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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Borough High Street

- a brief history

Borough High Street is one of the oldest streets in London and people have been travelling along it, on their way to the City of London, for nearly 2,000 years.  It has been the approach road to London Bridge since the Romans built the first wooden bridge over the Thames, located a few metres to the east from the site of the current bridge.    Soon after invading, the Romans built Watling Street which ran from Canterbury and the English Channel, and Stane Street which ran from Chichester, and these two roads converged in an area close to today’s Borough Station.The area to the north of where these roads met was mostly marsh, however the strip of land roughly corresponding to Borough High Street was higher and sandy and so a road was built linking the two roads from the south to London Bridge. A settlement quickly developed along this approach road as traders and industry hoped to benefit commercially from a constant stream of travellers.  After the Romans left England, the city of Londinium was abandoned and the bridge fell into disrepair. The traffic along the approach road ceased and the settlement declined.


But by Anglo Saxon times, Southwark had risen again to become a more substantial town, perhaps the seat of local government for the whole of Surrey and a part of the fortifications for the City of London.  The Roman bridge was replaced by a series of bridges with differing fortunes until the more enduring London Bridge, commissioned by Henry II, was finished in 1209 and served the population of London and its visitors until 1831.

Borough High Street 1825

At the northern end of Borough High Street, just south of London Bridge, lies Southwark Cathedral, once part of the Priory of St Mary Overie.  Part of the Cathedral dates back to the early middle ages and, while the original building no longer survives, the Church of St George the Martyr dates back to the same time.  The northern part of the street was once called Long Southwark and the southern end called St Margaret’s Hill after the medieval church of that name which stood on the island where the street forks, now home to the Slug and Lettuce and the St Saviour’s War Memorial. 

st george the martyr 1827

St George the Martyr Church 1827

St Thomas’ Hospital had its origins in the Priory of St Mary Overie in the 12th century when the role of a hospital was to offer accommodation to pilgrims and poor vagrants and also to tend the sick poor.  In 1207 the Priory and hospital were destroyed by fire and in 1223 the Bishop of Winchester re-endowed a new hospital with £344 and a call to the pious of the diocese to provide funds for its maintenance by way of donations and bequests.  Those who offered alms to the hospital would be rewarded by a 20 days indulgence.  The new hospital was built on “a more commodious site where the air is more pure and calm and the supply of waters more plentiful” on the eastern side of Borough High Street and dedicated to St Thomas a Beckett.


From at least the early middle ages, there was also a thriving market, later to become Borough Market, said to be the oldest surviving market in London. It was held at the northern end of Borough High Street  where stalls were set up on both sides of the road. Goods on sale included livestock, fish, meat, poultry, oats, barley, flour, fruit and vegetables and canny shoppers from the City of London crossed the bridge to buy their provisions here as prices were cheaper than in the City.

Borough High Street was also where the riotous Southwark Fair was held. Originally held on 7, 8 and 9 September to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by the time it reached its heyday in the early 18th Century, it lasted for two weeks.   Stalls and booths were erected along St Margaret’s Hill and in the surrounding courts and alleys as far as St George the Martyr and even on the bowling greens of St George’s Fields.

southwark fair 2

Southwark Fair by Hogarth

Shops and commercial premises have lined Borough High Street since medieval times when tall narrow properties were built facing onto the street where the part facing the street was given over to commercial purposes, and this set the pattern which has largely endured.  Behind the narrow shopfronts, the plots extended far back, accommodating yards, stabling and kitchen gardens.  This too was the pattern for the inns that developed along Borough High Street  


The inns offered accommodation and refreshment to those who preferred to spend a night outside the city walls after their journey and for those who had arrived after the gates to the bridge had closed for the night. The rooms offered in Borough High Street were said to be more spacious and less expensive than those in the City. The layout of the inns on Borough High Street were similar consisting of a long courtyard approached from the road by a narrow entrance way under an arch.  The ground floor level around the courtyard on three sides consisted mainly of stables where both visitors’ and carriers’ horses were fed, watered and rested.  Often at ground level there were offices where carriers conducted their business, a tap room, sometimes a brewery or bakehouse.  The first and second storeys above were often galleried or part galleried and were where the bedrooms were located. Guests at the inns were entertained by strolling players, wandering minstrels and acrobats whose activities were banned in the City.


The inns of Borough High Street often changed ownership, and sometimes names, but in general there is a continuity in establishments throughout the years.  Stow, writes at the end of the sixteenth century that there were, between Marshalsea Prison [this was just north of St George the Martyr Church] and London Bridge “many fair inns for receipt of travellers by these signs:  the Spurre, Christopher, Bull, Queen’s Head, Tabard, George, Hart, King’s Head, etc.”  Over 200 years later, the New Guide to Stage-coaches lists the inns in Borough High Street  as the Nag’s Head, Spur, Queen's Head, Talbot (formerly Tabard), George, White Hart, King’s Head, Ship and Catherine Wheel, some of which are still commemorated in street name signs.  

White Hart THS

The White Hart by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (Copyright Trustees of the British Museum)

The White Hart Inn undoubtedly has the greatest literary connections of the Borough High Street inns, featuring in both Shakespeare’s Henry VI Pt 2 and Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.  The Tabard also (later Talbot) has  a place in literary history as Chaucer has immortalised it as the point of departure for the pilgrims on their journey to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket in the Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century.  

The Queen’s Head Inn is renowned for once being owned by John Harvard who bequeathed a legacy, together with his collection of 400 books, that led to the foundation of Harvard University in Massachusetts.

The Priory of St Mary Overie was surrendered to Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation. Unlike many religious houses at that time it was spared being broken up and its stonework and other materials used for new building. The parishes of St Margaret's, that covered the area at the north of the High Street, The Clink Liberty and Paris Garden, and St Mary Magdalen, whose congregation was drawn from the lay residents around St Mary Overie, joined together to lease the Priory Church from the Crown. The former church of St Margaret, now no longer needed as a place of worship, was converted into a session house and gaol and became known as St Margaret’s Hall or Justice Hall.   The new parish church was named  St Saviour's after the dissolved Bermondsey Abbey, and in 1611 a group of merchants within the congregation bought the lease from James I for £800. A few centuries later the church became a cathedral, and to quote from the Southwark Cathedral's website, when the freehold of the church was bought, "the large unwieldy parish church served a very colourful area, not only of merchants and minor courtiers, but also actors, foreign craftsmen, and the ladies from the Bankside brothels.”


Further land in Southwark acquired by Henry VIII was known as the Kings Manor and centred around Brandon, later Suffolk, Place which was situated on the west of Borough High Street. The Palace had formerly been owned by Sir Thomas Brandon, Marshall of the Kings Bench Prison and later to his nephew, Sir Charles Brandon who also succeeded to the position of Marshall of the Kings Bench Prison. He was a great friend and favourite of Henry VIII and after being created the Duke of Suffolk in 1514 married the Kings sister Mary in 1515. Over the next few years the palace was rebuilt and enlarged and became a fine renaissance palace. In 1536 Henry VIII took possession of the Palace having given the Duke of Suffolk a building in Whitehall in exchange. It became a royal residence and the King extended it with the lands he had acquired in Southwark at the Reformation and it is thought he had planned to turn it into a hunting lodge for visiting dignitaries. However, Henry VIII seldom used it and towards the end of his reign he established a mint in part of the Palace and even though the Mint was closed in 1551, the area became known as The Mint, and its name is still commemorated by a street and park.  The newly completed apartment building, Brandon House, is now located on or near the site of Brandon Palace.

Marshalsea Prison 1812-2 Marshalsea Prison Wall

Marshalsea Prison (above) was a grim presence in Borough High Street for many centuries. The Marshalsea  received an early reputation for cruelty, the keeper in 1381 was described as a “tormentor without pity”. In 1561, the prison held 34 inmates, of which four were imprisoned for religious offences, several for marine offences and one debtor but by the 17th century  the majority of prisoners were debtors.  In 1729 a commission was appointed to investigate conditions. At that time there were 401 prisoners in the Marshalsea. It was found that Marshalsea prisoners were regularly beaten, locked up with human carcasses and tortured with irons. Thumb screws and iron hoods were used. Many prisoners died of starvation. There were so many confined in such a small space that in warmer weather eight to ten prisoners were stifled to death every 24 hours.


When the Surrey Gaol moved from their premises in Borough High Street to Horsemonger Lane, the Marshalsea moved onto the site which Dickens described in Little Dorritt as “an oblong pile of barrack building partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there was no back room; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.” Charles Dickens had first hand experience of the Marshalsea as his father was imprisoned there for debt along with Charles Dickens’ mother and three of his siblings.

The Marshalsea Prison was closed by Act of Parliament in 1842 and the prisoners transferred to King’s Bench Prison, which was now called the Queen’s Prison, or to Bethlem Hospital if suffering from mental illness.  All that remains of the Prison is a wall to the side of John Harvard Library which takes on a different significance when you know what it is!

Borough Town Hall THS BM

In 1676, Borough High Street suffered a calamity. Ten years after the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City of London, Southwark suffered a Great Fire that destroyed nearly 500 buildings, including most of the inns on the east side of Borough High Street and the former church of St Margaret's.  It began in an oil shop between the George and Talbot (Tabard) Inns.  “Many buildings were blown up to create fire breaks but it was only due to a change in wind that St Saviour's Church and St Thomas's Hospital were saved though both had suffered damage.  Charles II and his brother James took part in the firefighting as they had for the Great Fire of London ten years earlier.”

The Borough Town Hall (Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum)

St Margaret’s Hall was destroyed in the fire.   A new session house and gaol were built and the new building had a statue of Charles II, who had received the freedom of Southwark, situated in an external alcove at the first floor level.  The Sessions House was replaced by a Town Hall in 1793 but this building gradually deteriorated and was demolished to make way for a bank (and now the Slug and Lettuce).

As the population of London grew bigger and the City of London grew in importance as the centre of commerce, the traffic along Borough High Street increased which led to congestion, as much a problem then as it is today.  The Market exacerbated the problem and in 1755 an Act of Parliament was passed that banned the market in Borough High Street.  A year later a second Act of Parliament empowered the Churchwardens, Overseers and eleven of the most substantial parishioners of St Saviour’s to purchase a designated piece of land and to raise £6000 by the selling of annuities to pay for the land and buildings for a new relocated market. The new market opened in 1756 on an area of land called “The Triangle” on the western side of Borough High Street which still forms the centre of the market today. Southwark Fair was banned a few years later. Opposition had been growing as it had become associated with crime and vice but was also a cause of congestion.


A further cause of congestion was London Bridge itself. The width on the bridge available to accommodate all traffic was only about 12 feet and this narrow space combined with crowds attracted to the shops, animals being herded over the bridge and carts over-laden with goods resulted in a very slow and often tortuous progress across London Bridge. For centuries, many people had chosen to entrust a waterman to ferry them across the river quickly rather than to embark upon a slow bridge crossing. By Act of Parliament, all buildings on the bridge were demolished between 1758 and 1762 greatly increasing the width of the bridge available for traffic.


At the end of the 18th century, a competition was held for the design of a new London Bridge.  This was won by John Rennie and construction of the new bridge commenced in 1825 and completed in 1831.  It was built to the west of the existing bridge which was in use until the new bridge completed.  The new location necessitated alterations to the route of Borough High Street so that it met up with the new bridge.  To facilitate this, it was necessary to demolish Bishop Andrewes Chapel, formerly the Lady Chapel, of St Saviour’s Church. It was also necessary to move a part of St Thomas’ Hospital and new ward blocks were built in 1842:  one of these still remains.

St Thomas Wellcome

Photo courtesy of Wellcome Images of St Thomas' Hospital just before the Charing Cross railway extension was built.  The new railway line was built from just to the left of the large building (London Bridge Station) just left of the centre top to about the middle of the photo at the bottom edge.  It is easy to see how the new line cut right through the hospital.  The remaining South Wing is on the right.

By the early nineteenth century, Borough was the centre of the hop trade where factors and merchants occupied offices and warehouses to carry out their business. They were the middle men between grower and brewer, factors dealt with the growers and merchants with the brewers. A hop market had existed in Little East Cheap from 1681, but it seems gradually merchants and factors based in Borough captured the trade. Reasons for this include Borough being able to provide warehousing, that there were many breweries in the area, and that it was on the main road from London to Kent where a large proportion of hops were grown. In 1841 out of a total of 37 hop factors listed in the London Post Office directory, all but two were based in Borough and out of 49 hop merchants in London, all but 16 were based in Borough. A large proportion of both factors and merchants were based in Borough High Street, many in the yards of inns.  Apart from the Hop Exchange around the corner in Southwark Street, there is still a reminder to the Hop trade in the form of a decorative terracotta panel inscribed “WH & H Le May Hop Factors” on the east side of Borough High Street which is Grade II listed.

London Bridge Station opened in December 1836, the first of the central London railway termini.  Nearly 30 years later, the line was extended to Waterloo and Charing Cross, necessitating the building of a bridge over Borough High Street. The new railway line changed the area dramatically and had to swing south from London Bridge Station to avoid St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) then on through Borough Market and other property.  The Borough Market Trustees negotiated hard with the Charing Cross Railway Company to obtain “what property and other return the Company were prepared to offer the Trustees” and they did indeed gain from the building of the railway extension to Charing Cross in terms of land and new buildings.


The turn south from London Bridge Station necessitated building across the garden of St Thomas’ Hospital. Only a small part of hospital land was required but the Governors of St Thomas’ insisted that should the railway require this piece of land they would have to buy the whole site on the grounds that a railway so close to the hospital would impede light and fresh air to the patients, hindering their health and recovery, and could even be dangerous.  Initially the Governors of the Hospital asked for £750,000 but, on arbitration, received £296,000. As a result, a new hospital was built and the hospital moved from Borough High Street to opposite the Houses of Parliament where it remains today.

Building railway 2

Building the Charing Cross extension, cutting right across the former St Thomas's Hospital site

But while Borough Market and St Thomas’ Hospital received due recompense for the building of the railway, it proved calamitous to the inns in Borough High Street. Now visitors did not require overnight accommodation as they could take the train and be there and back in a day. Goods as well were transported by train. Buildings became dilapidated and sometimes tenements were built in the yards. Sometimes, as a shadow of their former selves, they became offices for the railways where tickets were booked and goods left and parcels collected.  With the passing of the inns, a whole way of life that had existed for centuries disappeared. The Catherine Wheel was demolished in 1869, the Tabard in 1875 and the White Hart in 1889. Only the partially galleried building of The George on the south side of the courtyard survives. The National Trust purchased it in 1937 and it remains protected, the last of the Borough High Street inns and the last galleried inn in London. Take a walk along Borough High Street today and the inns are still commemorated in the names of yards and alleys, reminders of the inns that have long since disappeared.


Today, Borough High Street continues to be the major approach road to London Bridge and is a busy high street.  Many buildings were destroyed during World War II and though there are many post war buildings, there are also many buildings, mostly Victorian, that conform to the pattern set in the middle ages of tall narrow buildings. Two buildings whose origins date back to the middle ages  – Southwark Cathedral and The George – are Grade I listed, and two other similarly enduring establishments – Borough Market and St George the Martyr Church - still survive. A street with a very long history indeed.