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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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shakespeare's local pete brownVisit the George Inn in Southwark and you’ll see copies of this recently-published book in the window. In reviewing this book, I am also reviewing the pub. We say pub, back in history there was clear distinction between ale house (drink only), tavern (food and drink) and inn (drink, food, accommodation). In its day it was par excellence an inn, a place where its functions were at one time or another spectacularly varied: hotel; restaurant; stables; playhouse; hop exchange; warehouse; post office, and much of the time simultaneously.

But today it is very much a pub; a pub which occupies about a quarter of its original real estate, the section which runs along what was the southern side of the old inn. It is down an alley off Borough High Street and you would miss it if you were not seeking it. The first section retains the galleried aspect which once would have run around the whole courtyard. Inside, it is as you might expect, all low ceilings and wooden beams. Plenty of wood. It is divided into small sections: about four bar/lounge bits and a restaurant bit at the far end. The walls are decorated with old photos and etchings of the inn, former denizens and worthies of the local area. There is in a frame a life assurance policy belonging to Charles Dickens. For he drank here, as did Churchill and Attlee.

Because this is a listed building under the aegis of the National Trust, there are no tellies, juke boxes, gambling machines or piped music. This is how it should be and makes for good ambience and conversational environment, almost totally lacking in pubs today. The brewery is Greene King, who don’t make fantastic beer in my opinion, but they do make a George Ale (4%) exclusively for this pub, which is not bad at all. Two pints came in at under £8 (sorry, wasn’t paying attention to my change), which is okay by me for what is supposedly a tourist trap situated in a “yuppie playground” – the author’s description of Borough today.

george in southwark

george in southwark

The George was neither the largest nor most famous of Southwark’s dozen-plus coaching inns (that accolade goes to the now-lost Tabard next door, as featured in Canterbury Tales). But it is the only surviving one, and that is what matters. In any case, it has a terrifically rich history in its own right. Pete Brown, ad industry escapee and award-winning beer writer* has written its biography. As befits the subject matter, he has a breezy style with occasional asides direct to camera. That’s not to say he doesn’t take his subject deadly seriously, he does. Shakepeare’s Local is thoroughly researched, taking forward past attempts by others which were eccentric at best, chief of whom one William Rendle.

The building of which the current George is a remnant, dates from 1676 following two disastrous fires which destroyed its predecessors. This was about half way through its life story taking us back to 15C pre-Tudor times. Brown invites us to ponder the “Trigg’s broom” (or Sugarbabes) question: is something whose fabric has been 100% replaced, still essentially the same thing? Being of romantic mien, he concludes yes, today’s George Inn can indeed be considered the same beast as its medieval great-great-grandparent and intervening iterations.

In this book, we learn what the pub was for, what it did and the people who lived in it, ran it, and crossed its portals. But as a well-rounded history book, we have context, that is to say the inter-relationship between the inn and Southwark, Southwark and London and indeed further afield. How the fortunes of the George and its owners waxed and waned through triumph and disaster; at the height of its success during the short-lived coaching age and rapid decline and redundancy with the coming of the railways and the opening of the magnificent hop exchange nearby (eclipsing all neighbouring inns’ ability to function as hop exchanges themselves); why the George survived (sort of), while all its rivals perished.

Most importantly for me, there are the heroes of this story: the George’s landlords and landladies down the ages. They all had something in common: dedication to and love of their charge, which goes some way to explaining its survival. All remarkable and determined innkeepers, special mention must go to the formidable Agnes Murray who worked at the George from 1871 to 1934, from barmaid to landlady.

Shakespeare’s Local has a few dozen illustrations. Old photos and engraving, but most handy of all – maps and plans. Of these the most remarkable is a re-drawn rendering from the earliest known map of Southwark, dating from 1542. You could line this up with the equivalent from the latest London A to Z and it would make almost perfect sense.

The book is lightly footnoted on the actual pages to which they refer, not at the back. I far prefer this. There is a good bibliography at the back and a detailed and useful timeline. But no index, unfortunately.

An excellent, informative read.

Shakespeare’s Local. Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub (352pp) by Pete Brown (2012, Macmillan) has a cover price of £16.99 but is available for around £11.

* Picture the scene. “So, Brown, what plans do you have for after you’ve left school?” “I wish to be a beer writer, sir.” “Get out.”

george inn southwark

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