Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
St Thomas a Watering is one of the most historic sites in Southwark but with nothing to commemorate it, it is very easy to remain unaware of its significance. “Landmarks are rapidly obliterated so near London, and it would be difficult now in passing along the crowded street to form even the slightest conception of what it was like when the Canterbury Pilgrims rode out of Southwark.” This was written in 1902 and if it was true then, what greater relevance those words have today!
St Thomas a Watering was located in the vicinity where Albany Road meets Old Kent Road where a stream crossed the road. Some sources say there was a ford there, others that the road crossed the stream over a bridge. Pilgrims, travelling from St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) to visit the of shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral made their first stop there to water their horses and to take refreshment at a nearby tavern. It was where the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th Century, “drew cuts” to decide who would be the first to tell their story.
It represented the southern boundary of the parish of St George the Martyr and as such also represented the extent of where the City of London held jurisdiction in Surrey. Once a year, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London rode in procession, all wearing scarlet gowns, over London Bridge to open Southwark Fair and to inspect the City’s boundaries at St Thomas a Watering. There is a plaque from a later date inlaid into the nearby former fire station that marks the City’s boundary.
But while St Thomas a Watering had both pious and political connections, it also has more grisly connections as it became a place of execution for the northern parts of Surrey including those who had been imprisoned at Marshalsea Prison whilst awaiting execution. At the end of the 15th century, Ralph Wilford was hung there for impersonating the Earl of Warwick and a century later John Penry was executed there for uttering seditious words. In 1539, the Vicar of Wandsworth together with his chaplain, servant and another friar were executed there probably for denying Henry VIII’s supremacy. Cutpurses, robbers and murderers all met their end here until about 1740 when a father and son guilty of murder were the last men to be hanged.
It’s hard to discover when a tavern named after Thomas a Becket first appeared near the site but by at least 1867 it was established as one of the many pubs on Old Kent Road. In that year the premises were offered for sale, described in the advert as of “a noble appearance, their pleasing architectural design forms a leading feature of the Old Kent Road, the same good taste and judgement have been displayed in the arrangement and elaboration of the business departments, therefore to state that the returns in trade are large, profitable and of high character is simply a repetition of a well-known fact.”
The pub was rebuilt in 1898 “on a large scale” by proprietor George W Duck. He lay the foundation stone for the new building in May 1898 and a plaque marking the event, together with the names of the architect and builders, remains on the corner of the building.
The pubs along Old Kent Road gained a reputation for entertainment which peaked probably at the time the Thomas a Becket was rebuilt. It’s said pubs suffered a decline in the first half of the 20th century but revived during the 1960s. Tommy Gibbons took over the pub in 1960 and provided entertainment every night in keeping with the times with pop groups and more middle of the road crooners. There was a rehearsal room upstairs which David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars used in 1972. Tommy Gibbons was a former boxer and most famously he also opened a gym upstairs where Henry Cooper trained. It was also used by Americans Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard when visiting London.
Again the pub declined and Southwark Council revoked its license in 2015. The building was sold and is now (2018) a restaurant called Rock Island Bar and Grill. The building still bears the letters THOMAS A BECKET on the front elevation at first floor level and there is also a blue plaque that celebrates Sir Henry Cooper. With all the plans for the regeneration of the Old Kent Road, perhaps it would be a good time to mark the heritage of Thomas a Watering with an appropriate marker – a sculpture maybe?