Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Famous as Little Dorrit’s church, the Church of St George the Martyr is one of the oldest buildings in Borough High Street and has seen nearly three centuries of traffic pass its door on its way to the City of London. There were at least two previous churches on this site and there is a tradition that there was a church here in Saxon times though there is no mention of it in the Domesday Book. The first written record concerning the church is within the Annals of Bermondsey Abbey dated 1122 which records that Thomas Arderne and his son, whose family had been given the land by William the Conqueror, gave their patronage of the church to the Abbey.
The church was rebuilt at the end of the 14th century and it is the square stone tower that features in the Wyngaerde Panorama of London and Hogarth’s engraving of Southwark Fair of 1733. The tower had a clock and a peal of eight bells and fine stained glass windows which were probably made locally.
Right: Hogarth's engraving of Southwark Fair - the square tower of the medieval Church of St George the Martyr is in the background.
The church was on the route of those travelling from Europe to the City of London. In 1393, when Richard II returned from Europe and sought a reconciliation with the City of London after a disagreement, he was met at the church by the Bishop of London before proceeding over the river to the City. In 1417, before setting out to France for military campaigning, Henry V made an offering at St George the Martyr and the Mayor and Alderman of the City met him at the church upon his return.
The medieval church was repaired and beautified several times and in 1629 some repairs were paid for by 21 City Livery Companies which was commemorated by a window on the north side which had the arms of the companies and inscription painted on. In 1733, the parishioners applied to Parliament for permission to demolish the old church and erect a new one. The cost was £6,000 and an Act of Parliament allowed for these costs to be paid for out of the funds that had been set aside for the building of 50 new churches in London during Queen Anne’s reign. The new church was built to the design of John Price who died before its completion. The foundation stone was laid on St George’s Day 1734 and the church was consecrated in 1736. Built of red brick and Portland stone, there were considerable problems with the new church for in 1807 the church had to close for 18 months for essential repairs that included laying a new foundation, replacing the ceiling and renewing the ceiling tiles.
The population of the parish in 1807 was 24,043. In common with the rest of London, by 1840 the population of the parish had risen sharply and by 1840 was estimated to be 50,000 at which time the parish consisted of 2 squares, 109 streets and roads, 123 courts and alleys, 6854 houses of which over 3,000 were rented out and were often very over-crowded. To meet the needs of the increasing parish, five smaller parishes were created within the larger parish of St George the Martyr: St Michael and All Angels (Lant Street), St Jude’s (St George’s Road), St Alphege (Lancaster Road), All Hallows (Orange Street, now Copperfield Street) and St Stephen’s (Kent Street).
In 1857 Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit. Dickens had lived in lodgings many years previously in Lant Street when he was a young man while his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison next door to the church. The novel Little Dorrit is largely set in Marshalsea Prison and she is married in the church of St George the Martyr. The scene of signing the register was illustrated by Phiz.
A small figure of Little Dorrit, carrying a poke bonnet, is depicted in the present East window which was installed to replace the window destroyed by bombing in World War II and Little Dorrit's Playground on the other side of Borough High Street is also named after Dickens' character.
At the end of the century, the parish was one of the poorest in London and when interviewed for the Charles Booth Poverty maps in 1899 the vicar described the parish as "difficult and at times an almost despairing one, with very little to encourage and a great deal to discourage. It is a work in which we cannot hope or expect to see much result". The worst areas were the courts and alleys off Borough High Street where the inhabitants were very poor "and many of them criminal, drunkenness and immorality abound." There was a large team of district visitors who visited within the parish and offered relief when appropriate.
More repairs were needed to the church throughout the years with considerable repairs undertaken at the turn of the century and in 1929. In 1938 a bad crack and bulging was discovered in the south wall. Money was raised for these repairs and it is considered that as these repairs were carried out at that time, the collapse of the church during the bombing of World War II was prevented. The church though did suffer considerable damage through bombing and restoration was carried out to repair this in 1951/2. By 2005, the church was suffering bad subsidence. During the underpinning works, archaeological exploration uncovered Medieval and Roman remains.
The churchyard was enlarged in 1816 and, having been closed for new burials in 1853, was laid out as St George’s Garden and opened to the public in 1882.
The congregation of St George the Martyr today reflects the area and comes from many parts of the world as well as the Borough itself. Some are in the area for a brief time, others have lived all their life nearby. For more information about the church today, visit www.stgeorge-themartyr.co.uk