St George's Fields, Southwark: From a grand 18th century suburb to 19th century inner-city slums


This case study discusses the area in north-west Southwark around Blackfriars Road and St George’s Circus: its development in the century after 1750 from open space into a grand, planned suburb, and its later, more haphazard development and decline into a working class slum. The southern and larger part of this area was known in earlier times as St George’s Fields; it in the parish of St George the Martyr and was used as a common for the ancient town of Southwark.

In 1750 Southwark was still structured around three ancient roads: Borough High Street, which ran south from London Bridge, and Tooley Street and Bankside, which ran east and west respectively from the foot of the bridge. Most housing infill was on the east side of the high street; building on the west side was hindered by the marshy, poorly-drained nature of much of the land.

By 1850 the whole area was an overwhelmingly urban mixture of houses, roads, institutions and factories. What is extraordinary about this change was not its speed or its extent – there are many examples of equally dramatic change taking place in the same, or shorter, periods in many other parts of London – but rather that an area no more than one mile from the city and Westminster had remained undeveloped for so long. As a comparison, by 1750, Mayfair, Holborn, Shoreditch and Ratcliff (the old name for Wapping) were all already established suburbs of London.

The three main factors that influenced the development of the area were the policies of landlords, the development of new communication links and the arrival of industry.