There are few areas in London so rich in history as Southwark, the great and expansive area south of the Thames that is home to the South Bank, the Borough, the Elephant and Castle and Bermondsey. Despite its fame as an outstanding part of our cultural heritage (a dubious concept that masks generations of human suffering) there lies within Southwark a place now without a name, a place almost lost to history, a place once of great renown called Southwark Field or St George’s Fields.
Half a mile south of Blackfriars Bridge there is a large tract of land known in medieval and Tudor times as Southwark Field. It was not just any ordinary field. It was not like the broad expanses of fertile Lincolnshire soil bursting with healthy crops, or like the rolling hills of the Cotswolds with their idyllic pastures and herds of cattle and sheep browsing the land between woods, orchards and market gardens. No, it was never like that. Instead, it was estuary land, a sodden and bleak place, at its best only when it belonged to the marsh plants and wading birds of the Thames Estuary in the age before London was ever thought of, before the Romans came here and built their Londinium on the north bank.
Southwark Field It was at its best before mankind reformed it in response to their own selfish needs as their new City of London grew larger and larger and placed more and more demands on the landscape. Although the Romans are credited with founding London, there is little doubt that it existed long before their arrival, probably as a series of settlements along the north and south banks from Vauxhall to Tower Hill.
Location is everything, as property developers like to say, and because of the location of Southwark Field just south of London , it was from the beginning vulnerable to abuse from the highly populated city so close to it. London was a city that needed some kind of dumping ground for its detritus, some place where things best unseen could be pushed away and hidden. Some place outside city law. Following Roman tradition, the area just outside the main gateway into the city from the south (London Bridge) became at least partially independent from the city in legal and administrative terms. It became in effect a separate entity with its own rules and regulations. Inhabited partly by those who had no right to enter the city, or who wished to escape the law in the city, or who were fleeing the law in the city, or who did not want to pay city taxes, or who wished to ply a trade that was illegal in the city, it became a place of refuge for every kind of sub- and counter-culture imaginable, from theatres and bear pits to prisons and prostitution. It was the place and a home for everyone and everything thought of as undesirable by the establishment, by society and by the city authorities.
It became inevitable that the trades and the inhabitants of this southern district outside the walls of London increasingly represented the urban underbelly of the city, a place that was needed but which no one really wanted to think too much about. Keep them outside the walls, where they could develop their own interesting culture as best they could. But let us, perhaps, visit them at times when it would be amusing for us.
In Italy, such a place became known as the Borgo, as in the Borgo in Rome which lies on the opposite side of the Tiber and just ouside the Vatican City. In English, the Borgo was translated as the Borough, and London's Borough became the place we all know today just south of London Bridge. The etymology of the word "borough" developed in a highly complex way, being related to the Old English word burh and the Germanic burg, both meaning a fortified settlement, as in the names Hamburg and Edinburgh. But clearly there were other meanings that evolved over time, particularly the idea that the word borough denoted a sub-district of a city that had a degree of self-governance, as in the many local boroughs of Britain's cities today. However, it is the original ancient Roman meaning of the Borgo as a place just outside the city walls that was largely independant and self-governing that gave its name to both the Borough in London and eventually to the idea of all sub-districts in the cities of Britain being called boroughs.
Southwark Field was part of an extensive area of marsh and Thames flood plane extending all the way from Lambeth to Rotherhithe and beyond, eventually going all the way to Dartford, Gravesend and the Thames Estuary. When standing close to the present banks of the Thames, the soft ground is mostly made up of silt, alluvial deposits and some layers of peat. But during the last 100,000 years, the period covering the last part of the Ice Age, the meanderings of the Thames created a series of gravel terraces rising upwards as we move back from each side of the river. These terraces take the form of a number firm gravel outcrops, as at Thorny Isle at Westminster, at the Strand, at London Bridge, at Tower Hill and at Wapping. There were also some places where geological forces raised the land well above the present water level, as at Greenwich Park where three hills rise up steeply to the high plateau of Blackheath, an example of a high gravel terrace.
Southwark Field lies on a very low Thames flood-plane gravel terrace known as Kempton Park Gravel, which extends from Walworth in the south to just short of the line marked by The Cut and Union Street in the north, and from Lambeth in the west to Rotherhithe in the east. Everything north of this gravel terrace is on Thames mud and silt, apart from a few small gravel outcrops that form little islands or eyots within the mud flats.The most important of these eyots, and the ones where building could start, were in The Borough around Southwark Cathedral and at the foot of London Bridge, at Horsleydown just south of Tower Bridge, and at Bermondsey.
We know from archaeological discoveries made throughout the area that it was occupied by prehistoric and Iron Age peoples from the Ice Ages to the coming of the Romans in AD 43. The landscape familiar to these early inhabitants would have looked much like Erith, Crayford and Dartford Marshes look today, as seen in the photograph of Crayford Marshes below. (Illus. 1.)
Before the arrival of the Romans, there already existed in Britain a network of roads, tracks and causeways crossing the landscape in every direction and linking important locations, like settlements and river crossings and safe paths across bogs and marshes. There may even have been a bridge across the Thames at Vauxhall, the remains of which have just recently been discovered. However, it was the Romans who, perhaps in response to these already existing ancient track ways and the natural topography of the area, determined the future development of Southwark. It was they who found a spot where the Thames was narrow enough and the land on each side firm enough to enable them to build a bridge, the first London Bridge of the modern age. They did this in AD 50. It is thought that the very first bridge of AD 50 was a temporary military pontoon structure, but by AD 55 they built the first proper piled bridge, and once that first bridge was constructed they almost automatically created a focal point, a confluence where all land traffic coming into London from the south-east converged at a single point in order to pass over the bridge and enter the newly created City of London on the north bank of the Thames.
The southern approach to London Bridge was at or very near the present Borough High Street, which runs from the bridge south towards the Elephant and Castle. At the southern end of Borough High Street, where the church of St George the Martyr now stands, two roads branched off. The first was Watling Street, which turned to the south-east. It would have followed the line of Tabbard Street, then the Old Kent Road, and so on to Blackheath, Shooters Hill, then Canterbury and finally Richborough, the place where the Roman invasion began. Hundreds of years later this was the route taken by pilgrims heading from London to Canterbury, as described by Chaucer.
The second road was called by the Saxons Stane Street (meaning Stone Street), which came down Borough High Street then followed the approximate south-west line of Newington Causeway, passing the site of LSBU on the way. Newington Causeway is not straight but bulges to the west, and this has led people to question if it really represents the true course of the Roman road. There is, however, a good reason for the curved course of Newington Causeway. The area to the east of it was low-lying marsh, much of it probably under water, particularly the area around Rockingham Street, which still today can be seen to dip well below the surrounding ground level. In fact the dip in ground level is so extreme that it shows up in geological maps as an anomaly, known as the Rockingham Anomaly. The Romans simply could not build a straight road across an area of marsh and water but had to divert it a bit to the west to get round it.
Once past the marsh of Rockingham Street, Stane Street went through the middle of the present Elephant and Castle junction, then made its way down Newington Butts, before picking up the present line of Kennington Park Road and so on into the Surrey countryside, ending up at Chichester near the south coast. (Fig. 2.)
So we have two Roman roads, Stane Street coming from the south and and Watling Street coming from the east, converging at the site of St. George the Martyr in Borough High Street, and then running up along or close to the present Borough High Street to London Bridge. There is, however, a distinct possibility that there was a third road running from the Old Kent Road directly westward towards Westminster. This idea is based on the observation that Watling Street, when viewed from as far away as Greenwich or Shooters Hill, is directly in line with Westminster, not London Bridge. It looks as though its intended target and destination was Westminster rather than London Bridge. We also know that Westminster was a place where the river could be bridged and where there may even have been a ford at low tide. In fact, Westminster is the most obvious and logical place to cross the Thames and build a new city on the north bank. It is impossible to determine why the Romans chose to turn north and build their first bridge at London Bridge, but we know that at or near the place on the Old Kent Road we now called the Bricklayers Arms, they very slightly diverted Watling Street north-west along the present Tabbard Street and then turned directly north along what is now the the Borough High Street approach to London Bridge. It was here that they built their bridge and founded the new city on the north bank.
If the third road going to Westminster ever existed (there is no real evidence for it) it would have come from either the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road, or from the junction where the church of St George the Martyr stands. It then would have crossed crossed Borough High Street or Newington Causeway at some point between the Elephant and Castle and the Church of St George the Martyr, and then it would have cut right through the middle of Southwark Field and perhaps through the site of London South Bank University. If the latter were true, it would have crossed Kell Street and Keyworth Street at a sharp angle as it headed towards Westminster.
Imagine eleventh century England, and imagine for a moment a fleet of Danish longships making a slow progress along Keyworth Street. They would not be under sail or manned by oarsmen. Instead they would be pulled along a shallow waterway by men with ropes. It soulds like an extravigant early medieval fantasy, but there is a possibility that it actually happened. In the year 1016 Canut, son of Sweyn Forkbeard and Princess Gunhild, invaded Britain with the aim of becoming King. One of the cities he needed to capture was London, so he sailed up the Thames with his fleet of longships, perhaps 10,000 men in up to 200 of longships. The big problem was that the Britons had built a bridge at London Bridge, replacing the old Roman one, and this was so well defended that Canut's fleet of ships could not pass.
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, first written in the late ninth century but updated up until the twelfth century, Canut solved this problem by constructing a canal across south London from Rotherhithe to Lambeth, a distance of about four miles. Canut's canal, or Canut's Trench as it has been called, would let his ships make their way across the marshes of south London to rejoin the Thames at Lambeth. This would enable him to encircle London and cut off communications from the west. He could then lay siege to London and eventually capture it. This he suceeded in doing. The line of his canal would take him right through the middle of St George’s Fields and perhaps even through the LSBU campus.
At first glance it seems improbable that such a canal could have been constructed, because the job looks just too big for the resources available to Canut, but in reality it was possible. This is because the whole of the area from Rotherhithe to Lambeth was marshland mostly underwater at high tide, but with a series of islands or eyots, that is, bits of gravel outcrops that formed dry land surrounded by water channels. At high tide many of these waterways would have been deep enough to take a shallow draft ship like a Danish longship, particularly if pulled along with ropes. Only those parts of higher and firmer ground would have had to have been cut through. For example, Canut would have approached St George's Fields from the east, coming along the line of the present Rockingtham Street, which to this day drops several feet below the level of the surrounding area and which was almost certainly under water in the past. He would then need to cut through the higher ground of Newington Causeway to gain entrance to Keyworth Street and the low marshes of Lambeth beyond. The exact course is a matter of speculation, but it almost certainly would have run east to west somewhere between Rockingham Street in the south and Union Street to the north.
During the medieval period, the situation in the Borough became so bad and lawless that in a Charter of 1327 King Edward III granted "The Bailiwick of Southwark" to the Citizens of London, meaning that City law would from then on apply to Southwark. The reasons for doing it are made clear in the Charter, which reads as follows:
Edward, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitain; to all to whom these present letters shall come, greeting.
Know ye, that whereas our well-beloved, the citizens of the city of London, by their petition exhibited before us and our council, in our present parliament at Westminster assembled, have given us to understand, that felons, thieves, and other malefactors, and disturbers of the peace, who, in the said city and elsewhere, have committed manslaughters, robberies, and divers other felonies, privily departing from the said city, after those felonies committed, into the village of Southwark, wherethey cannot be attached by the ministers of the said city, and there are openly received: and so for default of due punishment are more bold to commit such felonies: and they have beseeched us, that, forthe confirmation of our peace within the said city, bridling the naughtiness of the said malefactors,we would grant unto them the said village, to have to them, their heirs and successors, for ever, forthe farm and rent therefore yearly due to us, to be yearly paid at our exchequer:
We, having consideration to the premises, with the assent of the prelates, earls, barons, and commonalty, being in ourpresent parliament aforesaid, have granted, for us and our heirs, to the said citizens, the said villageof Southwark, with the appurtenances, to have and to hold, to them and their heirs and successors,citizens of the same city, of us and our heirs for ever, to pay to us by the year, at the exchequer ofus and our heirs for ever, at the accustomed times, the farms therefore due and accustomed: In witness whereof, we have caused these our letters to be made patents. Witness myself at Westminster,the sixth day of March, in the first year of our reign.
This "Village of Southwark" appears to derive its name from the Anglo-Saxon Suthriganaweorc, meaning "fort of the men of Surrey",. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it is recorded as Sudweca, meaning "southern fort or southern defensive work", a name that is formed from the Old English words sūth and weorc, for south and work.
Once handed over to the City of London, It became known as the "Guildable Manor", meaning it was a place now liable to City taxes and laws. The problem of vulgar, dissolute and criminal activity in the area appeared to have been solved by putting it under the control of the City of London. But this was only a partial solution because just outside the Guildable Manor, which, although called the "Village of Southwark", was little more than the small area around the approach to London Bridge, was an enormous expanse of land that remained beyond the law of the City, a fact that was to be significant for the future development of the area.
Southwark as a whole became divided into several manors, with shifting ownership over time. In addition to the Guildable Manor, owned by the City of London, there was the Liberty of the Clink, which came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester. Situated just to the west of the Guildable Manor, it was the location of Winchester House, the residence of the Bishop of Winchester, and Clink prison, which was run by the Bishop. West of the Clink was a manor called the Liberty of Paris Garden (Paris being a corruption of Parish), later known as the Parish of Southwark Christchurch. These were the manors that stretched along the area we now call Bankside.
South of these Bankside manors lay the sparsely populated expanse of Southwark Field. In the early twelfth century, King Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror, granted Southwark Field to Bermondsey Priory, which was located a little way to the south-east of Borough High Street, at the site of the present Bermondsey Square in Abbey Street. The Priory became a Benedictine Abbey in 1399. Its wealth, power and influence gradually increased and it acquired more and more land from Bermondsey to Lambeth, to the extent that it eventually owned a large portion of the land we now call Southwark.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541, the lands held by Bermondsey Abbey reverted to the King, and Southwark Field became known as King’s Manor. Then, in 1550, Edward VI issued a charter giving the King’s Manor to the City of London. The bulk of the land in the area became under the control of the City of London, and they placed it under the administration of Bridge House, now known as Bridge House Estates, the City Corporation responsible for building and maintaining London Bridge. The revenues they derived from their estates were to be used for that purpose, and for building further bridges and time went by.
By the time of the late fifteenth century the name of Southwark Field had changed to St George's Fields, after the Church of St George the Martyr at the south end of Borough High Street, within the parish of which the fields were located.
Although St George's Fields was never legally defined as a "Common", it was in effect common land and was treated as such. This means that although the land was part of the local manor, the King's Manor, and although much if it belonged to Bridge House Estate (the City Corporation responsible for building and maintaining London Bridge), many people held land within it under lease, on which they could grow crops. This gave them certain common rights over the fields as a whole, such as grazing animals when the gates were thrown open after harvest at Lammas on 1st August. At St George’s Fields the rule was one horse and two cows for each acre held, the animals being marked with the Bridge House mark to prove their right to be there. This situation continued right up to the time of Enclosure at the start of the nineteenth century, when common rights were finally extinguished.
One of the most important books published during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard. It first appeared in 1597, and a second expanded edition was published in 1636. Working in central London, Gerard almost certainly made field trips to St George’s Fields in search of wild flowers. Several times he mentions St George’s Fields as a good place to find plants like Hedge Hog Grass, Burre Reed, Arrow Head or Water Archer, White Saxifrage, Water Drop Wort and Horse Tail. This suggests that although much of the history of the fields is of a seemingly depressing place, there would also have been times when it was beautiful and a home for wild marshland plants.
During the English Civil War a fortified line, called the Lines of Communication, was constructed around London to defend it against any Royalist attack. Built between 1642 and 1643, it consisted of a series of 23 fortifications linked by ramparts in the form of earthworks and ditches. The whole project was a massive undertaking by voluntary labour of perhaps 20,000 people organized by the City and its livery companies.
At St George’s Fields there were two forts: one close to the present junction between Borough Road and Newington Causeway, and the second at the site of The Dog and Duck Tavern, where the Imperial War Museum now is. The rampart between these two forts would have had to cross right through the middle of St George’s Fields, perhaps even right through the site of LSBU. Unfortunately, the fortifications were demolished 1647 and no trace of them exist today in our area.
King James II was the last Catholic King of England, Scotland and Ireland. The second son of Charles II, he succeeded to the throne in 1685. However, because of his Catholicism, he was deposed in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution when the Protestant William of Orange was invited by English Parliamentarians to England to become King. James and his Queen consort Mary of Modena were forced to flee.
The location of the Horseferry at Lambeth made it a significant escape route for anyone obliged to flee London without having to risk going through the City centre to reach London Bridge, and this was the option chosen by James and his Queen, Mary of Modena. On the night of 9-10 December 1688 Queen Mary, fearing for the life of her baby son, left Whitehall Palace for the last time, clutching her six-month old son, James Francis Edward. Accompanied by two nurses and two male attendants, the small group took a coach to the Horseferry at Millbank, from where they crossed over to Lambeth. According to one of her companions, St Victor, who wrote a Narrative of the Escape of the Queen of England, it was a dark, stormy night and the crossing was terrifying. After spending an hour sheltering from the rain under the walls of an old church, a coach and horses was found at a nearby Inn, and so during the early hours, the Queen with her child and companions were carried along Lambeth Road and across St George’s Fields on their way to Gravesend, from where they escaped by ship to France.
A day later, on the night of 11 December 1688, James II followed his Queen and also took the ferry across the Thames. But he was spotted in Kent and taken back to London. He was, however, permitted to escape once more, and on 23 December he took a ferry downstream to Gravesend, and from there fled to France.
These dramatic flights of King James II and Queen Mary in 1688 illustrate how a single road crossing extensive marshes like those of Lambeth and St George’s Fields could achieve real importance as a link between strategic points.
The change of name from Southwark Field to St George’s Fields fitted in well with eighteenth-century attitudes, because St. George had become an ever more popular national saint with the sequence of kings we had called George: George I, George II, George III and George IV. In fact, the name "Georgian" became adopted to describe the whole period of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and Britain as a whole, including Ireland.
Also, by the dawn of the eighteenth century the fields had rapidly become less part of the old medieval farming system and more like a civic park, a bit marshy, unhealthy and of low value, but so close to the centre of London that it was the perfect spot for holding festivals and gatherings of all kinds, such as the famous Southwark Fair, which took place in September every year.
Dating back to 1462 when Edward IV granted the City of London a charter to stage Southwark Fair and to hold a Court of Piepowder to regulate it. A Court of Piepowder had the right to administer quick justice, such as impose punishment or fines on anyone committing a misdemeanour at the Fair.
The Fair was Initially held over three days on the 7th 8th and 9th September, the 8th September being the most important day: the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries its duration of the fair expanded to two weeks, making it a major event. Centered on the area around the church of Saint George the Martyr, the fair would have been a riot of stalls, strolling players, dancers, puppet shows and all kinds of entertainments, all of which would have overflowed onto St George’s Fields. The spirit of it was illustrated in an engraving of 1733 by William Hogarth entitled The Humours of a Fair.
St George’s Fields also became a site for political demonstrations, partly because it was a suitably large open gathering space, but also because the many prisons in the area could become political hot spots. The consequences could become serious. For example, in 1768 the political activist and MP John Wilkes was arrested for libel and sedition against the Crown for an article he had published that was highly critical of the King’s Speech at the opening of Parliament in April 1763. Wilkes believed that the speech, which endorsed the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763, conferred dangerously generous peace terms with France to end the Seven Year’s War. He published his criticism in issue 45 of his weekly, The North Britain, and this criticism incurred the wrath of both the government and King George III. Wilkes fled to France, but in 1768 he returned to England and stood in the General Election of that year. Despite being MP for Middlesex, he was arrested under the old warrant and sent to King's Bench Prison in Southwark, which was just at the north side of Borough Road where it joins Borough High Street and where a small low-rise council estate called the Scovell Estate now stands. On 10 May 1768 thousands of his supporters gathered in St George's Fields and held a demonstration outside the prison. Fearing that the demonstrators would break into the prison and free Wilkes, the army were called in to keep control. They did this by reading the Riot Act, which required the assembled crowd to disperse within one hour. When this did not happen, they opened fire on the demonstrators, killing seven people and wounding fifteen. This event became known as the St George's Fields Massacre.
The fact that British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in a muddy field in Southwark shocked society and had far reaching consequences. The obvious injustice of The Riot Act, which saw murder being committed by a bullying monarchy, government and their authorities, caused riots to break out all over London. Benjamin Franklin was in London at the time, and he wrote of "sawyers destroying saw-mills; sailors unrigging all the outward bound ships...Watermen destroying private boats and threatening bridges..." The shock wave went even further. Just five month later, on 1st October 1768, the people of Boston, who knew about the St George's Fields Massacre, were horrified to find British troops arriving in their city in order to enforce the unpopular import tariffs. Although the British army tried hard to be non-confrontational, they did some two years later, on 5th March 1770, open fire on Bostonian protesters in King Street, and killed five of them. This event was just one more step towards the American wish for independence, which was declared on 4th July 1776.
The Gordon Riots
An even more dreadful event happened about twelve years later, on 2nd June 1780, when Lord George Gordon organised an anti-catholic demonstration in St George's Fields. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people assembled in order to protest against the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which removed some of the restrictions on Catholics to practice their religion. This anti-Catholic movement was in full swing because people saw Cathilicism as a threat to their way of life, an illusion fostered by people like Lord George Gordon. The American War of Independence was underway, and there were still conflicts with Catholic France and Spain, so Catholics became the others, the outsiders, the enemy, the evil ones who would destroy our country.
The aim of the demonstration was to march on London and present a petition to Parliament demanding the repeal of the Papists Act of 1778. Gordon had previously attemped to get the Act repealed, but without success. However, he now had the backing of a huge anti-catholic crowd that carried real physical force. They marched on London as planned, but they quickly turned into a violent and out of control mob that sought to burn and destroy any catholic or government property they could find.
Although at the beginning of the eighteenth century there were a number of ancient tracks crossing the fields, the only one that was a right of way and could be considered a road proper was the section of Lambeth Road, now called St George’s Road, which runs from Newington Butts at The Elephant and Castle to the site of the Imperial War Museum, from where it turns a little southwest and continues as Lambeth Road to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Palace at Lambeth. The Archbishop’s Palace had first been built in the thirteenth century, so the road was almost certainly of medieval origin, giving access to the Palace from Canterbury to the east. Lambeth was also the site of the Horseferry, one of the most important Thames crossing places where horses and carriages could be taken over the water to and from London, making Lambeth Road a key line of communication to the south-east through the marshes of Lambeth and St George’s Fields.
By 1751 it was understood that there was a need to improve communications in the area, which was getting more and more busy with through traffic moving to and fro between London and the south-east, all tending to converge at the Elephant and Castle. The single road carrying the traffic, Lambeth Road, was about to be overwhelmed and rendered inadequate. A few years earlier, in 1740, the Swiss architect Charles Labelye (1705–1781) constructed Westminster Bridge, though because of one pier subsiding about 16 inches and requiring adjoining arches to be rebuilt, it was not opened till 1750. This was the second bridge to cross the Thames, giving West Londoners, for the first time, an alternative to using the horseferry at Lambeth or taking the long and congested route through the City of London to London Bridge, where they could cross to the south bank.
In order to improve the traffic situation across south-east London it was, firstly, proposed to rebuild and widen the old Lambeth Road, giving better access between the horseferry at Lambeth and the Elephant and Castle. This was done.
Secondly, it was thought that if the new Westminster Bridge was linked to a new road crossing the middle of St George’s Fields, it could join up with Blackman Street, now known as the southern end of Borough High Street, which in turn leads on to London Bridge, thus creating a convenient southern loop across south-east London from Westminster to London Bridge.
This new road was built and was initially called simply the "New Road", but it eventually became known as the Borough Road of today. The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 23, recorded that "...on March 31 1752, his majesty passed over the new road leading from Symonds's corner to the stones end in Blackman Street, in his way to Harwich, and consequently over both Westminster and London bridge; the road, being first examined by the proper officers of the court; and the rest were open'd for all sorts of carriages soon after."1 This royal progression, which appears to have been a kind of official opening of the road, suggests that high regard was given to it as a novel way of getting quickly across London by crossing the Thames twice, once at Westminster and once at London Bridge
Four years later, 1756, the decision was taken to demolish the houses on Old London Bridge, because they constricted the flow of traffic, so much so that the bridge was becoming more of a hinderence than a help. Although the bridge was picturesque in a kind of medieval fantastical way, the houses on it had to go. Once they were demolished and the roadway widened and given proper pedestrian pavements at each side, there was suddenly a much better and increased flow of traffic to and from London and the Borough.
The result of these improvements was that during the 1750s there were two bridges across the Thames: the improved and modernised London Bridge, and the new Westminster Bridge. There were also two roads crossing South London from west to east: the upgraded Lambeth Road leading from Lambeth to the Elephant and Castle, and a little to the north the new Borough Road going directly from Westminster to the southern end of Borough High Street.
However, the biggest change came in 1760, when it was decided to build a new bridge over the Thames at Blackfriars, a bridge that was completed in 1769 by the Scottish architect Robert Mylne (1733–1811). It was at this time that a more sophisticated and optomistic vision for the development of the area evolved. It became an example of urban planning on a grand scale that was new to south London. From the new Blackfriars Bridge, an approach road would be built in the form of a wide Parisian-style boulevard, almost a mile long, called Great Surrey Street (the present Blackfriars Road). It would run directly south from the bridge to a new circus at the junction with Borough Road, a junction that would be called St George’s Circus. This circus would form a central hub, from which a sequence of beautiful broad terrace lined roads would radiate. In addition to Blackfriars Road and a new widened Borough Road, there would be Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth Road, and a new London Road all radiating out from the circus. As a final touch, this convergence of wide and splendid terraced-lined roads at a new central point would be marked by the placement of an obelisk at the centre of St George’s Circus.
The obelisk standing at the centre of St George's Circus was designed by Robert Mylne, the architect of Blackfriars Bridge. It was built in 1771.
The direction and distance inscriptions on the obelisk mean that it could serve as a monument, an architectural focal point, and a signpost. The inscriptions on each side of it are as follows:
North face: ERECTED IN XI YEAR OF THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE THE THIRD. MDCCLXXI. THE RIGHT HONOURABLE BRASS CROSBY ESQUIRE, LORD MAYOR.
South face: ONE MILE, CCCL FEET FROM FLEET STREET.
East face: ONE MILE FROM PALACE YARD, WESTMINSTER HALL.
West face: ONE MILE, XXXX FEET FROM LONDON BRIDGE.
In 1905 the obelisk was moved about 270 meters south-west to Geraldine Mary Harmondsworth Park in front of Bethlem Royal Hospital, the building that forms the present Imperial War Museum. This move was to make way for an ornate Victoria Diamond Jubilee clock tower, which stood at the centre of St George’s Circus for about 25 years, till it was demolished during the 1930s when it was considered an obstruction to traffic.
In 1950 it was made a Grade II listed building. However, it was not until 1998 that the obelisk was returned to its original position at the centre of St George’s Circus.
One curious consequence of the return of the obelisk to its correct place in St George’s Circus is that it has marked on it an incorrect Ordnance Survey Benchmark. This is because the benchmark and bolt were put in place when the obelisk was located by the Imperial War Museum, and the Ordnance Survey recorded its location as at the junction between St George’s Road and Lambeth Road, map reference TQ 3145 7928. This vas verified in 1971. Once the obelisk was put back in St George’s Circus, the Ordnance Survey location and measurements ceased to be valid. The map reference for Its correct location is TQ31651 79453.
The obelisk needs to be seen in conjunction with the surviving fragments of eighteenth-century buildings around London Road and Borough Road, particularly the former Duke of Clarence Public House at 32 London Road and the terraces with shop fronts that extend along London Road and the beginning of Borough Road, because it is only then that it forms a significant group, rather than just being an isolated monument.
By the 1760s it was clear that St George's Fields was being hemmed in by relentless urban development. All around, roads and houses were being built, extending down from the new Westminster and Blackfriars bridges... For some this was an optimistic period, full of potential and promise, because with the opening of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges there was suddenly a whole new area of semi-rural land on which new homes could be built. For others it was a disaster, because a much loved rural beauty spot close to London was being lost forever.
One of the new residents to move into the developing area was Mary Woolstonecraft, who took rooms at George Street, just off Blackfriars Bridge Road, and now known as 45 Dolben Street.
This pressure on the open common land culminated in 1810, when the Enclosure Act removed all common rights over St George's Fields and permitted leasing of the many plots to property developers. Profits could be made by building on the land, and profit was all that mattered.
The map below is a composite that shows the plots of land as they were surveyed between about 1620 and 1770. Some areas, particularly towards the north and west of the site, are clearly visible in their ancient medieval strip farming form, the fields being marked on the map by thin green lines. Note the way there are just two major roads that appear to be in harmony with the old medieval field system. They are Newington Causeway and St George's Road, which both follow the boundaries of the old field system, suggesting that they are old roads formed with respect to the field divisions already in place or formed before the field divisions were made.
The convoluted medieval ownership system is of interest because it resulted in the development and preservation of the old feudal farming system within Southwark Field, and the characteristic medieval pattern of strip farming appeared.
Medieval peasants generally did not own the land they worked. As serfs, they were allocated long thin strips of land to cultivate, a furlong in length (a furrow long, or one eighth of a mile, or two and a half minutes walking distance). They worked the land, and a proportion of their produce would go to the Lord of the Manor. After harvest, at Lammas on 1st August (the Festival of the Wheat Harvest), there were common rights for all to use the land to graze livestock and gather wood and any forage that could be found. It is a remarkable fact that at Southwark Field this medieval pattern of strip farming persisted right up until the eighteenth century, even after peasants and serfs had long gone and land was held by lease. The farmers of succeeding centuries held plots of land that retained their old field boundaries and still displayed their ancient strip form. In truth, this is astounding because it is so close to central London. It is very rare for traces of ancient fields to be preserved so close to a city like London, and this remarkable preservation had an impact on the development of the modern urban street plan, as will be seen later.
This preservation of ancient forms is certainly due to the inhospitable nature of the land. To an observer of the past, particularly before the eighteenth century, Southwark Field would have appeared as a somewhat sodden, bleak, desolate and miserable patch of open ground fit for very little serious farming. It was not by any stretch of the imagination quality land. Quite the opposite. Although set well back from the banks of the Thames and criss-crossed by drainage ditches, it was in danger of flooding at every high tide, particularly during the winter. This was because much of it lay below the high tide mark, which means that at high tide the drainage ditches would flow backwards from the Thames, bringing pollution and sewage inland. So not the best bit of land a medieval peasant or later farmer could find himself on.
Now, here is a particularly interesting aspect of the history of Southwark Field. Because it lies between the difficult place called the Borough and the natural road junction of the Elephant and Castle, it was perhaps destined to experience an astounding range of human activity, from the supreme sophistication of Shakespeare to the absolute depths of poverty and debauchary and ignorance and criminality. It was also destined to witness political violence during many centuries.
However, note in particular the way a number of the new roads, constructed by the government during the late eighteenth century and overlaid on this map (Westminster Bridge Road, Blackfriars Road, Borough Road and London Road) cut across the old medieval field system, ignoring it and making it effectively redundant. These new roads obey a logic of their own that is modern and that cannot relate to the old field divisions. They just cut right across the old boundaries at various odd angles. This is very clear at the north half of the site, north of Westminster Bridge Road and Borough Road..
However, the parcels of land remained defined by the old field boundaries, and following the Enclosure Act of 1810 they were leased or sold off to property developers. The result was that the smaller roads created by the property developers tended to follow the boundaries of the old field system. If you now look at the second picture, which is a modern map of the area just north of Borough Road, you will notice that all the small side streets are not aligned with Borough Road, as one might expect, but are aligned exactly with the old field system. This is most clear in Davidge Street, Lancaster Street, Boyfield Street and Silex Street. Lancaster Street originally carried on right across Borough Road and went right through our campus. It is therefore a medieval field system that explains the odd oblique angle at the Edric Hall side of our Borough Road building. Most interestingly, in the first map you will see a small ancient track running east to west just above Borough Road. If you compare that to the modern map you will see that a section of it is preserved in the present King James Street.
The map below shows the extent of St. George's Fields as they were in the Eighteenth Century, overlaid on a later map of the Nineteenth Century which shows the modern street plan and how the entire area was filled with dozens of small streets, all creating frontage for property of value. London South Bank University is in the triangle defined by London Road, Borough Road and Newington Causeway.
The first significant building on St. George's Fields was a tavern called The Dog and Duck, which was located at the south-west corner of the area, on the site now occupied by the Imperial War Museum. We do not exactly when it was founded, but it appears to have been established during the Commonwealth, some time between 1649 and 1658. By the time of the late eighteenth century it was run by Elizabeth Hedger and her son James Hedger, who leased the property from the Bridge House Estate. They aimed to exploit its potential as the source of a spring providing what was described as perfect spa water that would cure all ills, despite the fact that the district was marshland awash with brackish fetid water from the Thames. Many advertisements were published extolling the benefits of the spa water, and the original humble tavern developed into a significant place for refreshment and entertainment. Here is an example from 1773:
"St. George's Spaw, Dog and Duck, St. George's Fields. The Waters of this Spaw are now in their utmost perfection, and to be had at 6d. per gallon … These waters are recommended by the most eminent physicians, for the cure of the rheumatism, stone, gravel, fistulas, ulcers, cancers, sore eyes, and in all kinds of scorbutic cases whatever; and are remarkable for restoring a lost appetite . . . A cold bath from the above mineral. The long room fitted up for large entertainments. Tea, coffee and hot rolls as usual."
Despite its aim at becoming a stylish and sophisticated spa with baths for men and women, refreshment rooms, bar, drinking boxes and pleasure gardens, there emerged serious problems with its reputation. The Dog and Duck rapidly became a notorious place of ill repute, a den for dissolute characters. In 1787 the Surrey magistrates refused to renew its licence. James Hedger did appeal to the City Corporation, who granted a licence because they were keen to defend their judicial authority over Southwark in opposition to that of the Surrey magistrates. However, the licence was finally withdrawn in 1799 and the Dog and Duck closed.
James Hedger had made a lot of money from the Dog and Duck, and even before its closure in 1799 he had set himself on a new course as a somewhat aggressive property developer. By 1785, Hedger and his son, also called James, held leases on large areas of Bridge House land in St George's Fields, leases that would last till 1810. They started building houses even though local people objected and argued that it was common land and they did not have the right to build on it. In 1788 he did apply to the City Corporation for building permission, but even though this was refused, the Corporation decided not to pursue the case against him.
The Corporation, however, knew that there were problems with the piecemeal development of St George’s Fields that was taking place under Hedger and his sons. Although he had some interesting ideas, particularly that of establishing a new market alongside London Road (on the site of LSBU’s London Road building), the quality of the houses he constructed was low and not adequate for the City’s growing vision of a more imaginative and higher quality urban development for the area.
The solution was for the City Corporation itself to take over the development of St George’s Fields once Hedger’s lease expired in 1810. which they would not renew. In 1807 they commissioned the City Surveyor, George Dance (1741 – 1825), to draw up redevelopment plans.
Hedger and his tenants were not pleased to learn that the lease would not be renewed, and so he began to demolish houses he had built in order to salvage the materials. In 1810, on the very last day of his lease, a great crowd of supporters and tenants, reported to be several hundred strong, ran riot and proceeded to demolish as many of the buildings as they could.
The present Georgian buildings in the conservation area were erected 1820-28 under various building leases but to standard elevational designs almost certainly provided by William Mountague, who had succeeded Dance as City Surveyor in 1816.
One of the first and one of the grandest and most imposing buildings to be constructed in St George's Fields was Bethlem Hospital, now the Imperial War Museum, constructed between 1812 and 1815.
Founded in 1247, by Simon FitzMary, an Alderman and Sheriff of London, Bethlem Hospital was originally part of the medieval Priory of St Mary Bethlehem, which was located in the Parish of St Botolph in the Ward of Bishopsgate Without, meaning it was in that part of Bishopsgate that lay outside London Wall. Initially it was intended as a hospice and as a means of collecting alms for the poor and in support of the Catholic Church in Bethlehem, its mother church. Bethlehem had fallen to the Muslims in 1244, so the church there needed support. But this link with Bethlehem made it an alien priory, and in 1375 it was taken over by the Crown, under Edward III, making it a royal hospital. Shortly after, it became one of Europe's first hospitals devoted to the care of those suffering from mental illness.
Treatment of the mentally ill was not always kind, and while the name Bethlem derives from the Priory name of St Mary Bethlehem, a further colloquial version evolved: this was Bedlam, which came to mean both the mental hospital and any place of “noisy uproar and confusion”.
In 1547, following the dissolution of the priory during the Reformation under King Henry VIII, Bethlem was granted a charter as a hospital for the insane and its governance passed to the City of London, who from then on became responsible for providing care for the mentally ill in the City.
The original hospital was very small, but in 1676 the City provided a large site in Moorfieds for the creation of a new and much bigger Bethlem Hospital. This was a little to the west of the old hospital and alongside London Wall, at the place where Finsbury Circus now stands. Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703), the great natural philosopher and architect, was commissioned to design the building, which he did on a grand scale, creating a long frontage facing London Wall and with extensive gardens behind.
By the year 1800 it became clear that although the Moorfields hospital was an impressive building, it was also starting to fall apart and was considered dangerous. The City of London decided it was time to build a new hospital on a new site, preferably somewhere outside London where the air would be fresher. After several years of considering various options, it was eventually decided, in 1807, to go for a site in St George's Fields in Southwark, at the southern side where the famous Dog and Duck with its gardens and ponds was located.
The Dog and Duck had been closed since 1799 because of its bad reputation, but the leaseholder, Mr James Hedger, held the land till 1810 when his lease was due to expire. The City decided not to renew his lease. Instead, they leased the land to Bethlem Hospital in return for their old land in Moorfields. This was done, and so Bethlem Hospital acquired just over 11 acres of St George’s Fields on which they could build their new hospital.
The new building was designed by James Lewis (1750 – 1820), the surveyor to the hospital, in a neoclassical style with a central portico topped with a cupola and with long wings at each side, making the whole 180m wide. The foundation stone was laid in 1812, and in 1815 the building was completed and the first 122 patients moved in.
The Southwark Bedlam remained in use till 1930 when it closed and the hospital moved to Monks Orchard near Beckenham in Kent.
In the same year, 1930, the freehold of the old hospital and its grounds were purchased by the newspaper magnate, Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere. He presented it to the London County Council, the intention being to demolish the hospital entirely and to create a public park as a much needed open space in Southwark. The Park was to be named after his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth, and dedicated to “the splendid struggling mothers of Southwark”.
However, the Imperial War Museum, which had been founded in 1917, and which lacked suitable premises, needed to find a permanent home. The empty Bethlem building in the middle of the proposed new park was attractive. The result was that only the long side wings were demolished, leaving the central section with short wings of six bays at each side standing. The park around this abbreviated building opened in 1934. Then, in 1936, the Imperial War Museum moved into the remaining central building.
© Patrick Sweeney 2011
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