Travel Guide to Southwark

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Bermondsey is almost certainly one of the oldest parts of Southwark. It is believed a Benedictine Monastery was based here during Saxon times, evidence has been found of Roman occupation.

In the Domesday Book, Bermondsey was owned by the King. In 1089 a London Merchant Aylwin Child founded St Saviour's Monastery for the Cluniac order. The Abbey was to develop into a very important body and dominated the area for centuries. Initially it was run by French officials, the first English Prior was appointed as late as 1374. In 1338 Abbey Church was built and in 1399 it was created an Abbey by Pope Boniface IX, with its Abbots sitting in the House of Lords. The Abbey was home to at least two Royals, Queen Catherine, consort of Henry V, died there in 1437 and Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen of Edward IV, died there in 1482. It should be added that both were there after a decline in their fortunes and were almost under house arrest there. The Abbey was confiscated by Henry VIII in 1539 as part of his dispute with the Church. The Abbey was sold off to a private owner who then demolished the building.

A parochial church, St Mary Magdalene was founded, possibly in 1337, for more general use. The current building mainly dates from 1680. St Olaves also has a long history dating from the Middle Ages. Outside of the abbey Bermondsey was still a small village, set on the higher ground which was frequently flooded by the Thames, for example in 1208 and 1230. This helps explain why the area was so underdeveloped.

The leather industry began to establish itself in medieval times. The area, with fresh water tidal streams was ideal for the tanners. Bermondsey was also close to the London markets and had good transport links. The Bermondsey industry was perceived as a threat by the City of London which often tried to restrict the sale of Bermondsey goods within three miles of the City. By 1792 a third of the leather in the country emanated in Bermondsey. The decline began in the nineteenth century. Hides began being imported into the northern ports and many of the firms moved north. With the leather industry went many of the associated industries, for example parchment and glue makers. The area was also important in the brewing industry.

Bermondsey was very fashionable for a while as in 1770 Thomas Keyse discovered Bermondsey Spa. He built the spa up to include a picture gallery, musical concerts and fireworks displays and soon had many customers. The boom proved to be short lived and the spa closed in 1804.

In 1835 the Spa Road to Deptford railway opened up and it was soon extended to London Bridge and Greenwich. This opened up Bermondsey to industry but with industry came poverty and overcrowding. In 1801 the population was 27,465, in 1851 it was 65,932 and by 1891 136,660. Open sewers and poor quality housing were common. Cholera hit the area badly in the nineteenth century. The areas near open tidal sewers were badly hit and Jacob's Island, where they took drinking water out of the Thames, was particularly affected.

By the end of the century the borough was all built over bar Southwark Park. One of the main industries in the area was the food business. With the goods arriving at the local docks, three quarters of the butter, cheese, bacon and canned meats needed in London landed there, the processing firms moved in nearby. The area became known as 'London's Larder'. The first tinned food in Britain was by Bryan Donkins of Bermondsey in 1811. The docks provided invaluable work but it was casual and badly paid leading to local poverty. By 1900 the population was declining but the living conditions were awful and the local council began to act. There were known examples of 9 people living in one room and one tap serving 25 houses with no sanitation.

Alfred Salter was a doctor who got to know Bermondsey whilst a student at Guy's. He was a brilliant student but chose to work at Bermondsey setting up in 1900 charging 6p a visit, free to those who could not pay. He realised that to affect long term changes he had to become involved in politics and in 1903 was elected to Bermondsey Council. In 1922 he became the Independent Labour Party MP for Bermondsey. In 1910 his wife, Ada, had become the first female London Councillor and in 1922 she became Mayor of Bermondsey and launched the Council on a series of pioneering reforms. A public health centre was built that pre-dates the NHS by 20 years. In those days TB could only be cured by sunshine so a solarium was built to help sufferers. In 1927 a 'palace of baths' was built that contained baths, swimming baths and a public laundry. The 1930 Housing Act gave the council greater powers over housing and a Housing Department was established. Many of the worst slums were demolished and better houses were built helping turn the area into a much nicer place to live.

In the Second World War Bermondsey was one of the most heavily bombed parts of Britain with 709 civilians killed and thousands hurt. Further economic decline followed after the war. A new breed of super tankers needed deeper docks than Bermondsey could offer, in 1970 the docks closed their doors for the last time. With the decline of the docks much of the food processing industry moved away. Whilst the traditional industrial base has been eroded Bermondsey has a bright future. Southwark Council have been involved in a programme aimed at regenerating the area, the arrival of the Jubilee Line will further assist the area.
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