St George's Fields, Southwark: From a grand 18th century suburb to 19th century inner-city slums

Setting the scene

The area concerned fell into two parishes: the northern and western portion was in the parish of Christ Church and the southern part, St George’s Fields, was in St George the Martyr.

Christ Church was a daughter parish of St Saviour and was founded in 1671. It was co-terminous with the ancient manor of Paris Garden and bounded to the north by the Thames, to the east by Broadwall (the boundary with Lambeth parish), to the south by the line of the modern Pocock Street and the east by Gravel Lane. In 1750 it was partly drained but largely undeveloped, except for the riverfront where there were numerous wharves. Much of the open space was used as tenter grounds, for the drying of cleaned cloth.

St George’s Fields, which was immediately to Christ Church’s south, was unenclosed open space: part pasture, past marshy waste. It was used as Southwark’s common, although it never formally had this status. For part of the year the fields were cultivated and for the remainder they were given over to pasture. Even in the late-18th century, the shapes of the plots of land, generally shaped as long rectangles, or strips, still reflected their medieval origins. Landowners distinguished their sections by boundary stones. It is extraordinary that such an ancient system of agriculture survived until the early-19th century so close to London. A network of paths traversed the fields, but these were hazardous in wet weather because of poor drainage. In addition, there was one more substantial road across the fields, connecting Newington Butts with Lambeth. St. George’s Fields contained only a handful of buildings in the mid-18th century: at the south-west corner was an inn and pleasure garden called the Dog and Duck, and in the north-east corner was the King’s Bench Prison with a windmill nearby. The prison had been built in 1758, when it moved from a site on Borough High Street. The windmill was demolished in 1773.

St George’s Fields was largely under the control of the City of London, and was administered – and in large part owned – by its Bridge House Committee. The City purchased its administrative rights in 1550. The Bridge House Committee used revenue from this land to finance the upkeep of the Thames bridges that led to London.