Southwark isn’t just any old borough, if you please; Southwark is the Borough.

War memorial,
Borough High Street

Once upon a time, when London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames, Southwark and the City of London faced each other across it. On the north side, the City of London was inside the county of Middlesex, but being a city, was independent of it, and so it was called The City. Likewise on the south side, the borough of Southwark was inside the county of Surrey, but as a borough, was independent of that, so Southwark was known as The Borough. And indeed, it’s still called the Borough (or just Borough, if you’re being lazy) to the present day.

Roman London, with Southwark bottom left,
on a reconstuction from the Museum of London,
photo by Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

That’s why Southwark’s high street is called Borough High Street, its market is called Borough Market, and its tube station – the one that isn’t called London Bridge or Southwark – is Borough station. The name “Southwark” originally meant “south work”, referring to the defensive works on the south side of London Bridge. Already a suburb of Londinium in Roman times, Southwark was beefed up under Alfred the Great, who incorporated it into a system of defensive burhs (fortified towns), as an Anglo-Saxon list of them makes clear.

The Elephant & Castle pub around 1914 (this
building, from 1898, was bombed out in WW2)

The old Roman road called Stane Street ran south from London Bridge down Borough High Street and Newington Butts to the Elephant and Castle, where it met Watling Street. Stane Street then continued down Kennington Park Road, following the Northern Line through Clapham, Balham and Tooting, and out of town towards Chichester, while Watling Street followed the Old Kent Road to New Cross and then the A2 down to Dover. The Elephant and Castle itself of course was the pub from which the road junction takes its name. Its sign, and thus name, was originally the symbol of a craft guild; the story that it’s a corruption of “Infanta of Castile” is a myth.

Cathedral & Shard
(photo by Victor Keegan)

Southwark Cathedral dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. According to legend it was founded as a nunnery in the seventh century by a woman who ran a ferry across the Thames (presumably not right here, where there was of course a bridge). In 1106 it became a priory, which is to say, the headquarters for a type of priest called a canon, in this case from the Augustinian order. In the Reformation, when Henry VIII closed the monasteries (and priories along with them), it reverted to being a common-or-garden (if large) parish church, but was promoted to the rank of cathedral in 1905. Sadly, the cathedral’s cat, whose name was Doorkins Magnificat, passed away in 2020; a thanksgiving service was held for her, and she is buried in the churchyard. 

The Globe Theatre around 1640

By the thirteenth century, a lot of the land in Southwark was the property of the bishops of Winchester. The bishops had a palace on Clink Street, whose remains can still be seen today. Parts of Southwark under the bishop’s jurisdiction were then a “liberty”, which largely meant a place to take them. Things that you couldn’t do in the City of London were quite legal in Southwark. When the City banned plays, the Rose and Globe theatres opened in Southwark. Bear baiting and cock fighting were popular spectator sports, and while the feathers were flying, the punters could have a bit of a flutter too.

Remains of Winchester
Palace (by Mx. Granger)

As for prostitution, sex workers were free to ply their trade in the bishop’s manor, so long as they paid him a cut in the form of tax. They were therefore known as “Winchester geese” (“geese” possibly because of the way they pestered potential punters), and being “bitten by a Winchester goose” meant catching gonorrhea or syphilis, which were no joke in a time before antibiotics, and obviously, if they were a danger to the punters, they were even more so to the sex workers themselves. Syphilis is also the reason why Surrey Docks (for its rhyming slang meaning) was “rebranded” as “Surrey Quays”, no doubt by a bunch of merchant bankers.

Ribbons on Cross Bones cemetery gate to re-
member those buried there (photo Rob Mitchell)

The “geese” got their own cemetery, called the Cross Bones, which then became a burial ground for local poor people in general, and only closed in 1853. Thanks to the efforts of local residents, it is now a garden of remembrance. Meanwhile, for those who failed to pay their dues, the bishops had their own prison, called the Clink (no doubt from the sound of its doors closing), and the name became slang for prison in general. The Clink is now a museum.

Doorkins Magnificat
(photo by Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0)

Southwark, then, was London’s oldest borough. It’s still there of course, but in 1900, when the London County Council was formed, the ancient borough was split to form the two metropolitan boroughs of Southwark and Bermondsey. The two halves were only reunited in 1965, when they were joined by Camberwell to become the London Borough of Southwark that we know today.