South London has arrived at an interesting place in its timeline.
Once, its fortunes were entirely dependent on activity ‘over the water’. Now, it blossoms in its own light. It’s been a slum, it’s been a resort. It’s been a neglected, demeaned and degraded annex of a great city. It is arguably only now, in the 21st century, that it has become a playground for South Londoners, a place with its own purpose and identity. Sure, many from the north don’t get it, but such is South London’s confidence that you can just smile when they look down on you, as if they’ve just said: ‘I only drink lager.’
If, by some terrible plague, or quinoa blight, North London was wiped out, London would still be the biggest city in the UK, roughly as populous as Madrid, but with more pubs.
But how did we get here, we denizens of the bejewelled boroughs? Books on the transpontine are few. There are tons on London, with a tiny bit on South London at the back, cobbled together from the half-remembered ramblings of a cousin who went there once, by mistake. We found two books entitled South London: Walter Besant’s from 1912 and Harry Williams’ from 1949. Both were helpful reminders that this isn’t the first time the sun had shone below the river.
While Stone Age fams had thousands of years of flint-based fun around the Thames, it took the Romans to get the party started, creating Londinium, plus a bridge to the Promised Land of South Londinium.
Southwark grew to become an important place in Roman Britain, populated with villas for wealthy Romans, inns for travelling merchants and homes for fisherfolk.
When Londinium was established around the year 50, the bridge and ferries to The Borough connected it to Dover and beyond, making Southwark’s settlement inevitable. A decade later it was big enough for Boudicca to burn it to the ground, in revenge for Roman cruelty, once she’d finished torching Londinium.
After the Romans rallied and defeated the Britons, London and Southwark were rebuilt. Their only threats then were from Roman usurpers, would-be Caesars, who would take over for a while and declare British independence, until they too were killed by one of their mates, a bit like the Mafia.
The following dispute took place between the Roman general Asclepiodotus and the Roman-Britannic usurper-emperor, Allectus, around 296.
‘Allectus ego dedi vobis ut negare non possis,’ said the general, determined to take Londinium back for Rome.
‘Fuckin’ fuck you, you fuckin’ fat fuck,’ came the reply, leading to the Battle of Clapham Common at which Allectus was killed and his army massacred. South London, beyond Southwark, had arrived in history.
Londinium and its sister to the south prospered again, but only the city got a wall to defend it from invaders. Everyone was welcome in Southwark, unless they had giant axes, in which case the early South Londoners would hop it over the bridge and hide behind the wall.
The Saxons lay in wait in their ‘-tons’ – Brixton, Charlton, Kennington – for the Roman decline and the eventual fall of London, and consequently Southwark. The rest of what became South London was largely made up of farmland, hamlets and chicken shops.
Londinium became cut off from Rome as Barbarians (Visigoths, Goths and possibly emos) overran Gaul. London was largely abandoned by the end of the fifth century. Saxons, being country folk, were suspicious of cities, like latter day Brexiters, harking back to the days when man and goat could lie together without interference from Brussels.
It wasn’t until King Alfred The Great came along to restore the Roman City around 886 that Southwark revived. It became a defence for the south of the city and a place of governance for Surrey, which sounds like too much paperwork to be much fun.
The Vikings spiced things up with several invasions, holing up in Greenwich on occasion before attacking the city. London was besieged six times in 20 years without success, giving its people a reputation for being a bit tasty. Eventually, after Alfred’s death, Cnut was victorious, even if he couldn’t spell.
Peace and prosperity returned under the wise old Dane, but it was short-lived. The Normans marched on London after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William found the bridge to the city shut and burned Southwark to the ground in a big hissy fit. The kids think they’ve got it bad now, but after 500 years of being fucked up by kings and tribes, getting a mortgage must have been a nightmare.
South London got off to a bad start with William The Conqueror, but after setting light to it, he decided he quite liked it. The Normans brought a lot of God with them and began tearing down the rubbish Saxon buildings and putting up monasteries and churches. They commissioned the Domesday Book which revealed, for instance, that Bermondsey was considered heavily populated with 72 households. Battersea had around the same number, Greenwich 34, Charlton was thought of as medium-sized with 15 and Peckham small with four.
Most of what would become South London was bucolic countryside apart from the riverside, which was developing a character of its own. Palaces were built at Lambeth, Greenwich, Southwark (Winchester Palace), Eltham and Kennington. Henry II is thought to have held the first Parliament in Bermondsey Abbey, prior to Westminster, as England became subject to Law for the first time.
The peasants are revolting
With the country exhausted from the Black Death (1348) and years of war, revolution fomented as ordinary people began to speak out against their rulers. John Ball inspired the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt with a radical speech on Blackheath, from where Wat Tyler led his mob to march on London. Tyler demanded an end to the flat-rate poll tax that hit the poor harder than the wealthy, inspired by Ball’s belief that all men should be treated equally, the nutter.
After some Palace-trashing and book-burning, Tyler got as far as meeting King Richard II to press his demands.
‘What is your fucking name, peasant?’
‘That’s correct, your highness.’
‘Oh, fuck my majestic life. Chop off his sodding head!’
And with that, the revolt was ended.
The people of Southwark broadly supported York in the War of the Roses, but when Henry VII emerged victorious, they collectively shrugged and said: ‘OK, we’ll support you, then.’
Southwark was a dangerous place after dark, full of violence, robbery and bogey flicking. Capitalism had kicked off. Inequality deepened. But then was born one of the most formidable South Londoners that ever lived, Henry VIII, brought into the world at Greenwich Palace in 1491. A ruthless, fearless, visionary radical, he would change the face of England, wresting independence from Rome, though more for his libido than his country. Aside from the dissolution of the monasteries, he created our navy, opening dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich that would propel England to the status of a global power. We’ve paraded around Europe like Bertie Big Bollocks ever since.
‘From Henry until the end of the Golden Age, South London forgot its servitude, its poor relationship, and became a partner in the fame of a great city,’ writes Harry Williams.
Greenwich was Henry’s favourite palace, though he also enjoyed Hampton Court and Eltham. The seat of power had slid south; and given the size of Henry’s Aris, it had to be a sturdy one.
Elizabeth I, also born in Greenwich, overcame Dad chopping off Mum’s head, being declared illegitimate and being the wrong gender for Henry’s satisfaction, to become one of most admired rulers we’ve ever had. She liked to party and flirt but stay single. Liz was a player.
Her accession to the throne heralded Britannia’s Golden Age: circumnavigating the globe, punching above its weight, colonising, robbing, expanding the reach of science. That’s a legacy, girlfriend.
The English Renaissance was a bright epoch for our culture, as well as for ass-kicking on the high seas, with South London central to both activities.
South London Lit
Chaucer’s 1386 The Canterbury Tales gave us an insight into the lives and minds of ordinary people in medieval days. Even the pilgrims liked a pint and a bit of sauce. It was also one of the first major works to be written in vernacular English, making it accessible to all. Its starting point was the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a place that should have been preserved for eternity but is now merely marked with a plaque. It could claim to be the birthplace of English Literature as we know it; a momentous achievement that should surely be marked by a pub.
Bankside became the home of theatre in London and therefore the world, putting on the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe in its four theatres. Plays had been banned from the City but the stage thrived in lawless Southwark. A battle raged between the Puritan north and the louche south. The City was for the pious. Southwark was for us.
In addition, South London became central to the work of Dickens, Blake and Thackeray. OK, I’m just going to say it: South London is the cradle of the English language. Deal with it.
Alongside the theatres ran the bear-baiting pits, brothels and pubs that were a continuance of Southwark’s well-deserved reputation as an unruly, lively hangout where all kinds of sketchy behaviour was acceptable. Every month of the year had a holiday in the Elizabethan era, plus there were drunken seasonal fairs that would get right out of hand. Sport and games thrived. Messing about became a part of the fabric of life’s struggle, a tradition which we strive to honour.
By the 18th century places like Vauxhall, Peckham and Woolwich became holiday resorts for those who could afford it. Pleasure gardens around the world were sometimes called Vauxhall, after the cutting edge pioneer of public entertainment by the Thames.
In the 19th century South London’s music halls, theatres, ballrooms and pleasure gardens made it a playground for residents and visitors from over the water alike. The first music hall in town, The Canterbury Hall, in Lambeth was legendary from the moment it was built in 1852, though the South’s reputation for roughness remained.
Victorian social historian, J Ewing Ritchie, wrote of the area as having: ‘Monster gin palaces, full of ragged children, hideous old women and drunken men.’
Waterloo was a proper rough house too, but it did boast The Feathers Tavern, a female-only pub, at 1 Waterloo Road, known as a ‘cow public house’ (typical of the misogyny of the time which has now, of course, been completely eradicated).
Battersea was seen as a Sodom and Gomorrah where booze, sport and gambling combined around the Red House pub, the finishing post of many Thames races.
In short, South London was brilliant.
In 1850 there were 10 commons in the old district of Lambeth. 100 years later there were none, as building in the capital went supernova with, to paraphrase Harry Williams, a brutal insensitivity to history and beauty. South London went from pastoral loveliness to dense housing, with mere pockets of its rural past. London may have been a wealthy imperial city, but evidence was scarce below the river.
A city, though, with eight million trees can hardly be written off as purely urban. And if anything, South London is rich with parks and open spaces compared to above the water. But of course it’s not rural anymore: It’s a big smelly glorious fuck off city.
The Second World War had a devastating impact in South London, with the Luftwaffe donating thousands of bombs to every corner of it. The war took a terrible toll beyond the dead and the battered streets. The Post-War gloom hungover South London for a generation or more, making it a darker and more insular place, no matter what anyone tells you about the good old days.
South London Revival
The 1951 Festival of Britain redefined the South Bank as a place of arts and entertainment. It has truly come of age now, making it one of the most vibrant cultural centres in the world. Plus, it’s now packed with ace boozers.
Walter Besant and Harry Williams both decried South London’s decline into urbanisation as a tragedy, partly because they were lovers of the country, not cities – like the Saxons and Brexiters. South London has become an integral part of the capital, but it’s only by embracing its role in the excitement of a great city that it can be appreciated. For instance, a multi-story car park may be an ugly thing. But a multi-story car park with a bar and spectacular views over the entire metropolis is surely an apotheosis in mankind’s inexorable rise. Take a bow, Peckham.
Our summary of South London’s present is altogether more positive. It’s a place full of choice, whether you want to be alone and anonymous, commune with deer in Richmond Park, taste food from around the globe, catch the finest actors or musicians, explore history, enjoy the fruits of the area’s brewing boom or put dog shit in a bag up a tree; there is little unavailable to the South Londoner. Especially if he nicks off work in the arvo and gets in before the herd.
South London has waited patiently for its due credit, and now we must get on with enjoying it.
There’s more on South London history on our podcast:
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