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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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St George's Circus

Blackfriars Bridge was built in the late 1760s, the third bridge built over the River Thames. The Blackfriars Bridge Committee had the vision of an approach road on the south side that would take the form of a wide, elegant street that led 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 a toll-gate installed. There was already some development at the northern end of the new road but the new road and circus was largely built over the marshy land and tenter fields of Paris Garden and St George’s Fields.

 

Blackfriars Road (called Great Surrey Street until 1829) and St George’s Circus were not built in isolation, they were a part of an exercise in Georgian town planning which, despite 21st century congestion, still works surprisingly well today over 250 years later. St George’s Circus is a busy  meeting point where six roads converge that link Kent and Borough High Street to Westminster Bridge, that link Blackfriars Bridge to Newington Butts and Lambeth, and Waterloo Bridge, opened later in 1817, to all these places.

St George's Circus BM pre 1805 obelisk (2) St George's Circus 2 St George's Circus BM blind school

To mark this new grand road junction, an obelisk was constructed in the centre of St George’s Circus.  Made from Portland stone there were protests that it would obstruct the traffic but these were overcome with the promise that four oil lamps to light the road would be mounted on the new structure.  It was completed in 1771 and surrounded by railings with four decommissioned guns installed as posts to protect it from traffic.  It bears the following inscriptions:

 

The north face: ERECTED IN XIth Year OF THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE  THE THIRD MDCCLXXI / THE RIGHT HONOURABLE BRASS CROSBY ESQUIRE LORD MAYOR

 

The south face: ONE MILE CCCL FEET FROM LEET STREET

(inscribed above the City of London coat of arms)

 

The east face: ONE MILE FROM PALACE YARD WESTMINSTER HALL

 

The west face: ONE MILE XXXX FEET FROM LONDON BRIDGE

A late 18th century drawing of St George's Circus showing the Obelisk, turnpike and the The Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy

The Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy opened in 1782 hoping to echo the success of Astley’s Circus in Westminster Bridge Road.  Under the management of Charles Dibdin, it put on not just spectacular performances by horses and their riders but was the first venue where dogs performed.  This first building was destroyed by fire in August 1805 but quickly rebuilt and reopened the following Easter.  The lease was taken over a few years later by Robert Elliston who renamed the venue The Surrey Theatre and  introduced melodramas and plays by Shakespeare. Tom Dibdin took over in 1816 when the theatre was extensively refurbished and the arena where once equestrian feats had been performed and the stables themselves now became accommodation for the audience.  The theatre burned down again in 1865 but reopened a year later and, though the theatre had mixed fortunes under different managers, it survived until the early 20th century.  It became a cinema in 1920 but closed four years later and the building became derelict. It was eventually bought in 1934 by its near neighbour the Royal Ophthalmic Hospital who demolished the theatre to extend their own building.

The School for Indigent Blind after renovations had been carried out in the 1830s.  Bethlem Hospital, now the Imperial War Museum, is seen in the background.

The School for Indigent Blind was founded in 1799 initially using rented rooms at the Dog and Duck as classrooms.  It admitted pupils over 12 years old and under 30 and soon there were 35 male and 17 female pupils who were fed, lodged, clothed and instructed by the school.   The head lease of the Dog and Duck was due to expire and, as the Corporation of London was in the process of arranging a lease of the land as new premises for Bethlem Hospital, the school took a lease for two acres at St George’s Circus.  By 1833 the school taught 55 males and 57 females and the buildings were enlarged and remodeled.  The aim of the school was to instruct the blind in an occupation that enabled them to provide wholly or partially for themselves within the framework of their own family.  The girls were taught needlework, knitting stockings, spinning, making household and body linen, fine basket making and working bags, purses and watch pockets.  The boys and men made wicker baskets, cradles, hampers, rope door mats and worsted rugs, and all the shoes for the pupils.  Instruction in piano, organ and violin was also given with a view to students giving paid recitals, and once a year a concert of sacred music was held to raise funds.  The school survived partly on donations and partly by sale of the students’ work.  The school was very successful and by 1867 accommodated 220 pupils. In 1901 the site of the school was compulsorily purchased for the Bakerloo line and the school moved to Leatherhead.

St George’s Circus in 1930 showing the corner of Blackfriars Road and Waterloo Road - see the No. 68 bus!  To the left is the Royal Eye Hospital and the extreme right is The Surrey Theatre a few years before its demolition.  

 

At the centre of the picture shown above is a clock tower, erected to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  This fussy, overblown late Victorian structure replaced the simple Georgian elegance of the Obelisk which was moved a short distance to outside the Imperial War Museum.  Fortunately, the clock tower was taken down in the early 1930s as there had been many complaints it obstructed the traffic flow but it was not until the late 1990s that the obelisk was returned to its original home.  It is now Grade II* listed.

 

The Royal Eye Hospital shown above was built in 1892 but the origins of the hospital went back to the middle of the 19th century.  Not to be confused with Moorfields Eye Hospital, it opened in 1857 with just two beds in a house in St George’s Circus.  Founded by John Zachariah Laurence and assisted by Carsten Holt, it was originally called the South London Ophthalmic Hospital which became the Surrey Ophthalmic Hospital when its premises were enlarged in 1860 by acquiring the adjoining house.  The name changed again a couple of times until the new larger hospital was built in 1892 when it became known as the Royal Eye Hospital. Looking at ordnance survey maps, the new hospital was built on a large adjacent site which subsumed the houses that had formed the original hospital.

 

The in-patient department closed after heavy bombing in May 1941 which reopened in March of the following year in a house acquired in Surbiton which started a small out-patients department in 1943.  Out-patients continued to be seen at the hospital in St George’s Circus and was able to provide in-patient facilities again in December 1944 when 28 beds were re-opened and further beds were made available at Lambeth Hospital.

 

The hospital became a part of the National Health Service in 1948 and ultimately ended up as a part of St Thomas’ Health District in 1974.  After the Royal Eye Hospital Ward opened at St Thomas’ Hospital two years later, the St George’s Circus hospital no longer admitted in-patients though out-patients were seen until 1980. The empty hospital was used as offices for the local Health Authority for a while but gradually fell into disuse and the building became derelict.  In time it was demolished and the site on the corner of Waterloo Road and Blackfriars Road acquired by London South Bank University who built a hall of residence for students, McClaren House, which opened in 1996.

McClaren House is just one modern building to dominate St George’s Circus and a further huge development, Blackfriars Circus, is currently (2017) being constructed on the corner of Blackfriars Road and Borough Road.  On the corner of London Road and Lambeth Road stands a run down building that houses the depot for the Bakerloo Line built in 1901.

In 1812, an Act of Parliament required that all new buildings around the circus were to have concave front elevations and ensure there was a minimum diameter of 240ft across the circus.  A row of 17 houses that centre around the former Duke of Clarence pub that has the requisite convex front, built around 1820, is all that survives from the 19th century.  By the end of the 20th century, the condition of this row of houses had declined and had been acquired by London South Bank University.  They considered several proposals, including their demolition to make way for a new build. The community and the Georgian Society were opposed to this which led to the Grade II listing of the terrace and their being put on the Buildings at Risk Register. Though work was carried out to stabilise the buildings, plans for buildings’ future did not finalise until 2012 when it was announced they would form a new centre for Enterprise and Innovation to be called the Clarence Centre.  The project completed in 2014 and, after years of hiding behind scaffolding and a hoarding that depicted the houses’ facades, the refurbished houses are now in use, a welcome reminder of the history of St George’s Circus.