The Elephant and Castle



In 1929 Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own, an important feminist work that suggested women could not achieve their full potential while being subserviant to male domination in education, opportunity and finance.[1] To illustrate the point she invented a character called Judith, who was William Shakespeare's sister and who was equally as talented as her famous brother. But unlike William Shakespeare she was constricted by the denial of equality in education, opportunity and finance, and thus was unable to develop in the way her brother did. She became little more than the plaything of men, and:


"At last - for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows - at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? - killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle." [2]


Virginia Woolf's essay is part of the evolving feminist debate that took place during the twentieth century, and it needs to be respected as such, but it is also worth asking why she picks on The Elephant and Castle as a symbol of the final humiliation and death of an unfortunate woman denied her true potential. There has been a long tradition in Britain and much of Northern Europe of treating suicide as a crime, a form of self murder, and so the unfortunate victim was denied burial in sacred ground.  Instead, they were buried at a crossroads, often with a stake or two hammered through their heart.[3] The Elephant and Castle fits the bill as a major crossroads south of London, but by implication it is, in Virginia Woolf's mind, a dubious place where few would want to end up.


Judith's brother, the real William Shakespeare, also mentions The Elephant and Castle, though in a more light-hearted manner. In Twelfth Night, Act 3 Scene 3, the character Antonio, a sea captain who rescued Sebastian from a shipwreck, suggests to Sebastian, who was in need of a place to lodge in a strange land, that: "In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, Is best to lodge..."  [4]


Although the action actually takes place in Illyria on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, the present Balkans, the mention of the Elephant is certainly based on the London Elephant and Castle public house, just about a mile south of London Bridge. Shakespeare lived close to the present Blackfriars Bridge, a short walk to the Globe theatre on the South Bank, so it is highly probable that he would have known the nearby Elephant and Castle public house quite well.


London has always been a dynamic and constantly changing city.  That is part of its strength, part of its ability to respond and adapt to the needs of endlessly changing times.  But this evolution has so often been based on a cycle of mindless destruction and rebuilding, frequently on a scale almost unimaginable, so that losses were sometimes greater than the supposed benefits of the redevelopment. In fact, the changes were often so big that whole areas were utterly obliterated from the map and replaced by new streets and buildings that did not make any significant improvement to the area and did not fulfil the promise they offered.  Nowhere has this been more apparent than at the Elephant and Castle.


During the last century destruction has come from two main sources, war and property development. It is hard to say which did more damage. The Blitz of the Second World War saw terrible destruction throughout London, but it was particularly severe in the East End, where the whole of the docklands area from Tower Bridge to The Isle of Dogs and beyond were devastated and much of it reduced to ruins.  Docklands was a particular target because if its economic importance for Britain, its role as a supply line for materials and food for both the capital city and the country as a whole. But south east London was hit too, almost as badly as the East End, yet it is still not fully appreciated how the scale of destruction changed the face of the district forever, particularly at the Elephant and Castle.


In looking at the history of The Elephant and Castle, the first questions that arise are why does the place exist at all and why is it located where it is? Every Londoner knows that The Elephant and Castle is a major road junction in South London, traditionally a rough and ready place full of criminals like the Richardsons and wide boys and, amazingly, the birthplace of many famous people, like Charlie Chaplin and Michael Caine. It is also well known as a former staging post for coaches making their way south into Surrey, Sussex and Kent and the south coast of Britain.


But why should it have appeared on the map in the first place? The answer lies in the geography of London, and in particular in the broad sweep of the River Thames as it flows north from Westminster and then turns east as it makes its way towards London Bridge. This wide right angled curve of the Thames encloses an area, now known as Lambeth and Southwark, that was flat, low lying and marshy, much of it flooded at high tide, but with some firm gravel banks where building could take place.


It was the Romans who, in AD 43, invaded Britain and who made a decision, around AD 50, to build a bridge across the Thames at a point where the ground was firm, a point we now call London Bridge. From this new bridge, the first bridge to cross the Thames since the Bronze Age bridge of c.1500 BC at Vauxhall, they constructed a road going south along or near to the line of the present Borough High Street and Newington Causeway. At some point, not firmly established, the road branched, with one branch, later called Watling Street, going south-east along the line of the present Old Kent Road to Canterbury and the eastern coast of Britain, and another branch, later called Stane Street, going south west along the line of the present Kennington Park Road, eventually leading to Lewes and the south coast.


Although there is still some uncertainty about the exact course of the Roman roads and the location of the junctions, we do know that they converged at London Bridge. It is certain that the road from London Bridge to Lewes went south west from London Bridge, close to the line of the present Borough High Street and Newington Causeway, then through the place we call The Elephant and Castle, and then on along the line of the present Kennington Park Road.


The branch off to the east, Watling Street, created a junction, probably at the site of the present Borough Underground Station. It goes off towards Canterbury as the Old Kent Road.


The geography of the whole area, enclosed by the sweep of the Thames, means that when the time came to build new bridges across the river, some eighteen hundred years after the Romans, all the new bridges, Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge, tended to lead to a converging point close to the present Elephant and Castle. Ultimately, it is the geography of London and the course of the river Thames, combined with the Roman decision to build London Bridge at its particular location, that determined the local urban geography and the existance of a place we know as The Elephant and Castle.




1. Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own, Hogarth Press, 1929.

2. Woolf, 1929. Chapter 3.

3.Suicides, who were for years not permitted church burials, were commonly buried at a crossroads as a kind of punishment, perhaps to ensure that their souls would wander forever. For an account of crossroads burials see:  Laskey, Mark, Rites of Desecration: Suicide, Sacrilege and Profane Burial at the Crossroads.

4. Shakespeare,Twelfth Night, Act 3 Scene 3.