The Streets of Southwark


Eighteenth Century Southwark


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.


Southwark Fair

The Humours of the Fair by William Hogarth, 1733. This engraving is generally taken to be an illustration of Southwark Fair, but it could represent any of the London Fairs or the concept of fairs in general.


St George's Fields and Political Demonstrations


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.


John Wilkes

John Wilkes Esq, as depicted by William Hogarth in a satirical print published in 1763. Wilkes is show as a demonic personality, slouching in an over casual manner and holding a staff topped by a liberty cap. At his side are two copies of his publication The North Briton (Detail can be seen in the lower image). Number 45 contained his criticisim of the King's Speech, and Number 17 contained severe criticism of Hogarth's pair of political prints called The Times.


The North Britain

Detail showing Number 45 and Number 17 of The North Briton.



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.



The Eighteenth Century and the Formation of the Roads


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.


Westminster Bridge, London Bridge and increased Traffic


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. 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.


Blackfriars Bridge


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


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 Obelisk

The Obelisk standing at the centre of St George's Circus. Watercolour by George Sidney Shepherd (c.1801-1861). This watercolour would have been made around 1825.



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:




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.


One Famous Resident: Mary Woolstonecraft


Mary Wollstonecraft

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft painted by John Opie, c.1797. This portrait was painted shortly before her death in September 1797.


Mary Wollstonecraft is now understood as being one of the most influential women in the history of ideas and in the origins of feminism and the rights of women in Britain. Her link with Southwark is simple. When, in 1787, she decided to become a writer and to devote her life to writing, she came to London and contacted her friend Joseph Johnson, a publisher and leading figure in the radical movements of the time. Johnson agreed to employ her as a writer and translator, and he also found for her lodgings at 45 George Street, Southwark, now called Dolben Street. It was from here in Dolben Street that she launched her career, firstly through publishing her already written novel, Mary: A Fiction, and her works on the education of children, but mostly through meeting radical thinkers at the dinners given by Joseph Johnson, people like Thomas Paine, Willian Godwin, Henry Fuseli, and many others. This culminated in her work Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790.


It was after she left Dolben Street in 1791 that she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but there is no doubt that her time at Dolben Street was the furnace of her intellectual development, and was the site of her most intense creative years.



Blue Plaque

Blue Plaque at 45 Dolben Street


On Sunday 4th July 2004 a Blue Plaque was placed on 45 Dolben Street and unveiled by the author Claire Tomalin, who has written a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft called The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Although the house has been rebuilt, this plaque marks the spot where Mary Wollstonecraft lived during those few critical years.