London’s Industrial Revolution – Discovering the capital’s working past in Southwark

The Industrial Revolution was “a storm that passed over London and broke elsewhere,” suggested J R Hammond, writing in 1925. And the author wasn’t alone in this view: “The capital cities would be present at the forthcoming industrial revolution, but in the role of spectators. Not London, but Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow and innumerable small proletarian towns launched in the new era,” wrote Fernand Braudel.

But how selective both writers were in their analysis. Had they chosen to spend time exploring Southwark – encompassing the popular touristy areas today known as the South Bank and Bankside – they would have found a place that was at the very heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, with most major industries represented.

By the 19th century you would have found everything from breweries and glassworks to sugar refineries and food processing factories. Goods would be loaded and unloaded at the wharfs, stretching from Blackfriars’ Bridge to Rotherhithe and transported all around the world. For men living here and wanting employment, there was little other option than for them to get their hands dirty in Southwark’s industry.


Bankside today – warehouse units have a new use

Historian Roy Porter has pointed out that London “hardly lagged in technology and innovation,” adding: “Late eighteenth-century London had more steam engines than Lancashire – they were not used in textile mills but in flour-mills and for pumping London’s water supply. As late as the 1850s London’s manufacturing output was still unrivalled in Britain, for the obvious reason that the capital’s vast population created unsurpassed demand.”

Visitors to Southwark in the 19th century would have experienced the horrible din from industrial-sized machines and thick, black smog filling the air would have made breathing difficult. The people that would have wandered around the filthy streets and the quays would not have clutched fashionable shopping bags, as they do today, but would have been workers, dressed in starched overalls. Warehouses would have been filled to the brim with goods, rather than being occupied as trendy apartments, such as the ones seen at Shad Thames today.

Dodd’s described the area in his 1843 publication, Days in the Factories:

“An array of tall chimneys, each one a guide post to some large manufacturing establishment beneath – here a brewery, there a sawmill, farther on a hat factory, a distillery, a vinegar factory and numerous others. Southwark is as distinguishable for its tall chimneys and clouds of smoke emitted by them as London is for its church spires.”

It was quite a transformation for Southwark which had in Medieval times largely been open fields, with only ribbons of development on the wharves immediately either side of London Bridge and on part of the old Roman road to Kent, today Borough High Street. The earliest industry on Bankside was agriculture, with watermills in place to grind corn from the 13th century. Tanning and other trades requiring messy production processes and so were banned from the City also took place in the area, but relative to later times was on a relatively small scale.

The tide had started to turn in Southwark towards in the 16th century when there was a massive growth in the population and an array of entertainments for residents, including playhouses, bear-baiting arenas and a choice of over 300 alehouses and inns. But Shakespeare, who lived on Bankside at this time, would have also seen industry, commerce and trade becoming increasing sophisticated. It was a time of transition from the medieval world to the modern world, whereby London was moving from becoming a continental player to having an important global role.

Great houses and associated estates, like Winchester Palace, once owned by senior figures in the Established church and other high ranking officials were also soon divided up to provide space for residential dwellings but also giving plots of land for new factories. The Puritan zeal accompanying the English Civil War which forced playhouses and other centres of entertainment to close also provided further land for re-development. So by the mid-18th century the area was particularly active and the Industrial Revolution had well and truly kicked in.

Brewing success

Out of all the pubs in Borough, the Anchor Inn is probably my least favourite. Yes, the building dates from the 18th century (replacing an earlier one, from where Samuel Pepys apparently witnessed the Great Fire of London burn across the Thames) and contains cubby holes originally used by those attempting to hide and avoid imprisonment in the nearby Clink prison. And it was owned at one stage by Henry and Hester Thrale, friends of Dr Johnson. But today it bears all the signs of a chain pub, with identikit food menus that could be found in a whole host of venues up and down the country and flat screen TVs tackily plastered on the wall surrounded by gold frames. Upstairs there’s a glorified fish & chip take away counter and it is attached to a Premier Inn hotel.

But for anyone wanting to understand Southwark’s industrial history, the site is however important. The pub stands in a corner of what was claimed in the 19th century to be the largest brewery in the world, and a major employer in the area. Records for the Anchor Brewery can be traced back to 1633 and it was then taken over by a succession of owners. It was established as the Barclay Perkins Brewery in 1781, was taken over by Courage in 1955 and then closed for good in the 1980s. Only the Anchor Tavern, the former brewery’s tap room, remains. If you head to Park Street, near where the original Globe Theatre stood, there is a plaque charting the line of the Anchor Brewery’s occupiers.

The scale of brewing here was immense when it was in its prime. In 1815 the Anchor Brewery was the first to produce 300,000 barrels a year (and even in 1834 only 132 breweries produced more than 100,000 barrels a year). And when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1832 it was so imposing and spectacular that visitors were said to have come to purely look at its construction. Cunnigham’s 1850 Handbook of London describes the site:

“The establishment in Park-street is now the largest of its kind in the world. The buildings extend over ten acres and the machinery includes two steam-engines. The store-cellars contain 126 vats, varying in their contents from 4,000 barrels down to 500. About 160 horses are employed in conveying beer to different parts of London.”


Anchor Tavern – the only remains of the former brewery

And on this stretch, there is another reminder of Bankside’s brewing history – which dates back to the as early as the 14th century (Chaucer talked favourably about the “ale of Southwark”) – painted onto the side of a building in the form of a ‘TAKE COURAGE SIGN’.

But perhaps Southwark’s most distinctive remaining brewing landmark however is that of the Hop Exchange, which was opened in 1867. Hops, a crop which had originally been introduced from Netherlands to act as a preservative as well as giving beer a bitter taste, were bought and sold here. They were transported by train to London Bridge station from the hop fields of Kent and stored in one of Southwark’s many warehouses. Today, most of the building is used for offices, but there are sometimes public openings.

More than just beer

But Southwark made more than just beer. Glass manufacturing on Bankside began in the 17th century with the emergence of several factories by the river, including operations at Winchester Palace, in Park Street and near what had been a bear baiting arena at Bear Garden (earlier on the Hope Theatre). The area became particularly famous for ‘Crown Glass‘ which was used for window panes.

Then there was hat making, a process producing considerable amounts of poisonous mercury which drained into local watercourses. Behind what is today Tate Modern Messrs Coles built cranes. Iron foundries produced everything from coal-hole covers to railway equipment. Southwark was a hive of activity.

And just to the east of Blackfriars Bridge there is a pleasant little, yet underused space called the Rennie Garden. There are few clues here to remember that some 250 years ago, there was an industrial breakthrough which important people, including Josiah Wedgwood, would travel from far and wide to see. Windmills had long had powered the mills producing flour for London, but it was in this spot that steam power was introduced to the process.

Samuel Wyatt acquired a lease on the land in 1783 and John Rennie (who also designed the old London Bridge, now in Arizona, and is remembered in the name of this garden) designed the machinery. The first Boulton & Wyatt steam engine was installed on the site in 1786 (the second came in 1788). The efficiency of Albion Mills meant it could produce more flour in a day than other local mill owners could produce in a week. Pioneering the process may have been, but not all were celebrating. For William Blake, Albion Mills were the “dark, satanic mills” of Jerusalem.

In 1791 the mills were burned down and arson was suspected. “Success to the mills of Albion but no Albion Mills,” was found graffitied on the charred remains. “On the night of the fire, many of the poorer inhabitants of Southwark danced in the street for joy at the demise of the industrial monster,” wrote Lucy Inglis in Georgian London. “It was a symbol of the industrial revolution, heralding the arrival of a new, mechanised age – an age that could not be held back for long.” Albion Mills was never re-built.

Warehouses galore

What made Southwark particularly successful as a manufacturing centre was the fact that it had in London a lucrative market to sell finished goods right on its doorstep. But the numerous wharves in the area also enabled entrepreneurs to supply to consumers all over the world, while also allowing for the import of raw materials.

Huge warehouses – like Pickford’s five storey warehouse in Clink Street, opened in 1864 for storing flour, hops and seeds – were built to store goods. Shad Thames, to the east side of Tower Bridge, is an impressive place to walk because there is the alley between warehouses you can still see the wooden crossing bridges porters used to transfer goods to buildings further inland.

These former industrial buildings are today enjoying new uses, with many of the old dock-side warehouses now apartment blocks. On the ground floor a number have been converted into plush restaurants and pubs have sprung up with pleasant terraces giving panoramic views of the Thames. The Old Thameside Inn has to be one of my favourite spots in Bankside to sip a few pints on a sunny evening. When this area was an industrial suburb this was a spice warehouse.

At Hay’s Wharf – where a new enclosed dock was built in 1850 which was used by tea clippers from China – tourists and office workers enjoy the pubs, cafes and shops surrounding a covered courtyard, surrounded by the old warehouse buildings.

 Industrial Southwark remembered

When Sam Wanamaker announced plans in the 1970s to re-construct Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on Bankside, the area was a complete mess. Shells of former factories lay abandoned and homes were on their last legs, the legacy of 200 years of intense industrialisation. The area had been badly hit by Second World War bombing, but after limping on for a couple more decades, most companies decided to close their doors and, if they carried on trading, move elsewhere.

The possibility of tourists visiting was nothing short of a joke, with one guide book even telling people to avoid the area at all costs. Only those with nowhere else to go would live in these parts. Now with Bankside and Borough bustling, a place where people actually choose visit and live in these days, the dark period of it being little more than a waste ground are long forgotten. The high prices that river front apartments are on the market are testimony to just how upmarket the neighbourhood has gone.

Exploring Bankside today is, in a sense, like going back to the times of Shakespeare when it was a popular entertainment district. Popular places like the Globe and Tate Modern evoke the artistic talent that made the area famous 500 years ago when people flocked to the playhouses.

But it would be wrong to think that theatre and entertainment is the only history worth remembering. Yes, it is true that manufacturing businesses began to leave London later as the Industrial Revolution progressed because costs (particularly for labour) were lower elsewhere and so this industry declined. However, the capital did play its part in making tangible things – it wasn’t just a service provider.

The vast warehouses and other traces of industrial buildings that follow you round as you explore the area, remind us that for many years this was a place of manual work. Glimmers of Southwark’s Industrial Revolution are there for all to see today.


The Anchor’s menu today


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