Southwark, Southwark

South London’s most ancient town, situated directly across the Thames from the City of London

Hidden London: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral

Southwark’s Old Eng­lish name of Sud­w­er­ca means ‘south­ern defen­sive work or fort’. South­wark can lay claim to the longest his­to­ry of any part of Lon­don, since it was here that the Romans chose to build the first bridge across the Thames fol­low­ing the inva­sion of AD43.

The set­tle­ment was an inte­gral part of Roman Lon­dini­um, with pub­lic, indus­tri­al and domes­tic build­ings on islands and reclaimed marsh­land. Its for­tunes were always tied to those of the City on the oppo­site bank as it ben­e­fit­ed from the flow of trade and trans­port across the riv­er and also act­ed as a place of refuge and retreat.

A church was built on the site of the present-day South­wark Cathe­dral in around 607 and ded­i­cat­ed to Mary Over­ie, a local saint whose father was as a Thames fer­ry­man. It came under the juris­dic­tion of the bish­ops of Win­ches­ter, who built their palace on a site to the west.

The church was rebuilt in the twelfth cen­tu­ry and again in 1207 fol­low­ing a fire. Its res­i­dent Augus­tin­ian fri­ary was dis­solved in 1540 and it was reded­i­cat­ed to St Sav­iour, the nave being rebuilt in the late Vic­to­ri­an era after a peri­od of decline and dis­re­pair. Famous mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion include John Har­vard, founder of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, who was born in South­wark in 1607.

The bish­ops’ palace was destroyed by fire in 1814 and today lit­tle remains except for its rose win­dow, although its prison – the Clink – lives on as a street name and a uni­ver­sal term.

The first South­wark Bridge was pri­vate­ly built in 1815, and sub­se­quent­ly bought by the Cor­po­ra­tion of Lon­don using rent mon­ey from the ten­ants of Lon­don Bridge. The present bridge was com­plet­ed in 1921.

Southwark’s marshy ter­rain con­strained its expan­sion for cen­turies but as riv­er com­merce grew it became a trad­ing and indus­tri­al cen­tre, focused on the area known as the Bor­ough.

The Lon­don Bor­ough of South­wark was formed in 1965 from the met­ro­pol­i­tan bor­oughs of Bermond­sey, Cam­ber­well and South­wark. The bor­ough stretch­es five miles (8 km) to the south in a rough­ly tri­an­gu­lar shape to the site of the Crys­tal Palace and has some of the most diverse town­scapes any­where in Lon­don. These range from the very urban north with its mix­ture of new and old, res­i­den­tial and indus­tri­al, com­mer­cial and recre­ation­al through areas of large­ly intact 19th-cen­tu­ry sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment to its leafy spa­cious south. Southwark’s coat of arms is almost a pic­togram of the borough’s his­to­ry, with allu­sions to the Can­ter­bury Tales, Shakespeare’s Ham­let, Edward Alleyn and the Sur­rey Docks.

Southwark delftware was a type of tin-glazed earthenware made in Southwark during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Postal district: SE1
Population: 30,119 (Cathedrals and Chaucer wards, 2011 census)
Station: Jubilee line (zone 1) but Borough and London Bridge stations are closer to the heart of Southwark than is Southwark station
Further reading: Johnny Homer, Southwark Pubs, Amberley, 2017
and Neil Bright, Southwark in the Blitz, Amberley, 2016