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Borough high street southwark london.jpg
Borough High Street
Grid reference: TQ325795
Location: 51°29’56"N, 0°5’24"W
Post town: London
Postcode: SE1
Dialling code: 020
Local Government
Council: Southwark
Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Southwark is a town in the very northernmost part of Surrey on the River Thames immediately opposite the City of London. It forms one of the oldest parts of the London conurbation, having been effectively dependent on the City since the early Middle Ages, and in time it increasingly came under the influence and jurisdiction of the City of London.

Having been one of the most thickly populated places in Surrey, Southwark experienced rapid depopulation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the new suburbs were built.

Names of the town

Southwark is named in the 10th century Burghal Hidage as Suðriganaweorc ("Surreymen's work") and variant spellings,[1] "work" meaning a fortification.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is named Suðgeweorc ("south work")[2] and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Sudweca. "South work", suggests its location as the fortification guarding the southern end of London Bridge.

The ancient borough of Southwark was also known simply as "The Borough", a name in contradistinction to the City of London as "The City", and this name has persisted as an alternative name for the area, in particular the area close to the end of London Bridge; the high street is named Borough High Street and the local market is Borough Market.

When Southwark was administered as part of the City of London, it was known to the Corporation as the Ward of Bridge Without. The ward persisted from 1550 to 1900, and as an Aldermanry until 1978.[1]

The town

Shops on Borough High Street

Southwark has one central High Street, Borough High Street, in the road which leads to London Bridge, and which has an eclectic collection of shops and offices. Other streets leading off it have their own parades of shops.

A great divide in the High Street is formed by the huge, low viaduct bearing several railway lines to Waterloo Station. All around there are professional offices, and residential street, swiftly moving from the homes of the wealthy to those somewhat less plush.

Bankside, the area along the Thames, was once where Shakespeare's theatres sat and today it home to its successors in the arts of public entertainment: television companies, the South Bank Centre theatre and arts centre, Tate Modern, the Museum of the Moving Image and indeed to a replica of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, close to the original site, near Southwark Bridge.

Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of Southwark, which covers all of eastern Surrey. It stands by London Bridge.

Today the river is bridged at Southwark by more than the one bridge: running upstream it has:

- beyond which the townscape becomes North Lambeth.


Early history

Southwark is on a previously marshy area south of the River Thames. Recent excavation has revealed prehistoric activity including evidence of early ploughing, burial mounds and ritual activity. Much of the area is below seal level and was originally a series of islands in the Thames. This formed the best place to bridge the Thames and the area became an important as Roman Londinium grew, as the endpoint of the Roman bridge on which roads necessarily converged. Two Roman roads, Stane Street and Watling Street, met at Southwark in what is now Borough High Street. Archaeological work at Tabard Street in 2004 discovered a plaque with the earliest reference to 'London' from the Roman period on it. Londinium was abandoned at the end of the Roman occupation in the early fifth century and both the city and its bridge collapsed in decay.

Southwark appears to have recovered only during the time of King Alfred and his successors. In 886 or thereabouts the Roman City area was reoccupied and fortified and the 'burh' of Southwark was created, probably fortified to defend the bridge and hence the re-emerging City of London to the north. This defensive role is highlighted by the use of the bridge in 1016 as a defence against King Sweyn and his son Cnut by Ethelred the Unready and again, in 1066, against King William the Conqueror. William failed to force the bridge during the Norman Conquest, but Southwark was devastated.

Middle Ages

Southwark appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 within several manors. Bishop Odo of Bayeux held the monastery (the site of the Cathedral), the 'tide-way' (which still exists as St Mary Overy dock). The King owned the 'church' (probably St Olave's) and its 'tidal stream' (St Olave's Dock), while the dues of the 'waterway' or mooring place were shared between the King and Earl Godwin@. The King also had the 'toll' of the strand and the 'men of Southwark' had the right to a 'haw and its toll'. Southwark's value to the King was £16. Much of Southwark was originally owned by the church, of which the greatest reminder of monastic London is Southwark Cathedral, originally the priory of St Mary Overy.

During the early Middle Ages, Southwark developed and was one of the four Surrey towns which returned Members of Parliament for the first meeting of the commons in 1295.

The area was renowned for its inns, especially The Tabard, from which Chaucer's pilgrims set off on their journey in The Canterbury Tales. An important market occupied the High Street from some time in the 13th century, which was controlled by the City's officers. The market continued in that position until removed by Act of Parliament in 1756 in order to improve traffic to the Bridge, but only moved: the Borough Market continues to this day on the another site.

Modern age

Shakespeare’s Globe

Just west of the Bridge was the 'Liberty of the Clink' manor, which was nominally under the Bishop of Winchester's authority, outside the City's control. This area therefore became the entertainment district for London, and it was also a den of brothels. In 1587, Southwark was given its first playhouse theatre, The Rose. The Rose was set up by a famous local businessman, Philip Henslowe, and it soon became a very popular place of entertainment for all classes of Londoners. Both Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, two of the finest writers of the Elizabethan age, worked at the Rose.

In 1599, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was erected on the Bankside in the Clink Liberty, though it burned down in 1613. A modern replica, also called the Globe, has been built near the original site. Southwark was also a favourite area for entertainment such as bull-baiting and bear-baiting. The impressario in the later Elizabethan period for these entertainments was Shakespeare's colleague Edward Alleyn, who left many local charitable endowments, most notably Dulwich College.

On 26 May 1676, ten years after the Great Fire of London, a town fire broke out, which continued for 17 hours before houses were blown up to create fire breaks. King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York were personally involved in the effort.

There was also a famous fair in Southwark which took place near the Church of St George the Martyr. William Hogarth depicted this fair in his engraving of Southwark Fair (1733).

The Marshalsea Prison in the 18th century

In Southwark too were several prisons, including those of the Crown or 'Prerogative Courts', the Marshalsea and King's Bench prisons, that of the local manors courts for example Borough Compter, The Clink, and the Surrey county gaol originally housed at the 'White Lion Inn' (also called informally the 'Borough Gaol') and eventually at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

The Harvard family were from Southwark. John Harvard went to the local parish free school of St Saviour's and on to Cambridge. He migrated to the Massachusetts Colony and left his library and the residue of his will to the new college, named after him as its first benefactor. Harvard University maintains a link, having paid for a memorial chapel within Southwark Cathedral (his family's parish church), and where their British-based alumni hold services. John Harvard's mother's house is in Stratford upon Avon.


In 1838 the first railway for the London area was created, planned to run from Southwark at London Bridge station to Greenwich only. In 1861, another Great Fire of Southwark destroyed a large number of buildings between Tooley Street and the Thames, including those around Hays Wharf, where Hays Galleria was later built, and blocks to the west almost as far as St Olave's Church.

The first deep-level London underground line was The City and South London Railway, now the City Branch of the Northern Line, opened in 1890, running from King William Street through Borough to Kennington. Southwark, since 1999, is also now serviced by Southwark and London Bridge stations on the Jubilee Line.

Relationship with the City of London

Southwark was outside of the control of the City of London and was a haven for criminals and free traders, who would sell goods and conduct trades outside the regulation of the City Livery Companies. In 1327 the City obtained control from Edward III, of the manor next to the south-side of London Bridge 'the town of Southwark' (called latterly 'Guildable Manor'). The Livery Companies also ensured that they had jurisdiction over the area.

From the Norman period manorial organisation obtained through major lay and ecclesiastic magnates. Southwark still has vestiges of this because of the connection with the City of London. In 1327 the City acquired from Edward III the original 'vill of Southwark' and this was also described as "the borough". In 1536 Henry VIII acquired the Bermondsey Priory properties and in 1538 that of the Archbishop. In 1550 these were sold to the City.

After many decades of petitioning, in 1550 Southwark was incorporated into the City of London as 'The Ward of Bridge Without'. However, the Alderman was appointed by the Court of Aldermen and no Common Councilmen were ever elected. This Ward was constituted of the original 'Guildable Manor' and the properties previously held by the church, under a charter of Edward VI, latterly called the 'King's Manor' and 'Great Liberty' manor.

These manors are still constituted by the City under a Bailiff and Steward with their Courts Leet and View of Frankpledge Juries and Officers which still meet - their annual assembly being held in November under the present High Steward (the Recorder of London). The Ward and Aldermanry were effectively abolished in 1978, by merging it with the Ward of Bridge (Within). The manorial courts were preserved under the Administration of Justice Act 1977. Therefore, between 1750 and 1978 Southwark had two persons (the Alderman and the Recorder) who were members of the City's Court of Aldermen and Common Council who were elected neither by the City freemen or by the Southwark electorate but appointed by the Court of Aldermen.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mills, D. (2000). Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names. Oxford. 
  2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  (1052 Chronicle) (Peterborough) Þa comon hy to Suðgeweorce, 7 micel mænegeo mid heom of Westsæxum