stagecoach clattered over the stone sets in the yard of the old inn. The old buildings may have been used for storing goods, as many other inns of Southwark did.

Above: View from the back of the yard before 2015, when it was redeveloped. Notice the high arch over the entrance (in the distance) which stood beside Borough High Street. It was the last high arch remaining from the 12 inns.

Remarkably, the old inn yard remained unaltered, along with its high entrance arch, until about 2015. The surface of the yard with its stone sets and well-laid cart tracks was complete, fortunately not disturbed to dig holes in it for a legitimate reason. The high arch over the entrance was in a very poor state but it could have been restored, given some goodwill. It was, in fact the very last high arch to be seen beside Borough High Street. However, those things were not to be. Developers moved onto the site about 2015 and tore down the high arch and took up the stone cart tracks.

A new development had been given the ‘free light’ and a Premier Inn was built on the site, along with a frontage onto Borough High Street of three new shops. The entrance to the new hotel is the site of the yard of the old Spur Inn. The old cart tracks were returned to their original position and carefully levelled in accordance with modern building regulations. The new surface looks authentic and adds a touch of antiquity to the setting but there is no substitute for having the original unadulterated yard which had stood the test of time for nearly 200 years.

The top picture shows the gap between the buildings where the old yard of the Spur Inn once was to be seen. During the development of the site, the shop on the left of the gap is a rebuild of old premises on the site. To the right of the gap are two new shops, both now in use by a Tesco store.

The one twist to the history of the site is that builder tore down the few existing remains of a coaching inn to erect a modern hotel which also happens to be called an ‘inn’ – a Premier Inn.


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George Inn, Borough High Street

Above: A modern view of the George Inn.

Today’s pub stands on the site of one of 12 inns for which some evidence remains today that once stood in Borough High Street. It is number 3 of the 12.

More information at – Borough High Street and Its Inns

The earliest record of the existence of the George Inn is shown on the Map of Southwark, dated 1542 where the location of the inn is to be seen along with its name as ‘The George’. According to Lillywhite (‘London Signs’, n7031 p210), the first documented mention was in 1554 when it belonged to a Mr Colet who represented Southwark in Parliament. At that time it was known as St George and the Dragon, but the words ‘Saint’ and ‘Dragon’ both disappeared in Cromwellian times because the Puritans, although they tolerated taverns, abhorred saints as savouring of Popery.

John Taylor, in his ‘Carriers’ Cosmographie’ (1637) states – “Carriers of Guildford, Wannish, Goudhurst and Chiddington in Surrey; Battle, Sindrich and Hastings in Sussex; come every Thursday”. A few years later, the inn was destroyed by the Southwark Fire of 1676 and a new inn opened in 1677 on the same site. What little remains of the inn today dates from that time.

For the next 100 years, it was a noteworthy coaching inn. It was built around a courtyard, with only the south side now remaining. This structure is of three storeys and an attic with wood dormers in a tiled roof, the walls being partly of brick and partly timber-framed.
The western half has two ranges of galleries on the first and second floors, the lower one being supported on cantilever beams and the upper one and roof with weather-boarded parapet, on wooden Doric columns which divide each gallery into six bays. The wall behind the galleries is partly of brick and partly timber with pegged posts and a flush face. It has windows overlooking the galleries, and openings at the eastern end giving access to the staircase.

The eastern half of what remains of the buildings today is mainly of lime-washed brickwork with brick string-courses below and above the first-floor windows. The rear of the long building faces south. It is of brick and has a large projecting chimney stack with tiled weatherings to its diminishing stages. The base of the chimney is where the large fire in the kitchen would have been situated.

The George Inn is listed in the index to John Rocque’s large scale map (1746) under inns as well as the outline of the inn yard being clearly shown on the map. During the 18th century, horses, carriers’ carts and coaches used the inn as a London terminus. The schedule included four coaches each day bound for Maidstone; two per day for Canterbury and Dover; and one every day to Brighton and Hastings.

The ‘George Inn, Borough’ is mentioned in a guide book called ‘Leigh’s New Picture of London, published during the 1820s. It is a ‘List of the principal Inns at which Mail and Stage Coaches put up in London’.

An old advertising card from about 1830 states that coaches set out from the George Inn to — “Maidstone, Malling and Wrotham, four times a day. – Folkestone, Hythe and Ashford, 6 every morning; Mon., Wed., and Sat. evening. – Tenterden, Cranbrook and Staplehurst, Sun., Tues., and Thurs. mor [morning] – Wateringbury, Teston and Mereworth, daily. Brenchley, Matfield Green, and Peckham, Tue., Wed, and Sat afternoon – Deal, Dover, Margate, Ramsgate, and Canterbury, twice a day – Rochester, Chatham, and Gravesend, four times a day. Orpington, St. Mary Cray, Chiselhurst, and Eltham, Mon., Wed, Sat. afternoon – Hastings, Boxhill, Battle, Robertsbridge, Lamberhurst, Tunbridge, Sevenoaks, Worthing, Horsham, Dorking, Brighton, Cuckfield and Reigate, daily.”

John Tallis’s ‘London Views’ (1838) lists the inn between Nos 69 and 71 Borough High Street and shows an outline drawing of the entrance to the inn as seen from the street. In 1849 the premises were sold by the heirs of the last private owner of the George Inn to the Governors of Guy’s Hospital who resold it in 1874.

The George was also the depot for several goods wagons to the south-east of England. In the middle of the 19th century, the Great Eastern Railway Company opened an office in rooms on the north side of the inn yard. In 1855 a report on the condition of the premises shows that Messrs Beeman and Hotchkins who were hop merchants and also the Great Northern Railway Company occupied most of the buildings on the north side of the yard, Messrs Evans and Company, also hop merchants, had rooms at the east end of the south side, and the George Inn proper was at the west end of the south side. Most of the east end of the yard was then occupied by stabling.

In 1874 the President and Governors of Guy’s Hospital, having walled off the eastern portion of the yard for incorporation in the hospital premises, sold the remainder of the property to the Great Northern Railway Company who pulled down the buildings on the north side. Fortunately, those on the south side were preserved.

Above: A view of the George Inn, taken in 1896. In the distance, there is a low arch leading into a second yard. The large timber beam near the top of the view spanned the yard and was in use to support the galleried structure.

In 1937 the London and North Eastern Railway Company made a deed of gift of the old inn building to the National Trust. The address is 73-75 Borough High Street, SE1. It stands at George Inn Yard, on the east side of Borough High Street. What little of the original building was left, escaped the bombing. It is the last remaining galleried coaching inn still standing within the whole of Inner London.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, there was a large loading bay with a raised level surface to aid loading heavy goods onto the back of vans and lorries. The bay was on the west side of the courtyard. During the summer months, the bay was used as a makeshift stage and plays by Shakespeare were enjoyed by a large audience who mainly stood in the open air. That all came to a halt when the bay was removed and additional offices were built on the site. The George has a pub and restaurant which is as popular as ever with the tourists and also with the locals who, mainly on Friday and Saturday evenings, still flock to the venue.


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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.


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Borough High Street – Roman Road

Above: Line of the original Roman road plotted onto a modern map (OpenStreetMap). Site of Roman bridge and medieval London Bridge (BROWN line). Borough High Street (ORANGE line).

In the same way that the City of London owes its origins to a settlement founded by the Romans, Southwark also owes its origins to the Romans, with Borough High Street also being laid out in early Roman times. It was laid out across the marshy land on the south side of the Thames. Borough High Street follows the approximate line today. We will take a few moments to consider how the Roman road came into existence. If you are not familiar with Borough High Street, the first thing you need to do is to take a look at a street map.

One thing is immediately obvious – Borough High Street is not straight. While the original Roman route was not exactly where the modern street lies, it has a distinct bend in it. The obvious question to ask is ‘If it was laid out by the Romans, why did they not make it straight, like many of their other roads?’ The simple answer is that the ground it was laid across was a series of marshy islands beside the Thames with banks of gravel in places.

Linking Londinium on the north bank to what is now Southwark on the south bank, the Romans built a wooden bridge across the Thames (shown on the map). On the south side, Southwark was a much smaller settlement. The crossing point on the river is just over 900 feet wide and represents one of the longest bridges the Romans ever built across a river. Having constructed a bridge – leading south from their settlement – they then needed to construct a road – that became Borough High Street. The land on the southern shore was very marshy and liable to flood on high tides. Even at low tides, the land was nothing more than reed-beds and unstable land.

This meant that the Roman surveyors had to work out what to do. One solution would have been to look for any patches of gravel that would give stability to the road. The other alternative would have been to lay tree branches on the marshy ground – to act as a causeway – and then lay a road surface on top. In fact, both solutions were employed. The surveyors found that there were patches of stable land that they could use for a road and their road went from one firm gravel bed to another. Gravel is very stable. The land may still flood but the gravel forms a good base for a road or even for a large building.

To illustrate how marshy the land near the Thames was, it should be mentioned that around 1958, while building New Guy’s House (a large block constructed on part of the hospital site) the remains of a well-preserved carvel-built, Roman sailing barge were uncovered on the site. It was generally assumed that the ship has been sailed or rowed there with sufficient water to make navigation possible. Guy’s Hospital is nearly a quarter of a mile inland from the Thames. In Roman times it was obviously a very ‘watery place’.

Towards the southern end of Borough High Street, the land was still marshy and the strategy of forming a causeway was used. It is no coincidence that the southern end of today’s Borough High Street leads to a thoroughfare called Newington Causeway. The reason for the alignment of the Borough High Street is, therefore, more related to the geography of the land rather than any other consideration.

Above: Part of a Roman mosaic floor, dating from the 4th century, excavated from under the arches at London Bridge Station. It indicates a building of wealth and importance.

It is known that there was a Roman settlement beside the line of the Roman Road. Plenty of evidence has been found – in the form of pottery – on the London Bridge Station site and also in and around Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market. All three sites have had many archaeological digs conducted within the last 20-30 years. Another site that revealed the site of a Roman temple was just to the east of St George the Martyr. There is, therefore, plenty of evidence for Roman occupation around the line of the modern street.

The line of the Roman road split into two near what is now the church of St George the Martyr. One road led SW via Merton and ended at Chichester. The Saxons called that road Stane Street. The other road led SE over Shooter’s Hill via Rochester and Faversham to Canterbury and Dover. The Saxons called it Watling Street.

Borough High Street may not look very impressive today. In fact, it would be more honest to describe it as looking rather dreary and, in places, in need of serious renovation and a good clean. For all its faults, it is a street with an immense amount of history related to all sorts of topics. In medieval times people stayed at the many inns that lined the street – about to set off on long journeys or coming back. At the time of John Rocque’s map, the inns were being converted into coaching inns. Borough High Street had two large prisons on its eastern side and other smaller ones nearby. In Victorian times, the street was the centre of the hop trade and also the centre of many crafts.

For these and other reasons most of the buildings lining Borough High Street are listed, forming a large conservation area. This article has looked at just one feature of the street and several others will be considered as we build up a history of this very unassuming street.


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Southwark as a Place Name

Above: Part of Rocque’s map (1746) showing Borough High Street which is just labelled ‘The Borough’.

The earliest documented name was ‘Suthringa geweorcha’. It is recorded in the early 10th-century Anglo-Saxon document known as the Burghal Hidage which listed the ‘burghs’ which became defended ’towns’. Southwark was one of the burghs. The name means ‘fort of the men of Surrey’ or ‘the defensive work of the men of Surrey’.

The Burghal Hidage is a document believed to have been created between AD 911 and AD 914. It reflects the system put in place by Alfred the Great during the late 9th century to prepare for renewed Viking attacks – which came in AD 892. The challenge was to combat the tactics of the Vikings which had worked so well since they first arrived on British shores in AD 866. The Vikings had great flexibility and speed, which allowed them to strike and retire before an army could be put into the field against them.

The Burghal Hidage lists 33 of these burghs. They are written in an order which looks as though they had been written down during a journey to review the towns and missing key towns which suggests the document was a working note and not complete. Places as far north as Warwick and Worcester are listed. In the London area, only Southwark is mentioned. The list has several places on the South Coast of England – including Hastings.

Southwark is also recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as ‘Sudweca’. It indicates that it was an important place in both Saxon and Norman times.

Southwark lies on the south side of the Thames, opposite the City of London. The fort was not in the form of a castle or anything like that. It was a defensive work that may have been in the form of earthworks or a ditch. No precise details have ever emerged. The old English word ‘geweore’ could mean a fortification with the name being taken to mean a ‘Southern fort’.

Another form of the name appeared in 1335 as ‘Suthriga geweorch’ which means ‘fort of the Surrey people’, ‘Suthrigas’ being a derivative of Surrey. It may be that Southwark was a fort to protect the southern end of London Bridge.

Returning to the subject of the Burghal Hidage and the burghs, it is the word ‘burgh’ that has given us the word ‘borough’ and that is why many people who live and work in the general area to the south of London Bridge often say they live or work ‘in the Borough’. The thoroughfare leading from London Bridge is now called Borough High Street. Under normal circumstances, the district would be called Southwark but the locals refer to it as ‘the Borough’.


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Southwark Overview

Above: Looking north in Borough High Street with the tower of Southwark Cathedral in the distance.

The Metropolitan London Borough of Southwark was created in 1900, as part of the newly formed Metropolitan London which had 28 Metropolitan Boroughs in total, as well as the City of London. As a Metropolitan Borough, it had Lambeth on the west side, Camberwell on the south side and Bermondsey to the east. In 1965 the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark, along with the Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey and of Camberwell, were combined into the London Borough of Southwark. The name of Southwark continued from Metropolitan Borough to London Borough, with the borough names of Bermondsey and Camberwell being dropped.

Above: The Metropolitan Borough of Southwark which in 1965 was combined with those of Bermondsey and Camberwell to form the London Borough of Southwark.

The shape of the old Metropolitan Borough of Southwark was roughly rectangular. Confusingly for those who are not familiar with the area, all the land around Borough High Street is seldom referred to as ‘Southwark’. It is usually called ‘The Borough’. You will often find the name ‘Borough’ on maps. The name ‘Borough’ refers to the fact that the area was once an ancient borough – dating from Saxon times – from which the name has stuck. While mentioning Borough High Street, notice that the old Southwark-Bermondsey boundary runs very close to Borough High Street on its eastern side.

For those who may not be familiar with Southwark, it should be considered as four districts. Although they are all close to each other, they are all quite distinct and should be considered quite separately from each other.


Bankside, as its name implies, lies beside the Thames. Just west of Southwark Cathedral is Clink Street which derives from once having land known as a Liberty and having had a small prison on the site. That tiny prison was responsible for the phrase ‘In the Clink’ – understood by everyone throughout the English-speaking world. The continuation west of Clink Street was a narrow thoroughfare called Bankside. Much of Bankside as an actual street has been removed since the 1970s and replaced by pedestrian walkways. The original street used to extend west as far as Blackfriars Bridge in the 1960s.

Bankside was mainly open fields at the time of the Tudors and became the ‘playground’ of London. There were four theatres (including the famous Globe Theatre), there was a bear-baiting pit as well as several other grizzly sports. There were several famous pubs and no less than 18 brothels. So, why was it all concentrated in one place? The answer is that it all came down to obtaining permission for these various activities to take place. Most of those activities were not allowed in the City of London or in Westminster. Since Bankside was only a short ferry-boat ride away, on the south side of the Thames, it was a good place to stage such ‘pleasures’. Most of the land of Bankside was owned by the Bishop of Winchester, no less, and the successive bishops seem to have been quite happy to licence the various activities – provided they could collect the lucrative rents!

Strangely enough, although none of those activities has been practised for nearly 350 years, Bankside has, once more, become a place for entertainment. The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre was on Bankside. Tate Modern stands on Bankside. Because of the throng of people who enjoy walking beside the Thames, there are also numerous restaurants, cafes and pubs. The area around Bankside has really ‘come alive’ since about the 1980s and continues to flourish today.


The area of the Borough is clustered around Borough High Street but mainly to the west because the land to the east is strictly within the old Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey. The area also includes Southwark Street.

From medieval times, Borough High Street was famous for its many inns. Some of those continued as coaching inns during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of them have now gone and the George Inn is the most important reminder of those times. Travelling along Borough High Street is rather a boring experience today because many of the buildings do not stand out as important. This is a shame because everywhere you look the whole street is just ‘dripping’ with the most amazing history.

Until the 1960s, possibly later, the Borough was the centre for the hop trade. Even the area code for this part of London was ‘HOP’ – in days when telephone numbers started with three letters. Apart from the elegant Hop Exchange in Southwark Street, there are few reminders of those days.

The Borough was once crowded with industry. Many small manufacturers had their factories in the area but gradually – since the 1980s – all the industry has gone. Many of the old warehouses and factory buildings have been converted into apartments and a few are now in use as small industrial units which are home to those in graphic design and many crafts like that.

Standing beside Borough High Street are three important buildings. At the London Bridge end of the street is Southwark Cathedral which started life as a monastic priory and later became a parish church. It dates from the time of Chaucer. Just south of the Cathedral is Borough Market which was once a wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. That went into steep decline in the 1990s and has been ‘reincarnated’ as a farmers’ market and has gone from strength to strength. Towards the southern end of Borough High Street is the elegant church of St George the Martyr.


This is not a name that many people use these days. Newington is now better known as the land around the huge traffic interchange called Elephant and Castle. At the time of writing, a vast new development is about to be started – with houses and flats along with shops and offices – replacing the 1960s shopping precinct.


The southern part of the old Metropolitan Borough of Southwark is known as Walworth – centred on Walworth Road. It is an area that until the Second World War was well known for many factories. They were either destroyed during the bombing or fell into decline. A large part of Walworth has been converted gradually into a very large open space called Burgess Park. The land nearby is now mainly residential, served by shops lining Walworth Road and East Street which is an open market area. By the way, although it is shown on all maps as East Street, the locals call it ‘East Lane’.


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Metropolitan London (Year 4) – Updated

We are now reaching the stage when some of the pages needed for the series have already been added to the Website.

This topic was covered six years ago. For the information on that topic, please click on the link below which will take you to the original page –


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