Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
There is a distinctive house on the north side of the street which was built as offices for the John Marshall Charity in 1853. It is decorated with 24 small sculpted medieval-looking heads, one positioned on both sides of every window. The heads are in good condition so perhaps are made from Coade stone.
The headquarters of the Marshall Charity are now located in Marshall House, a building from the nineteen sixties on the other side of the road. It appears the old office building has now been acquired by Guy’s.
Elizabeth Newcomen, a widow without children, died in 1675. A member of the prominent Lant family, she owned property on the corner of Axe and Bottle Yard. Her will stipulated that any income should be paid to her nephew Thomas and then to his oldest son if he were to have one. After the son died, the income should be paid to the parish of St Saviour’s for the clothing, education and apprenticing of children within the Clink Liberty.” The money from the bequest became available for educational purposes in 1749 and St Saviour's vestry who administered the bequest sent boys and girls from the parish to St Saviour’s charity school paid for by Mrs Newcomen’s bequest. In 1752 this numbered six boys and six girls and by 1797 this number had increased to 26 boys and 11 girls. However, in 1840, the Newcomen Trustees had a disagreement with the Trustees of the Charity School and as a result, a new boys' school paid for out of the Newcomen Bequest was opened in Southwark Bridge Road. In 1864, the boys school moved to the Newcomen Girls’ School that had been opened in Newcomen Street in 1849.
Newcomen Street is a short, narrow street leading from Borough High Street into Snowsfields, linking The Borough and Bermondsey. Originally named Axe Yard, it is named after Elizabeth Newcomen, a prominent resident and benefactor of St Saviour’s of the 17th century who owned property within the yard. The street is also associated with John Marshall who also owned property in the yard which passed to the charity set up in his name.
The street developed from the yard attached to one of inns off Borough High Street named The Axe, later called the Axe and Bottle. Looking at a map dated 1775, it seems to have turned at a rightangle to the south which accords with John Strype’s description in 1720: “AXE and BOTTLE YARD leads into Long Lane; in the middle is a pretty Square with Trees before the Houses, which are well Built and Inhabited.”
John Marshall lived in Axe Yard until his death in 1631. He was a white baker (in those days there were white bakers and brown bakers: the latter made a more substantial and nutritious coarse, almost black, loaf of rye or barley or buckwheat). It seems the house he was living in was not quite finished as his will specified that the house be “finished and perfected.” His wife had died before him and they had no children so his estate, which included a large part of Axe Yard, was left to trustees for various charitable purposes specified in his will. Of these, £700 was to be spent on "one New Church for the worship of God, and a church-yard convenient for it in such a place as [the Trustees] in their discretion should think fit, but his desire was, that the same might be built in some part of St Saviour's parish." The will stated that the new church was to be called Christ Church and also provided for the maintenance of a minister for the church. Christ Church in the western part of St Saviour's parish was consecrated in 1671 and the John Marshall Charity still supports the church. Other grants are made towards the support of Church of England and for restoration and repairs to Anglican churches in Kent, Surrey and Lincolnshire. 4% of the net income is given to Marshall's Educational Foundation which makes grants to the Stamford Endowed Schools and to students who are resident in North Southwark and in need of financial assistance. Stamford was Marshall’s place of birth in Lincolnshire.
In 1736, William Sone, a speculative building, obtained a building lease for all the Newcomen property in the Yard, which was renewed in 1759 and the same year, he acquired a building lease for the Marshall property. He widened the road and extended it to Snowsfields, and built new houses along the street. The old Axe and Bottle Inn was demolished and a new hostelry built. Incorporated into the new tavern was a royal coat of arms, made from stone, that had been salvaged from the gateway at the southern end of London Bridge which had been destroyed by fire in 1725.
The tavern became known as the King’s Arms and the street renamed to become King Street. The inscription on the coat of arms describes them as being the arms of George III but they are in fact those of George II. Perhaps the inscription was “upgraded” and the date of 1760 added to mark George III’s ascension to the throne in that year. The coat of arms was transferred onto the current building when it was rebuilt in 1890.
The street changed its name again in 1879 to become Newcomen Street. By the late nineteen sixties the Newcomen Schools were run by the local education authority. Now called Newcomen’s Technical School and offering training in nursing, childcare and catering, few boys were attracted. By 1970 there were fewer than 100 pupils and the school was closed as local schools became comprehensive. An assessment centre for young children moved into the building which later moved into new premises on the Guy’s Hospital site. The school building was sold to Guy’s and provides accommodation for hospital staff. The Newcomen Charity merged with the Collett Charity in 1988 to form the Newcomen Collett Foundation and still supports the education of residents of the London Borough of Southwark who are under the age of 25.
Happily the name Axe and Bottle still lives on in Axe and Bottle Court, a yard-like court with planted tubs at the Borough High Street end of Newcomen Street and home to offices and studios. The Court is sign-posted in the old fashioned way used when most people were illiterate: a model of an axe and bottle has been mounted on the wall next to the entrance.