History of The London Borough of Southwark

Southwark Borough Council

The London Borough of Southwark claims, with justification, to be London’s most historic borough: its closest rivals, Westminster and the City of London, have the status of city, not borough. The town of Southwark has been a significant settlement in its own right for the last one thousand years – beginning as the southern bridge foot for the Roman bridge over the Thames to Londinium – but the borough’s historic distinction spreads far beyond its ancient centre. Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are long-established centres of settlement and industry: the former as the hub of London’s leather manufacturing and the latter a centre for seafaring, ship building and repair, and later, commercial docks. Dulwich, which still retains a semi-rural character, has a school that dates to the 17th century and the surrounding landed estate has been run by a single body since that time.

The London Borough of Southwark was created in 1965 through the amalgamation of the Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark (in turn created by combining the ancient parishes of Christ Church, St Saviour, St George the Martyr, and St Mary Newington), Bermondsey (which comprised the parishes of St Thomas, St John, Horselydown, St Mary Bermondsey and St Mary Rotherhithe) and Camberwell (coterminous with the parish of St Giles Camberwell). Camberwell parish was huge, encompassing the districts of Peckham, Nunhead and Dulwich.

For much of its early history Southwark, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe provided London with many of the elements and services all cities need, but rarely like admitting to. These included disreputable entertainments - in the 17th century Bankside was the home of London’s public theatres and for centuries before that housed its red light district. Southwark was also home to numerous prisons such as the Clink, the King’s Bench and the Marshalsea; its reputation for crime is celebrated in the comic creation of Del Trotter (Only Fools and Horses, BBC TV), who has Peckham as his home. Bermondsey was home to industry, notably smelly leather production. The district has always been home to immigrants: Dutch and Flemings in the 16th and 17th centuries; Germans and Irish in the 19th century; and Cypriot, Caribbean, south Asian and African in more recent years.

Because of its proximity to the City London, Southwark has always had an uneasy relationship with its influential neighbour. At times the City has resented Southwark’s independence and has attempted to assert control. Notable attempts occurred in 1550 when the City became freeholder of much of the land in north Southwark, and at the end of the 19th century when Southwark nearly became part of the City, rather than the London County Council.

The development of north Southwark started in the late 18th century and was linked to the City building new bridges over the Thames, and Turnpike Trusts building new roads to serve them. At the same time Camberwell’s clean air and water helped it develop as a middle-class suburb. Walworth, Peckham, Nunhead and East Dulwich developed in the 19th century, encouraged by London’s inexorable demand for housing and improvements in transport. Dulwich has stayed aloof from these trends: the Dulwich Estate, which has the interests of Dulwich College and the other educational institutions it has spawned at its heart, has actively discouraged suburban development.

Today the borough is one of great contrasts: prosperity in its south; pockets of deprivation in Peckham and Walworth; ethnic diversity throughout; part of the cultural heart of London on its riverside, and, in Tate Modern, its Jubilee Line stations and Peckham Library, modern buildings of international importance.