A History of Southwark

By Tim Lambert

Southwark in the Middle Ages

The Romans built a ‘suburb’ south of the River Thames on the site of modern Southwark. However, it was abandoned in the 5th century when the Romans left Britain. Yet under the Saxons, a new ‘suburb’ grew up and flourished. It was called the South work and became known as Southwark. (From the 16th century it was also called The Borough).

In the Anglo-Saxon era, Southwark was an important if rather small settlement. Unfortunately, William the Conqueror burned Southwark in 1066.

Nevertheless in the Middle Ages, the suburb of Southwark thrived. By the 12th century, it had a church and from 1276 it also had a market where farmers from the countryside sold their produce. In the 12th century, part of Southwark was granted to the Bishop of Winchester.

From the 12th century, the Bishop of Winchester owned a prison in Southwark. From the 15th century, it was called the Clink. It finally closed in 1780.

Southwark 1500-1800

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Southwark continued to thrive. The London councillors were puritans who disapproved of plays so theatres were built in Southwark. The Rose Theatre was built in 1592 and the Globe was built in 1599. Southwark was also known for bull-baiting and bear-baiting. (The unfortunate bear or bull was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it).

However, Southwark suffered several outbreaks of plague in 1577-78, 1603, 1625, 1635-36, 1637, 1641, and 1665. Fortunately, the last outbreak was the last.

In 1676 10 years after the Great Fire of London Southwark suffered a fire that destroyed hundreds of buildings. The Great Fire of Southwark began on 26 May 1676 in a building where a man sold oil and paint. The fire spread quickly and it was only brought under control by blowing up houses to create fire breaks. However, the burned parts of Southwark were soon rebuilt. The death toll is not known but it is believed that more people died in the Great Fire of Southwark than in the Great Fire of London.

Until 1750 there was only one bridge over the Thames (London Bridge) so any traffic to and from the Southeast of England had to go through Southwark.

Guy’s Hospital was founded in 1721 by Thomas Guy who was governor of St Thomas’s Hospital.

Modern Southwark

In the 19th century, Southwark grew rapidly although many of its inhabitants were very poor.

In the 19th century, there was a big trade in hops from Kent. In 1866 a Hop Exchange was built where they could be bought and sold.

Southwark was made part of the County of London in 1889.

Southwark Cathedral was originally a parish church. It became a cathedral in 1905. John Harvard who founded Harvard College was baptized in the church.

Southwark Bridge was built in 1912. It replaced an earlier bridge built in 1819. The present London Bridge was built in 1972.

In 1924 a War Memorial was erected in Borough High Street.

Today Southwark has many attractions. Among them are the Clink Prison Museum and the Tate Modern. Other attractions are the Vinopolis, Shakespeare’s Globe, and London Dungeon.

Southwark is also known for the Old Operating Theatre Museum. It was originally the women’s operating theatre for St Thomas’s Hospital and it was built in 1822.

In 1971 HMS Belfast was brought to Southwark. (HMS Belfast is a light cruiser launched in 1938. She served in the Second World War and the Korean War and she continued in service until 1963).