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A guest post by Stephen Halliday, first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter April 2014. .

Borough Market, in Southwark, has a claim to be the oldest of all the capital’s markets still trading on its original site and celebrating its 1,000th anniversary in 2014. By 1276, according to a document of that date, it had become a nuisance by spreading to the south side of London Bridge. The bridge had been rebuilt in stone 100 years earlier by Henry II and was itself a severe bottleneck, being congested by over one hundred shops and houses whose construction on the bridge had helped pay for it. The bridge also provided a home for London’s first public latrine. The proximity of the market accentuated the problem, causing a serious impediment to the City’s commercial life. Almost three centuries passed until the reign of Edward VI (1547-53) when the young king granted a charter in 1550 vesting the market rights in the Lord Mayor and citizens of the City who were thereby able to regulate the management of the market and the space which it occupied. The market sold grain, fruit, vegetables, fish and some livestock. In 1671 a new charter from Charles II fixed the limits of the market as extending from the southern end of London Bridge to St Margaret’s Hill which lay close to the present site of Guy’s Hospital and to the former home, in today’s Talbot yard, of the Tabard Inn from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury.

Modern Borough Market

Modern Borough Market

By 1754 the continued chaos caused by traffic to and from the market prompted the City Corporation to petition Parliament to relieve them of the responsibility of the market whose growth, in response to the increasing population of London, had proved to be unmanageable. The Borough Market Act of 1756, therefore abolished the ancient market but gave the parish of St Saviour’s Southwark (later Southwark Cathedral) the right to set up a market on a new site. A group of Southwark residents raised six thousand pounds to purchase land known as The Triangle, south of St Saviour’s which remains at the heart of the market. The present buildings were designed in 1851 by Henry Rose who had earlier redesigned the nave of St Saviour’s with further work in 1863-4 by Edward Habershon. Both architects were chiefly associated with ecclesiastical designs which no doubt accounts for the “Gothic” character of some of the market buildings, particularly the elaborate wrought ironwork. An Art Deco entrance from Southwark Street was added in 1932 and in 2004 the south portico from Covent Garden’s Floral Hall was installed when the Royal Opera House was redeveloped. By 1851 Borough Market had become one of London’s most important. Its position close to the wharves of the Pool of London made it readily accessible to ships unloading their cargoes and it was well placed to supply retail and catering outlets both in the City and in the rapidly developing suburbs of South London.

Flying leasehold
The market is situated beneath a railway junction whose tracks are the most heavily used in Great Britain, where trains from south of London, having passed through London Bridge station, proceed to Cannon Street, Blackfriars, Waterloo East and Charing Cross. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand access to the railway meant that market traders had additional sources of produce from Kent and Sussex but on the other hand the market did not wish to give up any of its precious land for railway tracks and was prevented from doing so by the terms of the 1756 Borough Market Act. An arrangement was made whereby the railway companies were granted a flying leasehold enabling them, from 1860, to build a viaduct carrying the permanent way while the market continued to trade beneath the arches. This arrangement continues and every time the railway viaduct is widened compensation is paid to the market trustees who number sixteen and who have to live in the area. An excellent view of the market can be had from the viewing platform of The Shard, Europe’s tallest building.

Over one hundred stallholders continue to sell fruit and vegetables, a Blue Plaque recording that theirs is the site of London’s oldest market. To these have been added meat, fish and cheese and gourmet outlets such as De Gustibus breads, Furness Fish and Game and the Brindisa tapas restaurant amongst many others. The wholesale market operates on weekdays from 2 am to 8 am and the retail market on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 to 5, after which the area’s restaurants and cafes continue to trade. The market has its own inspectorate which operates in partnership with Southwark’s trading standards department.

The Area
In Shakespeare’s time Southwark was home to many theatres which were regarded as too disreputable to be accommodated within the City itself across London Bridge and the area was run down until the second half of the twentieth century. It then underwent a major revival with the South Bank developments, beginning with the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre. These were followed by the opening, in 1995 of Shakespeare’s Globe, within walking distance of the market. The original Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613 and the present theatre, Inspired by the American actor Sam Wanamaker, is as faithful a reproduction of the original as fire regulations will permit. Three years later the Tate Modern art gallery was opened in the converted Bankside power station so the South Bank, from being a poor relation of the City, has become its cultural neighbour and many visitors combine a visit to the bustling Borough Market with a visit to the Globe or Tate Modern followed by a meal at one of the many restaurants which are found in the vicinity of the market.

Shakespeare's Globe.

Shakespeare’s Globe.

The market has its own website with an interactive map at boroughmarket.org.uk. with an entry for its magazine Market Life which is produced every six weeks and can be obtained in the market or at London Bridge station.


Stephen Halliday is the author of numerous books on the history of London, beginning with The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Metropolitan Metropolis (History Press, 1999) and including London’s Markets : from Smithfield to Portobelllo Road (History Press, 2014). He lives in Cambridge and contributes articles and reviews regularly to national newspapers and magazines
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