Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Union Street is one of the most interesting streets historically in Southwark and runs through the heart of The Borough from east to west, from Borough High Street to Blackfriars Road. Created from narrow streets dating from the 18th and early nineteenth century, there are many early Victorian houses and shops that remain at the eastern end and factories and warehouses from the end of the 19th century at the western end.
The section of the street that runs from Borough High Street to Red Cross Way had partly long been a pedestrian footpath. It became a formal road by Act of Parliament in 1781 which necessitated the pulling down of the Greyhound Inn that faced onto Borough High Street. The new road continued into Queen Street, then into Duke Street, and then into Charlotte Street leading to Blackfriars Road. Queen Street and Duke Street were renamed in 1813 to be incorporated into Union Street, similarly Charlotte Street in 1908. Southwark Bridge Road was built in 1819 which cut across Union Street and at the same time a triangular open space was created on the eastern side of the junction called Flat Iron Square.
Like today, the street was home to many small businesses in the 19th century, from domestic shops through tradesmen to manufacturers, many during the first part of the 19th century connected to the hatting industry. Other businesses listed in the 1841 Kelly’s Directory include a stay and corset maker, a childbed linen warehouse, two chair makers, a gossamer hat maker, a whip maker and five boot makers. By the beginning of the 20th century, larger industrial premises had been built at the western end of the street housing businesses including engineering, paper manufacturing, stable fittings manufacturers, printers and ironfounders. (Post Office Directory of 1910). Union Street also boasted seven coffee rooms in that year.
Union Street was where Gwilt & Sons, Architects, had their offices, that is George Gwilt the Elder and his sons George Gwilt the Young and Joseph. George the Elder was the architect/surveyor for the County of Surrey, designed Horsemonger Gaol and worked for Henry Thrale at the Anchor Brewery. George the Younger was responsible for the restoration of St Saviour’s Church in the early 19th century.
The Charing Cross extension from London Bridge was built in the 1860s and cut across gardens and yards on the north side of Union Street. It has been a continuing presence ever since, forever glimpsed through side streets, and for the first hundred years, belching out soot and pollution.
There’s a lot to see in Union Street of historic interest and the following is just a brief guide, starting at the Borough High Street End.
Just a few steps in on the right hand side is the Marlborough Sports Garden, an open space that provides pitches for a variety of sports including table-tennis, beach volleyball, netball and football, for children and adults. A refurbishment has just been completed by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust, who also manage the space, with a grand opening by Tom Daley.
Nearly 100 years old, it is named after the Duchess of Marlborough who was (briefly) a London County Councillor for North Southwark. She was responsible for the creation of the garden by ensuring that surplus land from the redevelopment of an insanitary area should be used for recreation and contributed £1,000 towards the purchase of the land and a further £500 towards the laying out.
Next door to the Sports Garden stands Union Hall, mostly a modern building built behind the facade of the original Union Hall built in 1782. This was built for the conduct of business by the Surrey magistrates court. Upon the founding of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, a police office was situated there also until both court and police moved into new premises on opposite sides of the road in Blackman Street in 1845. Afterwards, Union Hall was let commercially. In 1851 the ground floor was let to Pickfords, the railway carriers, and the upper floors to Smith & Co, cap manufacturers, and used as their warehouse. In December of that year, a serious fire broke out causing great damage to the building, there were reports that the upper floors were destroyed along with three quarters of the roof. However, refurbishment works must have been undertaken as both Pickfords and Smith & Co were trading from there a few years later.
Major refurbishment works including demolition and new build were carried out in the early 21st century – currently working behind the 18th century facade is a software company.
Walking a short way along the road brings you to a crossroads with Redcross Way. On the south east corner is St Saviour’s House, offices for the United St Saviours Charities. Dating back to the formation of the parish of St Saviour’s in 1541, it administers the often complex bequests, legacies and lands that have been left to the parish since the 16th century and include the ownership of the freehold of real estate in the local area and worth a great deal. More information can be found here. A foundation stone is embedded in the wall of the building facing Redcross Way, laid by Lady Llangattock in July 1911.
On the north eastern corner of the crossroads is the Crossbones Memorial Garden which opened as the result of a long community campaign in 2016. A former paupers’ graveyard that closed in the 1850s, it is thought to be the site of the unconsecrated burial ground referred to by Stow where the “Winchester Geese”, that is the women of the "stews", (prostitutes) were buried. The Garden is managed by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust.
On the north western corner is the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education’s headquarters. Built in 1908, it originally housed the Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overie. which had previously stood on the opposite corner on the site of the Crossbones Graveyard but was condemned by the London County Council as being unfit for the purpose of elementary education in 1905 . The school moved to its current home in Redcross Way in 1977.
On the south western corner of the crossroads, is an attractive Edwardian building known locally as The Ragged School. It bears the inscribed plaque “The Mint and Lighthouse Gospel Mission: Shaftesbury Society”. What is now one building started life as two buildings, the one next to Redcross Way was built as premises for the St Mary’s Girls' Club and the one next door was built for the work of the Gospel Lighthouse Mission. Today the building is residential.
The houses and shop fronts at 57-61 Union Street are Grade II listed and date back to the early nineteenth century though the shopfronts have undergone restoration work. In 1820 the site was leased from the Bishop of Winchester to Arthur Pott of Potts’ Vinegar who in turn leased them to John Alllsop who was already in occupation of an older building behind the houses. Allsop & Co were turners and brushmakers who were in occupation until 1880. Joseph Watson & Co, yeast manufacturers, took over the premises in 1882 and were still in occupation in 1950. R K Burt, specialist paper importers and wholesalers, trade from the premises today and have created a gallery on the ground floor where degree level art students can exhibit their work.
Continuing west we come to Flat Iron Square, a recently created “foodie hub” bordered by Union Street, O’Meara Street, Southwark Street and Southwark Park Road. This has developed from the original Flat Iron Square, a smaller triangle of land to the south, created when Southwark Bridge Road was built in 1819. So what is called a square used to be in fact a triangle, probably informally at first, named after its resemblance to the shape of a flat iron.
The space was changed dramatically when the railway extension from London Bridge to Charing Cross was built in the early 1860s and a brick railway viaduct built which overshadowed it to the north before crossing over Southwark Bridge Road. Now the tunnels under the viaduct have been converted into a variety of food outlets.
The Ordnance Survey map of 1872 shows there to have been a drinking fountain and a tree, possibly one of the two huge plane trees that remain today. By the end of the 19th century at least, it had became an outdoor public meeting place. There are newspaper reports that record evening “lantern lectures” were held there as well as electioneering and other political meetings. In 1908 it was an assembly point for both employers and employees of the hop trade at the beginning of a march to Trafalgar Square to protest against Government policy that was leading to a decline in the trade. In 1915, a suffragist meeting was held there where “the members turned up well, distributed bills and kept small boys in order.”
A public toilet was built facing onto Southwark Bridge Road between World War I and II which a few years ago was converted into a most un-public toilet looking restaurant though the red tile roof may be a bit of a giveaway.
Crossing over Southwark Bridge Road into a short pedestrianised continuation of Union Street, the building on the southern corner is the former St Saviour’s Library. Described as being in the “English Renaissance” style, it opened in 1894 and closed in 1987 when the John Harvard Library in Borough High Street opened in 1987.
The building on the corner of Pepper Street and Union Street has been the headquarters for the London Fire Brigade since 2007. Before this, it was a Post Office / Royal Mail sorting office.
A little further west, behind a high brick wall, is Jerwood Space an arts centre that includes rehearsal studios and a gallery for emerging artists. The building is an amalgam of Victorian red brickwork and late 20th century design and construction that includes a glass roof extension.
The building started life in 1874 as Orange Street School. (Copperfield Street running behind parallel to Union Street used to be called Orange Street). It was one of the first London Board Schools, one of several built in the area to meet the needs of the local population. An area of tiny, overcrowded houses in courts and cramped, small streets had been compulsorily purchased and demolished to provide a site for the school.
As the population of North Southwark declined over the next 100 years, the school building was used for many education incarnations, the last being an adult education centre which closed in 1996. The building was put up for sale and purchased by the Jerwood Foundation and, funded by a Lottery Grant, converted the building to the current use.
On the opposite side of the road to Jerwood Space is a small block of late Victorian model dwellings. These were built by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who had found themselves the subject of a scandal as it emerged they were the landlords of squalid and overcrowded slums in The Borough. This situation had arisen not through inaction and neglect on the part of the Church but because many of the properties had been built on land the church had let to private developers on long leases.
As the leases ended, the land and dwellings reverted to the Church who inadvertently found themselves owners of a great deal of property in appalling condition in the poorest parts of London. Clearly the Church could not be slum landlords and the problem had to be resolved. Building these model dwellings for the poor working class was one way they hoped to redress the situation they had found themselves in. Today, many of these apartments are owned privately.
Overlooking Jerwood Space is an eye catching ghost sign “James Ashby & Sons / Embassy Tea and Coffee”. James Ashby & Sons only moved into the building in the 1960s and the building dates to at least the 1880s. The first occupiers were probably Hayward Brothers, Engineers, succeeded by R E Jones, a catering company. For a history of these companies, and an illuminating analysis and reading of the lettering left behind on the building by these companies,visit this website.
182 Union Street on the corner of Great Suffolk Street was built at the very beginning of the 20th century, a factory for Spicer Bros, manufacturers of stationery items. They remained there until 1955 when they moved all production to their factory at Sawston in Cambridge. Today, the former factory is known as Union House and has multiple tenants.
Image from Southwark Collections
There is now an unremarkable building on the opposite side of Great Suffolk Street dating from the latter part of the 20th century, but before this was built it was the site of almshouses built by Mrs Vaughan’s Charity in the 1860s. The building was converted into flats in 1907 and the residents moved to new accommodation in Ashford, Kent.
Moving on to the junction of Union Street and Blackfriars Road, we come to Palestra House, a square glass building broken up by small yellow squares squares and a top heavy roof. It was designed by Allsop Architects and completed in 2006. Originally it was offices for the London Development Agency until that organisation was wound up when Transport for London moved in.
Image from the British Library website
Palestra House was built on the site of the Surrey Chapel, an independent Methodist and Congregational Church established by the energetic and charismatic preacher Rev. Rowland Hill in 1783. It was unusually a round building, built in that manner, according to Rev. Hill, so that the devil did not have any corners to hide in. Rev. Hill died in 1833 and was buried under the Chapel’s pulpit at his request. His work continued at the Surrey Chapel and other associated premises connected with the Chapel’s work until 1876 when the congregation moved to a new group of buildings on the corner of Kennington Road and Westminster Bridge Road. The buildings were largely destroyed in World War II though the Lincoln Memorial Tower survives.
After the Surrey Chapel building in Blackfriars was vacated by the Church, it was used for commercial purposes with major refurbishment works carried out in 1881. It became a boxing arena - The Ring - in 1910. The building was destroyed during World War II but The Ring still lives on as a boxing club and training facility in nearby Ewer Street and as a pub on the corner diagonally opposite in Blackfriars Road. Some time in the 1960s, Orbit House was built on the site, a library which housed the India Office Collection until it moved into the new British Library at St Pancras which opened in 1998. Orbit House was demolished to make was for Palestra House.
And last but not least, guarding the entrance on the right hand side to Union Street from Blackfriars Road, is a wooden sculpture of a dog feeding out of a pot. This was installed in 2013 to mark Charles Dickens’ bicentennial the previous year. It was copied from a metal figure of a dog and pot over a hardware shop that Dickens passed every day as he walked from his lodgings in Lant Street to a blacking factory where he worked in Charing Cross.
Dickens must have known Union Street very well and it’s likely he took in at least part of Union Street on his daily walk to work. This was in 1824 and Union Street was very different then. Only a few of the houses he’d have passed by survive today which can only give us a flavour of the Union Street Dickens knew.
The site the Spicer factory was built on was the scene of a great tragedy. On the corner of Gravel Lane (Great Suffolk Street) and Union Street stood an oil and paint shop with living accommodation above, owned by Henry Chandler who lived there with his wife Mary Ann, his four children and Alice Ayres, Mary Ann’s sister who helped out with domestic chores and the children. In April 1885, a terrible fire broke out, fuelled by the materials in the shop. Alice threw a mattress out of the window onto the street below and one by one lowered her three nieces, Edith, Ellen and Elizabeth, onto the street with the mattress breaking their fall. She then jumped out of the window herself. Edith and Ellen survived the ordeal, Elizabeth died as a result of injuries, and sadly so did Alice herself 24 hours later from injuries incurred from striking an obstacle on her way down onto the mattress. Henry, Mary Ann and their son Harry also died in the blaze.
Alice’s heroism aroused the huge public sympathy, and her funeral procession and a memorial service held at Southwark Cathedral attracted thousands. A plaque commemorating her sacrifice was amongst the first to be installed at the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park. In 1936, Whitecross Street, a road leading off the eastern stretch of Union Street, parallel to Redcross Street, was renamed Ayres Street in commemoration. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Ayres