“Women slouching with draggled skirts : Hatless” – St George’s Parish in Southwark, South of Union Street

I began planning my walk with two preconditions. Firstly, I wished to focus my attention on  the London Borough of Southwark, or rather, the same geographical area in one of its prior administrative forms. Secondly that part of my methodology be experiential, attempting to re-perform a past act of walking in some small way, so as to tie my walk to a particular moment and personage, hoping that this would allow penetration beyond what was interesting or striking, giving a frame of reference for what was different. The Booth Notebooks offered an excellent opportunity  to engage in two related acts of re-creative walking. The researchers provided detailed notes of the specific routes they took while surveying streets, allowing these routes to be re-walked, and – just as the notebooks of 1898-99 were a revision and expansion of the 1889 Map – allowing the walker to take notes and reassess the affluence of the area and the significant changes in the character of the region which were visible from street level, over a century later. These walks were taken with Police Officers, so I decided to have a part of my walk directed not to follow a specific route, but to attentively wander, attempting to see all streets in a given area.

Image Credit to Phone Booth by the LSE

Southwark fascinates due to its geographical proximity, and yet socio-economic contrast against the City of London proper. In the Medieval period Southwark was a site for deviancy: the Clink Liberty – West of London Bridge – serving as an entertainment district outside the jurisdiction and constraints of the Aldermen of the City of London. It became the centre of both Playhouses and Prostitution in the capital, and while Theatre by the c. 19th was reputable enough to be welcome North of the Thames, Southwark retained its predominance in the less reputable of these professions. Ill repute and poverty were of course reciprocal conditions, and Southwark’s economic position relative first to the City, and then to the other suburban Boroughs was always poor. Although today the gap is not so pronounced, a 2015 Office for National Statistics Survey of hours and earnings found that those employed in Southwark earned a median income of £645 per week, while those North of the river in the City earned £870 per week. Booth does not give us such convenient income statistics to work with, nor is the City of London classified on the maps, however, Southwark’s abnormality is evident from the fact that the streets off its main thoroughfares are usually classified as ‘Poor‘ or ‘Very Poor‘, whereas similar streets in East London the same distance from the City are mostly classified as ‘Mixed‘ or ‘Fairly Comfortable‘.

Image Credit to MAPCO

My choice of particular walk was based upon it being the walk in Southwark which to my knowledge had the highest proportion of streets coloured Dark Blue and Black, or ‘Very Poor’ and ‘Lowest Class’. It was the Walk taken on the 17th of May 1899 by George Duckworth, accompanying Lieutenant Constable H. Barton. This route conveniently was also just South of the Cross Bones Graveyard and bounded on the West by the disreputable Red Cross Road. Both Duckworth and Barton reference the insecurity of walking in Southwark at night, and so it was between 10:30 and 12:30 on the night of November 5th that I decided to embark on the Walk.

The walk begins opposite Borough Underground Station, opened 1890 servicing the City and South London Railway. It is not noted by Duckworth, this could be due to it being technically outside of the region he was surveying that day, or because it was not seen as relevant to a poverty survey. A redevelopment of Brandon House is underway on the North Western Corner at the Junction of Marshalsea Road and Borough High Street.

On the South side of Marshalsea Road stands a number of buildings acquired in the mid c.20th by the Peabody Trust, a charity established by American Banker George Peabody in 1862 to provide model housing to tenants of good character. However, the buildings comprise three separate developments: Douglas Flats, built 1886 as Philanthropist Sydney Waterlow’s contribution to a slum clearance scheme; and Ilfracombe Flats and Monarch Flats, built in 1888 by James Hartnoll, a commercial developer. The buildings themselves highlight an evolution of working class housing, from slums, cottages and lodging houses, to dense but habitable flats. The Peabody trust also has undertaken a subtle shift in its mission. Where it once sought to discourage unsanctioned behaviour through enforced curfews and prohibition on certain trades, it now attempts to encourage preferred behaviour through offering volunteering opportunities and gateway services.

Turning North onto Disney Place (Harrow Street in 1899) I discovered the extent to which the street layout had been overhauled. Birdcage Alley is now blocked off for the construction of Brandon House. The buildings belonging to St George’s with their “…better class of wash hanging out…“, inhabited by “Waterside Labourers & Market Porters” are demolished, as are the 2 and 3 storey buildings mentioned on the south side. On the left are flats built in the last decade, and ahead stands a block of postwar flats administered by Southwark Council. Beyond this the streets have been totally redeveloped. I was unable to determine when the houses in this area had been demolished, or why. They clearly had survived slum clearances up until 1899, and I could find no evidence of direct bomb strikes on the area. The entire area has been given over to two schools. St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School and The Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overy.

Ahead, in the space of streets marked black in the 1889 Map, stands Little Dorritt’s Playground. The Playground was officially opened in 1902, though it appears its use as a place of recreation predates the sanctioning of this practise. Adam’s Place – once a road, now a path on the site of the Playground – was described by Duckworth as “essentially a playground for rough children“, furnished only with a small drinking fountain. There are benches now, which Duckworth stated were not installed in his time due to “the encouragement to loafers“. Loafers are now discouraged by the high fences, which are gated and locked at night. The alleyway through the Playground was at this time pitch black and enclosed, but not as it had been – lined by lodging houses inhabited by “prostitutes &… thieves“. A tantalising but disjointed section of notes mentions  how “The demolition has caused only greater crowding nearby.“, but I could find no elaboration of what had been demolished, and it is even unclear if this note dates to 1899 or 1902. At this point I found myself being followed by two men who pursued me through three right hand turns before being discouraged by the openness of the Borough High Street where the three of us ended up. Duckworth would seem to refute any such concern on the same streets in his day, stating “this danger overrated: have been down twice since alone at night between 11 & 12 pm“. His conclusion most likely holds true today, the men quite possibly being Guy Fawkes Night revelers rather than locals.

At this juncture, having navigated all navigable parts of Duckworth’s walk, it followed to attempt to walk a ‘Beat’ of the remaining area bounded by Union Street to the North, Borough High Street to the East , Marshalsea Road to the South and Southwark Bridge Road to the East. The ‘Middle Class’ buildings along main thoroughfares had the greatest survival rate, while both sides of Red Cross Road were redeveloped post-War, with a builder’s yard and more Southwark Council Flats to the West of the Road.

On March 18th 1902 Duckworth produced an entry on Red Cross Place, at the junction of the Road and Union Street. Its most notable features were a “notorious women’s lodging house“, houses with “hardly a whole pane of glass in any window” and a stable “tenanted by one scarecrow horse … used as a dumping ground for house refuse … ‘stabling to let’ on notice“. Duckworth remarks that a woman “of the lowest type” makes no attempt to cover herself as she sits on a doorstep suckling a child. While all along Union Street many Victorian buildings survive, all three corners of Redcross Place are taken up by structures built since 1902. St Saviour’s House on the South East  corner engages in Autism Research. The Diocese Board of Education is at the opposite corner. Cross Bones Graveyard remains, though it was out of use after 1853, and exists today not as it was, but as a reconstructed heritage site.

This mere fraction of a small Parish alone warrants so much further study. It raises questions of slum clearance, of model housing, of employment and of crime. The aforementioned ‘demolition‘ forced many women to move to nearby lodging houses belonging to ‘Livy‘, including one on Whitecross Road, which was later renamed Ayres Road after Alice Ayres, honoured in Postman’s Park. This was an incidental discovery made in the process of determining the location of Whitecross Road, yet it is a path of inquiry in itself. Across the road from my subject area was the site of the St George the Martyr Workhouse. Equally, my attempt to retrace the exact walk highlighted what has been lost, as not a single building that would have been the conventional lodgings of the poor of this area has survived. My methodology served as inspiration for further study, but documentary sources still proved necessary for insight.


Booth Notebooks at the London School of Economics – B363

Cached History Pages of the Peabody Trust Website

Cross Bones Graveyard Website History Pages

Bomb Sight

Office for National Statistics Survey

1889 Booth Poverty Map at The University of Michigan

1898-9 Booth Poverty Maps on Phone Booth at the London School of Economics


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