Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The layout of the inns on Borough High Street were similar consisting of a long courtyard approached from the road by a narrow entrance way under an arch. The ground floor level around the courtyard on three sides consisted mainly of stables where both visitors’ and carriers’ horses were fed, watered and rested. Often at ground level there were offices where carriers conducted their business, a tap room, sometimes a brewery or bakehouse. The first and second storeys above were often galleried or part galleried and were where the bedrooms were located. Guests at the inns were entertained by strolling players, wandering minstrels and acrobats whose activities were banned in the City. The inns often became temporary ‘playhouses’ by building a stage at the far end and it’s said the first theatres were modelled on inns and their surrounding galleries.
Dating back to medieval times, The George Inn is the only surviving galleried inn in London, its uniqueness and importance as a heritage asset reflected in its Grade I listing. It is still a fully operational pub and restaurant popular with residents, workers and tourists alike, and a reminder of the numerous inns there once were along Borough High Street.
London Bridge was the only crossing into the City of London until the mid 18th century so all visitors and carriers transporting goods from the South and South West of England into the City passed along Borough High Street, the approach road to the bridge. The inns offered accommodation and refreshment to those who preferred to spend a night outside the city walls after their journey and for those who had arrived after the gates to the bridge had closed for the night. The rooms offered in Borough High Street were said to be more spacious and less expensive than those in the city.
Fynes Moryson described the visitor’s arrival at an English inn at the beginning of the 17th century:
“As soon as he comes, servants run and take his horse, walking him up and down until he cools, rubbing him down and giving him his meat … Another servant shows the passenger his private chamber, kindles the fire and pulls off his boots. … If he will eat in his chamber his meal will be according to his appetite, and be as much as he wants; indeed, the kitchen is open to him, that the meat may be dressed to his liking, and he may, if he pleases, have what is left for breakfast. The host or hostess will give him their company, and will take it as a favour if asked to sit down.”
The inns of Borough High Street often changed ownership, and sometimes names, but in general there is a continuity in establishments throughout the years. Stow, writes at the end of the sixteenth century that there were, between Marshalsea Prison [this was just north of St George the Martyr Church] and London Bridge “many fair inns for receipt of travellers by these signs: the Spurre, Christopher, Bull, Queen’s Head, Tabard, George, Hart, King’s Head, etc.” Over 200 years later, the New Guide to Stage-coaches lists the inns in Borough High Street as the Nag’s Head, Spur, Queen's Head, Talbot, George, White Hart, King’s Head, Ship and Catherine Wheel, some of which are still commemorated in street name signs.
The George Inn was originally called the St George but lost its saintly prefix at the time of the reformation. It burnt down in the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676 but was quickly rebuilt and reopened the following year. In 1720 it was described as large with considerable trade and in 1825 was reported as a “good commercial inn in the Borough High Street, well known whence several coaches and many wagons depart laden with the merchandise of the metropolis in return for which they bring back from various parts of Kent, that staple article of the country, the hop, to which we are indebted for the good quality of the London Porter.” (See the Hop Exchange)
But the glory days of the Borough High Street inns were numbered with the coming of the railway and the opening of London Bridge Station just a short walk away in December 1836. It destroyed the inn-keeping trade as visitors did not require overnight accommodation as they were now able to undertake a return trip to London in a day. Goods as well were now transported by train. Inn buildings became dilapidated and sometimes tenements were built in the yards and sometimes, as a shadow of their former selves, they became offices for the railways where tickets were booked and goods left and parcels collected. The George was sold to Guys Hospital then to the Great Northern Railway company and by the end of the 19th century was used as a receiving house where 100 tons of goods were weighed every day.
With the passing of the inns, a whole way of life that had existed for centuries disappeared. Writing in 1888 William Rendle describes the gallery at the George:
“That which still exists is often made pretty in summer with flowers … the parts of the inn not devoted to important business are mostly occupied by people who frequent the very bustling Borough Market close at hand. But alas, like the rest, the glory of this inn is departing! it’s fate is sealed, it will soon be pulled down altogether.”
Happily he was not totally correct, and the partially galleried building on the south side of the courtyard survives. The National Trust purchased it in 1937 and it remains protected, the last of the Borough High Street inns and the last galleried inn in London. Take a walk along Borough High Street today and the inns are still commemorated in the names of the yards and alleys, reminders of the inns that have long since disappeared.