Southwark, Central London : A Brief History Lesson
Archaeological and Historical Background
A number of prehistoric finds have been recorded in the immediate area. A neolithic polished axe and associated flint tools were found on Duke Street Hill in 1862, approximately 100 metres to the north of the site. A late Bronze age burial mound with a ditch and cremation burial were recorded on Fennings Wharf, located east of London Bridge fronting the Thames, in 1984, 115 metres to the north of the site. Several Iron Age ditches have also been found on excavations on St. Thomas' Street.
The focus of development in Southwark in the Roman period was the southern bridgehead of London Bridge, the lowest crossing point of the Thames and thus a key location in the communication network of Roman Britain. The Roman roads now called Watling Street [from Dover] and Stane Street [from Chichester] merged in the Borough area and followed the line of Borough High Street to cross the Thames a short distance downstream from the modern London Bridge. Whilst occupation was limited to the sand islands, Southwark developed as a major suburb of Londinium or small town or settlement in its own right, whose importance should not be underestimated.
By the late first century AD, an area of perhaps 45 acres was settled. The size and scale of some of the buildings uncovered in recent excavations indicate a public rather than private function. A marble inscription from a masonry building on the Winchester Palace site, just west of St Mary Overy Dock, 240 metres to the west of the site, suggested a military connection, a large timber building on the Courages Brewery site, 200 metres to the west, was probably a private warehouse and a mosaic floor was uncovered in Mayor Sworders Arches, 100 metres to the east, pointing to a high status building.
Over forty sites have revealed remains of clay and timber buildings indicating that a private occupation settlement grew up alongside the public buildings. The population by the middle of the second century has been estimated as high as 3,000 people. The Roman occupation of Southwark, like that of Londinium and Britain generally, declined in the early fifth century. However large areas of Roman Southwark have remained unexcavated so the current state of knowledge is based on a sample of less than 10%. The remains of Roman buildings have been found recently in the Borough High Street lateral sewers, the Battlebridge sewer diversion trench and the Borough High Street British Telecom junction box as well as at 1-7 St Thomas Street, 4-26 St. Thomas Street, Kings Head Yard (Borough high Street) and 1a Bedale Street/2 Southwark Street.
The evidence for Saxon occupation of north Southwark is less well documented than that for the Saxon settlements of "Lundenwic" and "Lunden burgh" on the north side of the river. In Southwark the archaeological evidence is limited to mainly rubbish pits located on the Winchester Palace and Hibernia Wharf excavations, just west of the southern end of London Bridge, dating to the late Saxon period and some coins found in sewer works in 1833. A Saxon bridge was known to have existed as documentary sources refer to the bridge forming an obstacle to Cnut's attack on London in 1016.
Indeed until 1750 and the construction of Westminster Bridge, London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames in the central London area. This fact has important implications for the development of North Southwark not only during the Roman and Saxon periods but also the medieval and post-medieval ones. Peter de Colechurch's stone bridge was started in 1176 and lasted for some 650 years.
A 'Danish' burial ground, known as St Olave's burial ground is located under London Bridge Station itself and was hypothesised by Robert Angel in 1924 as the last resting place of Cnut's illegitimate son King Harold 1 disinterred from Westminster Abbey in 1040.
An early reference for Southwark is in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086 for William the Conqueror. It states that a "Monesterium" exists in "Sudwerce". This is thought to be the site of Southwark Cathedral.
The medieval settlement of Southwark was also concentrated around the southern bridgehead of London Bridge, rebuilt in stone in 1176. The Priory of St Mary Overie (founded 1106) dominated north Southwark with St Thomas' hospital founded as part of the Priory in the 1170s. Winchester Palace, owned by the Bishops of Winchester, was built within the grounds of the Priory in 1144.
Following a fire, the hospital was refounded in 1213-15 outside the Priory in the area now bounded between St Thomas Street, London Bridge Street, Joiner Street and Borough High Street, within the Archbishop of Canterbury's manor (the area roughly bounded by modem day St Thomas Street on the north, the Kings Head Yard to the south and the Maze to the east).
The site was donated by the Bishop of Winchester, in whose diocese it lay.
A chapel associated with the hospital was also built and known as Holy Trinity (the hospital on a number of occasions is called the Hospital of Holy Trinity), although its exact location is unknown. Within the precint and surrounding area were tenements.
Two rare grave slabs dated 1270-1330 and 1305-1338 had been reused in a 15th century cellar/cesspit on 10-18 London Bridge Street (immediately to the east). These may have come from the chapel, following the repairs to the hospital grounds which included a new chapel in the mid 15th century.
After the dissolution of the monasteries the small convent of brethren and sisters was dispersed. In 1543, it was held by Sir Richard Long. In 1551 Edward VI granted the hospital and its remaining land to the mayor and citizens of London with the intent that it was re-opened as a combined hospital and poorhouse. The site of the hospital was moved to the north of its original site, bounded by modern St Thomas' Street to the south, London Bridge Street to the north side and Joiner Street to the east.
Borough High Street. then known as Long Southwark was lined with inns and alehouses, the area was densely populated and contained industries such as tanneries and tallow smelting contributing to a generally unhealthy atmosphere.
The hospital was largely rebuilt between 1693 and 1709 and continued on the site until 1862 when it was cleared as part of the railway redevelopment.
The area of the site of 8 London Bridge Street was open ground at this time until the present building was erected some time between 1870 and 1894.