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

Gatherings and recreation

Because St George’s Fields was one of the largest open spaces close to London, it became a place for recreation and assemblies. It was used for archery practice – both as a sport and as all-important practice for the able-bodied men who could be called to serve on a militia in time of war. The fields were also a gathering point; in 1660 that Londoners gathered there to greet King Charles II on his return from exile and then accompany him in a procession into London. Not all gatherings were so law abiding. In May 1768, 20,000 supporters of the radical, opportunist campaigner and politician John Wilkes gathered outside the King’s Bench prison to demand his release. Perhaps the most spectacular gathering in St. George’s Fields came in 1780, when 60,000 people, inflamed by the rhetoric of Lord George Gordon, gathered to present a petition to Parliament protesting the repeal of the anti-Catholic measures enshrined in the Popery Act of 1698. After presenting the petition, the crowd’s discipline deteriorated, and the gathering turned into a four-day long riot; attacks were made on buildings used by Roman Catholics, such as churches and schools, and the homes of those associated with the Catholic Relief Act. Perhaps their most notorious act was the release of prisoners from most of London’s prisons, including the King’s Bench.

The only permanent building on the fields, the Dog and Duck tavern at the south-eastern corner, was also a place of gathering and recreation. It first appears in the historical record in the mid-17th century and took its name from three ponds near it, whose shapes were said to resemble these animals. From the 1780s the Dog and Duck was being run by a family by the name of Hedger, who leased the property from the Bridge House Estate. Through their energy, the family made the tavern prominent and profitable by capitalising on its proximity to what passed for fresh water and the 18th century craze for mineral-water spas. The Hedger family used profits from the tavern to expand into other activities on St George’s Fields; successive generations of this family were to feature prominently in the history of the area over the next 60 years.

St George’s Fields remained an undeveloped open space both because the area was isolated from London – it lacked roads and access to convenient crossing points over the river Thames – and because it was undrained. The City of London and the Bridge House Estate took the initiative in removing both of these disadvantages during the sixty years from 1760.