The Streets of Southwark


The Romans Arrive


The Roman occupation of Britain began in AD 43 during the reign of Emperor Claudius. This was an ambitious project, and It took several years for a significant portion of the country to be subdued and forced to submit to the rule of Rome. The invasion was under the command of General Aulus Plautius, and it is believed to have radiated out from a hub established at Richborough on the east Kent coast, where the Roman ships landed. There has been much dispute about the exact location of the landing, which might not have been at one place at all but at several locations along the south-east coast of Britain. However, we know that the Romans established a major fort at Richborough and that it was located at a highly strategic point guarding the entrance to the Wantsum Channel, a broad channel between Kent and the Isle of Thanet which has now silted up and no longer exists but which at the time gave secure shipping access to the Thames estuary and to London.


Having landed on the south-east coast, the Roman legions moved north-west towards the British heartland, almost certainly using already existing roads and tracks. They would have known that if they wished to progress north of the Thames they would have to cross a broad tidal river, the first major barrier to their progress. If the invasion was to succeed, they would have considered it essential that a bridgehead was established as soon as possible and that a solid, reliable and fully functioning bridge was thrown across the Thames very quickly.


Even though at this time London did not exist as an established town or city, it almost certainly did exist as a series of scattered settlements along the banks of the Thames, particularly on the north bank where there were many firm gravel outcrops from Westminster in the west to Wapping in the east, all raised well above water level. The Romans knew this. They were not blind to the topography of the land they were entering. In fact, there was no shortage of information about the conditions along the north and south banks of the Thames and about the roads leading towards this place that was such a key strategic spot on the British Isles.


This is because about 90 years previously Julius Caesar had made two exploratory incursions into Britain. The first in BC 55 was a failure as it got little more than twelve miles inland from his landing at Walmer, just north of Dover. But his second attempt in the following year, BC 54, was more successful and saw him cross the Thames at London and move north, at least as far as St Albans where he defeated the local leader Cassivellaunus, who had resisted Caesar's invasion.


In his book, The Gallic Wars, Caesar describes his invasion of Britain and mentions the roads of Britain as being well known. He says that the defending Britons attacked from the woods and avoided the well known roads, suggesting that an estsablished network of roads did exist in Iron Age Britain. Caesar then says that there was only one place where it was possible to cross the Thames. He does not give this place a name, but it was almost certainly at Westminster, where there was a ford across the river to Thorney Island on the north bank. He said that the place was heavily defended by the Britons and that sharpened stakes had been pushed into the ground at the river's edge and also underwater to prevent troops crossing. His troops were forced to cross at a place where they were up to their necks in water. All this confirms that both sides knew exactly where the most viable crossing point was. Caesar's troops did manage to cross the river and the Britons were routed and pursued north, till they were finally defeated somewhere near St Albans.


It is believed that Caesar and his legions landed in Britain on a beach at Wolmer, about half way between Dover and Deal in south east Kent. In order to progress inland he would almost certainly have followed the Iron Age trade routes heading north west towards the crossing point on the Thames. This was an essential point of access to the British heartlands in East Anglia, the Midlands and the North. No one knows exactly what route Caesar took, but the geography of Kent and south east London suggests that at some point he would have reached the site of the Elephant and Castle, a kind of natural hub around which the Thames describes a great arc from Vauxhall to Rotherhithe. From the Elephant and Castle it was just a short walk along the present St George's Road to the ford at Westminster. Moreover, the Elephant was the perfect place from which a general like Caesar could make an assessment of the topography all along the south bank of the Thames, recording the places where there were mudflats, where there were river channels and where there were firm islands or eyots that could be used as stepping stones to cross the river.


Caesar did not have the strength or manpower to occupy Britain as a whole, so having made his statement about the superiority of Roman forces, he withdrew back to Gaul. But he had succeeded in subjugating many of the British peoples, who agreed to pay tribute and duties to Rome, which means paying import and export taxes. There followed an almost full century when trading links increased and developed between Britain and Rome. Olive oil, wine, ceramics and all sorts of luxury goods entered Britain from the continent, while our own natural resources, particularly tin, iron and copper were exported to the Roman world


The significance of the Julian incursions into Britain was that when the Emperor Claudius decided to invade Britain in AD 43 his generals had good and extensive knowledge of the geography and topography of the land. It was not an unknown place, and they were not short of intelligence. They knew what the issues were as they approached the Thames and the area we now call Southwark.


The Claudian invasion of AD 43 progressed on four fronts, driven by four Legions. The 2nd Legion was directed towards Fishbourn, near Chichester, before going further west to Exeter. The other three Legions, the 20th, the 14th and the 9th, aimed to cross the Thames and fan out to Colchester (XX Legion) Leicester (14th Legion) and Peterborough (9th Legion). Before crossing the river, the majority of these troops would almost certainly have gathered somewhere on the broad expanse of St George's Fields, perhaps right in the middle where the Elephant and Castle now stands, just like Julius Caesar had done a century before.


It would have been from this position that they considered where and how to build a bridge across the river. It has been suggested that the very first London Bridge was a temporary pontoon bridge, serving just the military purpose of getting troops and equipmant across to the north bank. If that was the case, as does seem likely, It is now impossible to say exactly where it could have been located. Perhaps it was at Westminster, just to the west of Southwark, or perhaps it was close to the present London Bridge, to the north east. Whatever the case, it must have been part of the Roman plan to replace it with a permanent bridge as soon as possible. We do not know when, but at some point during the first years of the invasion the fateful decision was made to construct the first permanent bridge of timber at the place we have since named after it, London Bridge. This decision was not just about engineering and bridge building: it was about establishing the location of the City of London itself. The consequence of the decision was to articulate the structure of both the City of London on the north bank and its borough on the south bank, Southwark.


It has traditionaly been accepted that a spot just about a hundred yards east of the present London Bridge was the location of the Roman bridge, and that this location was selected because it was the first place upstream of the estuary where the river was narrow enough and the ground at each side firm enough for a stable and secure bridge to be built. On the north side there were gravel banks that rose up steeply along the present Fish Street to the high ground at The Monument. On the south bank there was amid the extensive mud flats a square-shaped island corresponding to the present Borough, providing firm ground. In addition, the strong movement of the tides at London Bridge could be utilised to assist rapid movement of ships and boats loaded with cargo or troops in and out of what was to become this new city on the Thames, a city called London.


There is a lot of truth in this view of why London Bridge was selected as the location of the first bridge. There are, however, certain problems with it in that there were equally good if not better crossing points further upstream. In particular, the area between Westminster and Vauxhall was very attractive because there was a well known ford at Westminster crossing over to the firm ground of Thorney Island on the north bank. It would have been easy to build a bridge there. Moreover, it is possible that there was already in existance an Iron Age bridge at Vauxhall, the remains of which have recently been discovered. Upright posts from the Iron Age Vauxhall bridge have been identified just south of the present Vauxhall Bridge, posts which are still visible to everyone at low tide.


There is a strong possibility that the Romans did initially think of Westminster or Vauxhall as the right crossing point. In the years after their invasion they built a long distance road right across the country, a road that became known as Watling Street. There were two main branches of Watling Street. The first was in Kent from Richborough to Southwark, and the second was from London north of Thorney Island to Wroxeter. Both these branches are directly in line with the area between Westminster and Vauxhall, not London Bridge.


If the Romans had stuck with the Westminster crossing, Southwark may never have existed, but for some reason they decided to divert their road into London so that it ran more north along the line of the present Old Kent Road and terminated where Borough underground station now is. From there it turned directly north along the line of Borough High Street till it reached the place we now call London Bridge.


The Thames was then much wider and more shallow than it is now, but much of its width was made up of very shallow water and extensive mud flats, interwoven with water filled channels. Within the mud flats were a number of eyots, patches of firm ground within the mus flats that became islands at high tide.


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.