History of Bankside

The Borough and Bankside are the core of the town of Southwark: an area settled since the Romans and directly opposite the City of London on the south side of the Thames. Though undeniably a suburb, in the period up to the early 18th century when it formed the fringe of the metropolis Southwark’s character was totally at variance with the definition of the post-18th century suburb. It was not a well-ordered refuge for the aspiring middle classes; rather, it was an unplanned, weakly-administered and mixed community of artisans, inn keepers, immigrants, criminals, entertainers and prostitutes, with a very few nobles and clerics who had their London houses there. For the middle ranks of society it was not a place to be aspired to, but one to be avoided.

The town’s layout was determined by its geography. Its main roads - Borough High Street running north-south connecting to London Bridge, Bankside running west from the bridge, and Tooley Street running east - all followed lines of natural or man-made higher ground surrounded by areas of lower and poorly drained marsh. The two principal buildings had ecclesiastical links. They were the Priory Church of St Mary Overie, which after the Reformation found a new function as parish church, and the town house of the Bishop of Winchester. Many other buildings had temporary populations. The High Street bristled with inn yards, which provided accommodation for travellers arriving into or departing from London. The town also had a disproportionate number of prisons, such as the Clink and the Marshalsea.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the area became overwhelmingly industrial and commercial, with riverside wharves and warehouses, and engineering and food processing firms. Accompanying these was an impoverished population living in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, left behind by middle-class flight to the suburbs and pushed further into depriveation by the building of the great railway extensions from London Bridge to Charing Cross and Cannon Street in the 1860s. The presence of this urban rump was a reminder to the middle classes that there was much to escape in the Victorian city, and to us that the creation of suburbs produces losers as well as winners.