If you want to understand why the hustle and bustle returned to Bankside after it was abandoned whenRoman Britain fizzled out then Borough High Street is as good as any place to start. Here a thorough-fare on the main road from the Kent coast to London was becoming increasingly busy from the 13th century, with everything from butchers and joiners to tailors and chandlers, supplementing a nearby food market held on the approach to London Bridge.
But what Borough High Street, then known as Long Southwark, was arguably most famous for was its inns. Set back behind rows of shops, in courtyards that can still be seen today, these establishments did a bustling trade with travellers. Visitors arriving from the continent would often stop over here, particularly if it was late at night and the gates off London Bridge had been closed, before continuing into London the next day.
Pilgrimages would often also start from Bankside, with groups of travellers gathering at the inns on Borough High Street the night before they began their arduous journeys to ‘blessed’ places like Canterbury. Canterbury Tales, by the celebrated author William Chaucer and set in the 14th century, is probably the most famous depiction of one of these trips.
Unfortunately the disruption brought about by rapid industrialisation of Southwark in the 19th Century and the demise of the stage coach swept away many of the inns from the Medieval era; but delve beyond the obvious and traces of this wonderful lost world are still there waiting to be discovered. You can see where the pubs once stood and in the Cuming Museum we even have a clunky tanker dating back to the 15th Century.
Head to the George Inn, set in a charming courtyard off Borough High Street, and you’ll get a flavour of the past. Here you can enjoy a beer or two outside and away from the traffic fumes on a sunny day. If it’s cold outside drinkers are still catered for as it has two very cosy indoor rooms, often with a log fire burning. In any case the pub can get so busy, particularly with office workers straight after work, that customers’ body heat can more than adequately keep the place warm!
The George is the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London, reminding us of the time when travellers would frequent these parts for accommodation, food and drink. Until the advent of the railways in the 19th Century, such premises were common throughout England and often positioned every ten miles or so enabling horses pulling carriages to be changed.
Although Borough High Street was bustling in Medieval times, beyond the buildings on the stretch reaching near where Borough Tube station is today and ribbons of development along the river around London Bridge there was very little, so there would be plenty of open space for horses to graze.
When coach travel became properly established in the 17th Century, inns like the George, became busy terminus’. With its shops, houses, a chapel and narrow alley ways, coaches couldn’t cross London Bridge so journeys to the Kent coast began and ended in Borough.
The George, which was re-built in 1676 in the aftermath of a devastating Great Fire of Southwark that swept through the area and wiped out 500 houses, was typical of coaching inns of an earlier Elizabethan Age, with three wings each with bedrooms on the upper floors set around a yard.
Unfortunately, just one of the three sides of the structure survives (the others having been demolished in 1889), but you can still get the sense of a pub that would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
During the playwright’s era plays were staged in the yard, an area today filled with beer tables and a perfect spot for a sunny day, watching from the tiered galleries above or by standing in front of a platform. Given the pub’s historical importance it is fitting that The George Inn is now cared for by the National Trust.
Yards off Borough High Street, as was noted by London’s first historian John Stow in the 16th Century, were once home to many inns. Perhaps there were as many 50 on this stretch. Bar the George Inn, names the Hart, Christopher, Bull, Queen’s Head and King’s Head have been consigned to history. But you can still see reminders.
White Hart Yard, today the site of a printing shop, was where the White Hart Inn once stood. Shakespeare features it his Henry VI Part II play whereby, as per a true story, Jack Cade leads in 1450 a rebel army of between 20,000 and 45,000 intent on taking London and bases himself in the yard. Cade, whose complaints against the government included oppression, injustice and corruption, however failed to succeed in his mission. Legend has it that his body, having being identified by the White Hart’s landlady, was dragged through Borough High Street and head was put on a spike on London Bridge for all to see.
The White Hart, first referred to in 1554 and re-built after the Great Fire of 1676, saw its greatest times during the coaching boom from the 17th to early 19th Century, when it was the starting point and terminus for many services. Dickens, who included the White Hart in his novel the Pickwick Papers, described a ‘double tier of bedroom galleries, with old clumsy balustrades’ and ‘two or three gigs or chasise-carts’ in the yard outside.
Sadly the pub was demolished in 1889, but its spot is fittingly marked today by a blue plaque. We also have lovely sketches of the pub, including one from circa 1870.
Just along from the George, in Talbot Yard, is another blue plaque marking the site of the Tabard, first mentioned in 1304, and made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales in the 1380s as this was the meeting place for the pilgrims before they set off to Canterbury to pay they respects to the martyred Saint Thomas Beckett, reputed to have been murdered on the orders of king Henry II, who believed he was getting too big for his boots in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. Some have said that the pilgrimage depicted in the book was an actual trip, involving people from a cross section of society from noblemen to ploughmen, that set off from the Tabard in 1388.
Pilgrimages were big money spinners for the church in Medieval times, with believers being encouraged to buy souvenirs (like the pilgrim badges that have been unearthed in Southwark) as well as making their offer at the shrines of saints. Augustian orders in Southwark would for example have encouraged believers to re-trace Beckett’s last journey, from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Once there, some said the spirit of Beckett performed miracles for the travellers.
Chaucer’s work wonderfully captures the excitement of the travellers as they gathered at inns like the Tabard, making these trips seem more like a holiday than a divine, religious journey. In a sense they were social occasions and in any case pilgrims wanted protection from robbers as they journeyed on dangerous highways. At the Tabard, we have the colourful character of the landlord, Henry ‘Harry’ Bailey, who joins the pilgrims and servants and stable boys running around making the necessary preparations.
The establishment later changed its name to the Talbot, hence the name Talbot Yard today and it was sadly demolished around 1875. Although the pub is no longer sadly standing, we have some wonderful images from when it was and we have descriptions as to what it would be like inside – many rooms, known as parlours, where people could meet and drink. They were places that were at the very heart of the community, where immigrants could make valuable business and employment contacts, and receive mail and news from home.
In reality inns and taverns changed little over the years, so you had until the 19th century these wonderful old Medieval structures, albeit ones that had been patched up over the years. Dickens, writing in the 1830s, for example described the establishments in Bankside as ‘great, rambling, queer old places they are, with galleries and passages and staircases wide enough for antiquated to furnish material for ghost stories.’
“There still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries and passages and staircases wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish material for a hundred ghost stories.”
Dickens, writing about Borough High Street (1836-37) in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
Over time, as the population increased, the inns became increasing notorious and reflected, or perhaps exacerbated, the rowdiness of Bankside. In the 17th century Borough High Street was described as a ‘continuous street of ale houses’ and there were accusations that stolen goods were being sold, plus there were alleged conspiracies against church and state.
Industrialisation, and the introduction of railways, completely changed the make-up of the area but it is fitting to remember the inn and their rich histories that stretch back to Medieval and Tudor times, establishments that would have been familiar to the greats like Chaucer and Shakespeare.