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The South Work

That was how Southwark received its name, from the “south work” of a river wall to match its northern counterpart. Its origins, however, remain mysterious. Along the Old Kent Road, at the junction with Bowles Road, were discovered the remnants of an ancient settlement which manufactured flint tools. “Within the weathered sands,” reported one investigator in the London Archaeologist, “were many finds associated with the activities of prehistoric people.” No doubt it would be fanciful to connect this long history of human settlement with the air of exhaustion, of spent life, which seems to pervade the vicinity. There is, after all, another explanation: the roads of the south were decorated with funereal monuments, and the memory of these important emblems may in part account for the sense of transience associated with the neighbourhood. Three inhumation burial sites have been found close to each other, the first along the present Borough High Street. Their significance lies in their rarity, the only other burial of an equivalent date being close to the Tower of London, but also in the fact that two Roman burials of a similar nature were found a few yards to the south-east. The whole area of Southwark is in fact rich in Roman burial sites, with a cluster of inhumations in the area where Stane Street and Watling Street once diverged from what is now Borough High Street; the lines of the streets still exist under the names of Newington Causeway and the Old Kent Road. Another cluster of burial sites can be found to the north-west, beside another great Roman road leading from the bridge across the river. That is why travellers met in Southwark, in order to continue their journeys southward, and of course it represents the starting point of the Canterbury pilgrimage narrated by Chaucer. There have always been taverns and inns here for the welfare of those passing through; hospitals congregated here, also, perhaps in some atavistic homage to transitoriness.

The Roman settlement left another legacy. A gladiator’s trident was discovered in Southwark, prompting speculation that an arena may have been constructed in the vicinity where, in the late sixteenth century, the Swan and the Globe theatres flourished. The South Bank has always been associated with entertainment and pleasure, therefore, and its most recent incarnations encompass the newly thriving Globe Theatre as well as the whole area dominated by the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the Tate Modern.

St. Mary Overie, later St. Saviour, later Southwark Cathedral, became a favoured place of sanctuary for those fleeing from the city’s justice. So Southwark acquired an ill-favoured reputation. There were seven prisons in the area by the seventeenth century (its most famous, the Clink, gave its name literally to other such institutions) and yet there was continual riot and disorder. The neighbourhood was owned by various religious authorities, among them the archbishop of Canterbury and the Cluniac Order which inhabited the priory at Bermondsey, and yet it was known for its licentiousness. The prostitutes of the Bankside, practising their trade within the “Liberty” of the bishop of Winchester, were known as “Winchester Geese.” So there existed a strange oscillation between freedom and restraint which is, perhaps, not so strange after all, in the general pattern of contraries which covers the whole of London.

In Wyngaerde’s map of 1558 the area south of the Thames is intimately connected with that of the north by various lines of harmony, rather like the contemporary map of the Underground, flowing towards and over the bridge. A continuous row of houses stretches for almost a mile along the southern bank of the Thames, from Paris Garden Stairs to the great “Beere Howse” just east of Tooley Street beside Pickle Herring Stairs. It is perhaps worth noting that over a century before Shakespeare’s Falstaff appeared at the Globe, a short distance away, his namesake Sir John Falstolfe owned “four messuages called beer houses here.” In similar fashion Harry or “Herry” Bailey of the Tabard Inn was a real and familiar Southwark figure before he entered Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; perhaps there is something in the air of Southwark which encourages the transaction between reality and imagination. On the “Agas map” of the 1560s are shown ponds, water mills, smoky industries, bear pits, pleasure gardens and “stewhouses” like the celebrated “Castle upon the Hope Inn” which still survives as the Anchor.

The city, in a sense, feared the contagion of these pleasurable haunts. A civic edict of the sixteenth century ordered the wherrymen, who were customarily employed to row citizens across the river to the brothels, to moor their boats at night by the northern stairs in order to ensure that “thieves and other misdoers shall not be carried” to the southern bank. Another form of civic displeasure is exemplified in the fact that although “Bridge Without” had become the twenty-sixth ward of the city “its inhabitants were not allowed to elect their own aldermen” who were in effect imposed upon them. Southwark had become a kind of satrapy, thus ensuring that almost to the end of the twentieth century it remained a relatively undeveloped and ill-regarded place. Yet it was not necessarily poorly administered. The rich or “middling class,” as always, superintended the poor and ensured that travelling paupers were discouraged. The parish vestry collected the rates and distributed poor relief, while the local court supervised all aspects of trade. These suggestions of a relatively self-sufficient community have been amplified in a recent historical survey which concludes that the population of this particular suburb, and by extension of others like it, was relatively stable. The inhabitants of Southwark maintained residence in the same houses and intermarried in the same neighbourhood, as was characteristic of the city in general.

These conclusions tend to support the notion that, throughout the whole of London and its outlying districts, there was a vital and recognisable communal spirit. This spirit has survived over so many centuries that the present neighbourhood of Rotherhithe, for example, is still distinct from those of Deptford and Bermondsey. There is an indigenous or native spirit which animates a particular area. In contemporary south London there are a number of different areas, among them Lambeth and Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham, which have developed beside one another and by some form of symbiosis make up a recognisable atmosphere.

Yet the South remained relatively unknown to other Londoners, except as a source of disquiet. The southern bank fulfilled some of the functions of the “Eastern pyle,” as a boundary zone to which London could consign its dirt and its rubbish. Hence in the early eighteenth century it became the repository for some of the “stink industries” which had been banished from the City proper. The tanneries were consigned to Bermondsey, for example, while Lambeth became the site for noisy timber yards, vinegar-makers, dye manufactories and the makers of soap and tallow. It was reported in the local press that “a society of persons did exist at Lambeth … who made a trade of digging up the bodies of the dead: they made candles of the fat, extracted volatile alkali from the bones, and sold the flesh for dog’s meat.” This sounds sufficiently alarmist to be apocryphal, but there is no doubt that south London already had a difficult reputation. One market gardener of the area decided in 1789 to set up his business elsewhere because “the smoke … constantly enveloped my plants … the obscurity of the situation, the badness of the roads leading to it, with the effluvia of surrounding ditches being at times highly offensive.” South London, or at least those parts of it which were in immediate relation to the rest of the city and could be seen from it, was considered as a poor and disreputable appendage. There was always a form of urban discrimination.

That is why there were so many prisons in the vicinity, as well as institutions for female orphans and asylums for the poor; Bethlem, too, was erected in Lambeth (1815). London was consigning all its difficult or problematic citizens to the South. The area also acquired a reputation for dubious taverns and doubtful pleasure gardens. Establishments such as the Apollo Gardens were under civic scrutiny, and were on occasions closed down by the authorities for “disorderliness.” The whole of Lambeth became known as a “louche and even disreputable quarter.” The Temple of Flora and the Dog and Duck Tavern, situated where the path across St. George’s Fields met the Lambeth Road, was “certainly the most dreadful place in or about the metropolis … the resorts of women, not only of the lower species of prostitution, but even of the middle classes.” South London had once more manifested its ancient status as a haven of sexual freedom. The philanthropist Francis Place recalled highwaymen of the 1780s claiming their horses in these southern fields where “flashy women come out to take leave of the thieves at dusk and wish them success.” It is known that radical insurrectionaries were hunted down in the area, since they were believed to plot and plan in various decaying public houses; just as the music-hall stars of the mid-nineteenth century moved south to Brixton, so those of dubious public reputation like the transvestite Chevalier d’Eon had moved to Lambeth a century before. It was, in every sense, a dumping ground.

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But the prospect of dirt, or dilapidation, did not materially affect the growth of London in that direction; like the beetle which lives upon dung, the “offensive” smells and sounds might even arouse its powers into further expenditures of energy. The erection of Westminster Bridge in 1750, and the completion of Blackfriars Bridge nineteen years later, marked the real development of south London. Highways led from the newly established bridges, and moved towards Kennington and the Elephant and Castle; in addition roads were laid across open fields to join these major thoroughfares. The new roads led to fresh industrial development, so that the vinegar- and dye-works were complemented by potteries, lime kilns and blacking factories. By 1800, Lambeth had assumed all the characteristics of a slum.

Yet the area still grew; it expanded and developed, acquiring its shape along with the other ribbon developments which snaked southwards. The process acquired resistless momentum in the first decade of the nineteenth century when three toll bridges were completed. Southwark Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge opened the way for the extensive building programmes which created south London in its present form. The increase in London’s population, and the exertion of the new industrial forces, drew the city over the Thames at an ever increasing rate. The streets around St. George’s Circus were soon thickly inhabited, with houses covering all the adjacent fields, but soon the shops and houses and businesses began to travel down the roads which radiated from that neighbourhood. Newington, Kennington and Walworth were directly affected and by the 1830s the whole area of the present South was being covered in roads and houses. The suburban development soon expanded to include Peckham and Camberwell, Brixton and Clapham, even so far as Dulwich and Herne Hill. It was not long before Sydenham and Norwood, Forest Hill and Honor Oak, became part of the same urban diaspora.

Those who have recorded their impressions of coming into London by the railway from the south, have remarked upon the apparently endless vista of red and brown roofs, dead walls, and little streets which flashed by. The prospect has been compared to that of a sea, or a desert, both images invoking the power of some remorseless force which cannot be withstood. A character in H.G. Wells’s Tono Bungay travelling in the early 1900s on the South-Eastern Railway, “marked beyond Chislehurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses … the congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements: I marvelled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people.” One of the principal sensations was also that of fear. It was the instinctive fear of uniformity, as well as fear of the approaching capital which had engendered it.

As the railway carriage travelled closer to its destination at Cannon Street, “whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing” circulated like the odours of sulphur from some unseen inferno. Since the colonisation of the southern bank was entirely driven by the need for industrial expansion and exploitation, it is appropriate that the smell of industry itself should permeate the territory. There were glue factories and wool warehouses, while Charles Knight’s Encyclopaedia of London notes that “chimneys shot up at intervals of a few yards, towering above a very maze of red roofs, and furnishing their contribution to the smoky atmosphere of the neighbourhood.” The district, once characterised by its priory, was now celebrated for its protean quality; it “may be regarded as a region of manufacturers, a region of market-gardeners, a region of wholesale dealers, and a maritime region, according to the quarter where we take our stand.” Just as there were various trades in Bermondsey, so there were heterogeneous odours. “In one street strawberry jam is borne in upon you in whiffs, hot and strong; in another, raw hides and tanning; in another, glue; while in some streets the nose encounters an unhappy combination of all three.” Between 1916 and 1920 the London novelist and essayist V.S. Pritchett worked for a leather manufacturer; he also recalled the odours of Bermondsey. “There was a daylight gloom in this district of London. One breathed the heavy, drugging beer smell of hops and there was another smell of boots and dog dung … the stinging smell of vinegar from a pickle factory; and smoke blew down from an emery mill … from the occasional little slum houses, the sharp stink of poverty.” That last is of course the most penetrating and significant odour of them all, compounding the noisome reputation of south London in general.

The similarities between the East and the South are apparent, but there were also significant disparities. The East End offered a more intense kind of community than the South; it possessed more open markets, for example, and more music halls. In the South, also, there was less contact with the rest of London. By sheer proximity the East End could share some of the energy and animation of the old City; it had, after all, existed against its walls for many centuries. But the great swathe of the river had always isolated the South, lending it a somewhat desolate quality. It is reflected in those comments about south London which render it a distinct and alien place.

George Gissing, for example, depicted Southwark in terms of its unpleasant odours. “An evil smell hung about the butchers’ and the fish shops. A public-house poisoned a whole street with alcoholic fumes; from sewer-grates rose a miasma that caught the breath.” A London reporter, writing in 1911, remarked that to pass over London Bridge was to cross “that natural dividing line of peoples”; it is an interesting remark, suggesting an almost atavistic reverence for the natural boundary of the river which changes the essence of the territory on either bank. He then asked whether, having crossed that significant line, “the very streets changed in some subtle and unconscious manner, to a more sordid character; the shops to a more blatant kind—even the people to a different and lower type?”

If London contains the world, then there is a world of meaning here. The distinction between the “northern” and “southern” races is of ancient date, the North being considered more ascetic and more robust than the effete and sensual South. It was a distinction emphasised by Darwin who, in the context of that theory of natural selection which he developed in London, declared that “the northern forms were enabled to beat the less powerful southern forms.” The “southern forms” may be weaker because they come from too attenuated an origin, perhaps stretching back to the great tracts of mesolithic and neolithic time. Those noisome smells may in part include the odour of ancient history. And what of their pleasures? According to the London reporter of 1911, “even the dramatic tastes of the people ‘over the water’ are now supposed to be primitive; and ‘transpontine’ is the adjective applied to melodrama that is too crude for the superior taste of northern London.” Yet the sensational and spectacular aspects of the theatre of the South may be a refraction of those sixteenth-century tastes which the South Bank once satisfied.

If you stand on Bankside today you will see in alignment the 1963 power station of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott transformed into the new Tate Modern, opened in 2000, beside the seventeenth-century house on Cardinal’s Wharf reputed to have been the lodging of Christopher Wren in the 1680s while he superintended the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river; beside that, in turn, is the Globe recreated in its sixteenth-century form. A short distance away, in Borough High Street, the remnants of the George Inn evoke the atmosphere of Southwark during those centuries when it was a staging post and haven for travellers on their journeys towards or away from the great city. Close by, in St. Thomas’s Street, an old operating theatre has been discovered in the attic of the eighteenth-century parish church. An account of this strange relic, dating from 1821, notes that “many of the surgical instruments were still very similar to those used in Roman times.” Trepanning, a procedure in use three thousand years ago, was still one of the most common operations on this site. So when the patients were brought in blindfolded, and strapped to the small wooden table, and when the doctor raised his knife, perhaps they were participating in rites which had taken place on the same ground since the time of the neolithic and Roman settlements.

These tokens or emblems of the past have retained their power as a consequence of the relative isolation or insularity of south London; even in the 1930s according to A.A. Jackson’s Semi-Detached London, “it was rare for a Londoner to cross the river” because it remained “foreign territory, with a quite unfamiliar, distinctively different transport system.” Of course much has been demolished—a row of Elizabethan houses in Stoney Street, Southwark, was torn down in order to make way for the bridge into Cannon Street Railway Station—but much survives in a different aspect. Where once in the seventeenth century Thomas Dekker observed so many taverns that the high street became “a continued ale house with not a shop to be seen,” the public houses still cluster together on the way leading to London Bridge. Even in the early nineteenth century the Talbot Inn, once called the Tabard, could still be inspected by the curious antiquarian as well as the nightly visitor; above its gateway was the inscription “This Is The Inn Where Geoffrey Chaucer, Knight, And Nine and Twenty Pilgrims, Lodged in Their Journey to Canterbury in 1383.” Neither fashion nor pressing commercial need affected the fabric of South London. This accounts for its charm, and its desolation.

Yet the revival of the South Bank in particular, with a new footbridge erected in 2000 in order to span the river from St. Peter’s Hill to Bankside, will lead to a great change. South London has been underdeveloped, in past centuries, but this neglect has allowed it effortlessly to reinvent itself. The point can be made by looking at the stretch of the Thames where much redevelopment is taking place. On the northern bank the streets and lanes are filled to bursting with business premises, so that no further alteration in its commercial aspect or direction is possible without more destruction. The relatively undeveloped tracts south of the Thames are in contrast available for a spirited and imaginative transformation.

To walk along the north bank of the river between Queenhithe and Dark House Walk is an experience in isolation; there is no sense of any connection with people, or with the city, along the “Thameside Walk” which winds between the old quays and jetties. These wharves exist as little more than the disconnected riverside terraces of various company headquarters, including one bank and a depot of the corporation of London. The northern bank of the Thames, to use a contemporary expression, has been “privatised.” To the south, however, there is interchange and animation; from the new Tate Modern to the Globe, and then to the Anchor public house, the broad walkway is commonly filled with people. The ancient hospitality and freedom of the South are emerging once more; in the twenty-first century it will become one of the most vigorous and varied, not to say popular, centres of London life. So the South Bank has been able triumphantly to reassert its past. The restored Bankside Power Station, with its upper storey resembling a box filled with light, is aligned with Cardinal’s Wharf and the newly constructed Globe in a triune invocation of territorial spirit. This is surely a cause for wonder, when five centuries are embraced in a single and simple act of recognition. It is part of London’s power. Where the past exists, the future may flourish.

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