Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Blackfriars Bridge was built in the late 1760s and the third bridge to be built over the River Thames in London. The Blackfriars Bridge Committee envisioned an approach road on the south side that would take the form of a wide, elegant street leading to the Dog and Duck Tavern on St George’s Fields (now the site of the Imperial War Museum). A “circle, area or place” was to be constructed where the new road crossed the turnpike road in St George’s Fields and named St George’s Circus. There was already some development around the southern foot of the new bridge but the new road and circus was largely built over the marshy land and tenter fields of Paris Garden and St George’s Fields.
Originally called Great Surrey Street, it became known as Blackfriars Road in 1829. It was lined with newly built large houses and more houses were built to form side streets on the surrounding fields. Houses for the middle classes were built on Stamford Street and Nelson Square who were attracted to the quiet and peace to be found after a day’s work in the City of London. For over 50 years the area was regarded as prosperous but the area industrialised, in particular with engineering and hatting factories. This led to increased smoke and pollution, and the area became more densely populated as more people moved into the area looking for work. The building of the railway increased the overcrowding and pollution but it also became possible for the wealthy to move further out to what was then the country and to commute daily to their place of work in the City. The vacated large houses were-divided and, with no shortage of tenants in an ever growing city, were sub-divided again, and new sub-standard housing built alongside them. The once prosperous area had deteriorated into an area of over-crowding and slum conditions.
Over a hundred years later, there is no sign of that today and there are many recently built blocks lining the road, some in the process of construction, and each seemingly vying with each other to be the most luxurious. Some late Victorian houses remain and are Grade II listed, but the industries celebrated in the 1960s by the stained glass windows in Christ Church have mostly disappeared. The Albion Flour Mills on the river's edge burned down in spectacular fashion in 1791 and other buildings and/or organisations, once familiar landmarks in Blackfriars Road which have now disappeared without trace include The Surrey Chapel that used to be on the site where Palestra House now stands, The Surrey Institution, the Working Men's College, The Temperance Hall and The Surrey Theatre. Most recently the building in Stamford Street that was the headquarters for Sainsbury's for over a hundred years has recently been demolished.
Some signs of Blackfriars Road's history still remain and, travelling southward from the bridge, here are a few.
The brightly painted iron insignia of the London Chatham and Dover Railway is a familiar landmark on the south east corner of Blackfriars Bridge. It dates from the opening in 1864 of Blackfriars Bridge Railway Station on the line from Kent that continued on to the newly built Farringdon Station.
The Mad Hatter’s Hotel in Stamford Street celebrates the historic industry of hat manufacture carried out for centuries in Southwark. By 1882 there were seven hat manufacturers in Stamford Street and one of these was Tress & Co, who had premises on the site where the hotel is located today and an extensive factory behind Blackfriars Road.
The current Christ Church dates back only to the 1960s but the first church to be built on the site was consecrated in 1671. The former graveyard was laid out as a public garden in 1900. Currently (2017) the church and garden are surrounded by the noise, pollution and disruption of major building works on adjacent sites.
Under the railway bridge in Blackfriars Road there is an entrance to a delicatessen set into a stone facade. On one side of the entrance chiselled into the stonework there is an inscription “CHARING CROSS RAILWAY” and on the other side is the inscription “BLACKFRIARS STATION”. It is though unconnected with today’s Blackfriars Station and marks the entrance to an earlier short-lived station on the newly built line from London Bridge to Charing Cross that opened in 1864.
“My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other.” (Charles Dickens) The model was on the corner of Blackfriars Road and Union Street and in March 2013, after a year of Dickens’ bicentennial celebrations, Southwark Council installed a replica of the model that Dickens saw at the same junction.
One of the most eye-catching buildings in Blackfriars Road, The Sons of Temperance Friendly Society building was given a Grade II listed status in 2013. Built in 1909, it was the headquarters for the Society which promoted an alcohol free way of life. Upon joining, members took a pledge to refrain from drinking alcohol and paid a subscription that ensured they received some financial help when unable to work due to ill-health and that their families received a lump sum in the event of death.
The Peabody Trust built Peabody Square in Blackfriars Road in 1871 on the former site of the Magdalen Hospital. Peabody did not, at that stage, build self contained flats, instead providing 1, 2 and 3 rooms flats with communal WCs and sinks for washing dishes on each floor. There were separate laundry buildings and baths were provided on the ground floor of each block. The estate has of course been modernised since then to meet today's needs.