For this week’s London Shoes blog walkabout, even though it was still very parky, I was fortunate enough to select a rare day lately where the sun was shining, creating such a completely different backdrop to the wonderful London scenery.
The main subject matter for this week’s blog was ‘Southwark Bridge’ – but it wasn’t just the bridge that caught my attention – it was some of the surrounding, and yet little known historic landmarks within the immediate vicinity of the Bridge – that make this location such an interesting place to have a mooch around.
Apart from the Bridge itself – right next to the Bridge on the Southwark side, are the following historic landmarks – all of which I covered-off individually:-
> Southwark Bridge
> The ‘Ferryman’s Seat’
> French Cannons as bollards
> The ‘Clink’
> Bear Baiting
> Winchester Palace
> London ‘Frost Fairs’
Is an old arch styled bridge across the River Thames, linking traffic and pedestrians from the Upper Thames Street area of the City to Southwark. Statistically it has the lowest traffic volume of any bridge in central London.
The very first bridge at the site was opened in 1819 and was originally known as ‘Queen Street Bridge’. Queen Street being the name of the road leading to it on the north of the Thames.
In May, 1811, a replacement and new ‘Southwark Bridge’ was erected at a cost of £800,000, and at that time the bridge was notable for having the longest cast iron span, (240 feet) ever made.
It started life as a ‘toll’ bridge – but people weren’t happy at having to pay to cross it – and so it was very under-used, as Londoners continued to use London Bridge, which was free of charge.
In 1864 its ownership was taken over by the Bridge House Estates, who then made it toll free.
Southwark Bridge was then re-built again in 1921 – and has been in place as it is today, ever since.
The Ferryman’s Seat
Located close to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames at Southwark, the “Ferryman’s Seat” as it is today, is just a chunk of flinty type stone built into the side of a restaurant. However, what it lacks in charm it more than makes up for in centuries of history.
It was used as a resting place for the Ferryman who once operated a water taxi service across to the north side of the Thames and back. This was once a thriving trade, especially up until 1750 when London Bridge was the only other means of carrying passengers and goods across the river.
Back then, the south side of the Thames was seen as a relatively lawless place filled with brothels, bear-baiting rings and of course, the Globe (and other) Theatres.
The ‘Ferryman’s Seat’ is actually located on a street called “Bear Gardens” named after the last bear baiting pit in London – which was situated at the end of the street.
Being a ferryman was a tough old job, as they had to deal with drunken rowdy punters crossing from one side of the River to the other, each and every day, and in all kinds of weather and conditions.
It is amazing that this little known historic landmark has survived – but it has, and not many people know of its existence.
French Cannons as Street Bollards
After the defeat of the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British started to strip the French boats and reuse anything of value.
When it came to the cannons however, it was found that they were too large to be re-fitted onto British ships.
So – to torment the French, particularly those that were either visitors or residents of London – the British decided to use these captured cannons as street bollards throughout selected streets near to the River Thames in east and south London.
This idea was very popular, and had the desired effect of really winding the French up – so much so that replicas were made and these started to be added more and more of London streets.
They continue to be made today, with their distinctive shape being an iconic feature.
Although most of the original cannon-bollards have been replaced over the years, a few still remain, especially the ones located on the South Bank near to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and around the back streets of Borough Market
The ‘Clink’ was a prison located in Southwark which operated from the 12th century right up until 1780.
The Bishop of Winchester, who owned most of the area and its social housing – would put people in the ‘Clink’ for failing to make their rent and other payments.
“The Clink” prison was situated next to the Bishop’s London-area residence of “Winchester Palace”, and is said to have be the oldest men’s prison and probably the oldest women’s prison in England.
The origins of the name “The Clink” (which has become common slang for a prison) probably comes from the sound of striking metal as the prison’s doors were bolted, or the rattling of the chains the prisoners wore.
Today there stands a ‘Clink’ museum attraction, a bit like the popular ‘London Dungeon’ – which is especially designed to attract tourists…..and it does.
From the 1600’s right up to the mid 1800’s, ‘Bear Baiting’ was an extremely popular spectator activity in England, particularly in London.
Bears, maintained for baiting, were chained up in fenced-off pits – and well-trained fighting or baiting dogs, (usually Old English Bulldogs), would then be set upon on them.
For a long time, the main bear-garden in London was the Paris Garden, located just at the end of Bear Street, Southwark – where the ‘punters’ visiting/leaving the nearby ‘Globe’ theatre, or those falling out of the many local taverns, would be a captive audience.
Winchester Palace was the twelfth-century residence of the Bishops of Winchester, who owned a big chunk of the land in the Southwark area at that time.
It was located on the south bank of the River Thames in the London Borough of Southwark, near the medieval priory which later became ‘Southwark Cathedral’.
Remains of the demolished palace survive on the site today – with the ‘round window’ being of particular interest and attraction.
London – Frost Fairs
Between 1600 and 1814, it was not uncommon for the River Thames to freeze over for up to two months at time.
There were two main reasons for this; the first was that Britain was locked in what is now known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ – the other reason was due to the medieval design and structure of London Bridge (a bit further down the River) – and specifically its piers, and how closely spaced together they were. During winter, pieces of ice would get lodged between the piers and effectively dam up the river, meaning it was easier for it to freeze.
So – with this being a regular occurrence, Londoner’s decided to make the most of this seasonal situation and set up ‘Frost Fairs’ on the Thames.
Historic records and scenic paintings of the time show that between 1607 and 1814 there were a total of 7 major ‘Frost Fairs’ held on the Thames, as well as loads of other smaller ones.
These ‘Frost Fairs’ were quite an exciting and unusual spectacle, full of hastily constructed shops, pubs, ice skating rinks, barbers, shoe makers, tents to keep the public warm…… even kings and queens would join in the festivities, with King Charles reportedly enjoying a spit-roasted ox at this very fair.
In other words, these Frost Fairs had everything that you would expect to see in the crowded streets of London……but on ice!!!!
The first recorded frost fair was during the winter of 1607 / 08 – and the ice on the Thames was so firm that it allowed people to walk between Southwark on the southern banks, right across to the City on the northern banks.
However, as you can imagine, there was also the occasional tragedy. During the fair of 1739 a whole section of ice gave away and swallowed up tents and businesses as well as people.
However, by the 1800’s the climate had started to warm up a bit – making the continued running of these events impossible – and as a result, the last ever London “Frost Fair” took place in the January of 1814. Although only lasting for five days, this was to be one of the largest fairs on record. Thousands of people turned up every day, and there was said to be every possible form of entertainment including a parading elephant!!!!
Today – in a pedestrian tunnel directly behind Southwark Bridge – there are 4 huge slate murals depicting the history of these Frost Fairs and all the activities that used to take place during them.
Before I set-off on my journey back home, I dropped into the “Southwark Tavern” (right by Borough Market) for the customary ‘cheeky’ beer.
The building that is now the ‘Southwark Tavern’ sits on the corner of Southwark Street and Stoney Street, and dates back to the early 1800s – and is a building that is steeped in history, as it used to be a ‘Debtors Prison’.
Today, its old cells are now transformed into cosy little drinking booths – making it quite an interesting and atmospheric place to neck down a cheeky one!!
Hope you found these little known historic landmarks and the accompanying photos interesting.