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

New Bridges and Roads

The first stage in this process of development was the laying out of new roads to connect with the new bridges over the Thames. London Bridge was the only crossing of the Thames in the London area until 1750, when a new bridge crossing was built at Westminster. Traffic from the bridge heading east to Southwark or beyond to the Kent Road crowded onto the only existing road across the fields; it was widened and developed into what is now called St George’s Road. In addition a new road was built starting as an extension to Westminster Bridge Road and continuing as Borough Road. It joined Blackman Street (now the southern portion of Borough High Street) almost opposite Newington Sessions house at Horsemonger Lane. These roads were laid out by the Commission for Surrey New Roads, which had been given the authority to carry out the works by Act of Parliament passed in 1751.

In 1760 a second new bridge across the Thames was suggested, to connect the western portion of the City of London with Southwark and to relieve pressure on London Bridge; it became Blackfriars Bridge. The City of London’s Bridge House Committee proposed the idea of a new bridge and gave the task of carrying out the work to the committee’s chief surveyor, Robert Mylne.

Blackfriars Bridge

The bridge was to enter Southwark half way along Upper Ground, in Christ Church parish, at the point where Marygold Stairs had provided access to the river. There was an abundance of open space south of the river through which the bridge could be linked with existing roads. The agreed plan made use of the few natural advantages offered by St George’s Fields. It involved building only one road, running due south from the bridge foot and terminating in a junction with Westminster Bridge Road. This junction, which became St George’s Circus, was situated on land that was slightly higher and so better drained. The new road had to be sufficiently imposing to create a favourable impression on visitors from the continent.

Parliament approved the proposals in 1769 and construction began shortly afterwards. The road’s construction was a major achievement of civil engineering and was completed and carrying traffic only one year later. It was called Great Surrey Street, and was renamed Blackfriars Road in 1829. In 1770 the Bridge House Committee suggested that an obelisk be built at St George’s Circus, which was completed by 1771.

In the early-19th century two further bridges were built across the Thames and the newly-built southern approach roads both ran through the area.

Waterloo Bridge (originally called Strand Bridge) was opened in 1817. A new road, Waterloo Road, was built to link it to Westminster Bridge Road at a point very near the latter’s junction with St George’s Circus. Like Blackfriars Road it was a distinguished, wide, straight boulevard.

Southwark Bridge

The final new main road was Southwark Bridge Road; less impressive than its predecessors, it was built to connect Southwark Bridge, which opened in 1819, with Newington Causeway. On the Southwark side the new road cut through a built up area and had to meander to avoid businesses and homes.

The parish of St Saviour felt the new roads did little to relieve the pressure of traffic on Borough High Street, because the new roads ran too far south of the town to solve this problem. Consequently, the parish agitated for a new road to link Borough High Street with Blackfriars Road. This became Union Street. Its construction involved little more than widening and straightening of existing streets: Union Street, Queen Street and Duke Street. Only Charlotte St, which joined with Blackfriars Road, was genuinely new. Charlotte Street continued beyond Blackfriars Road to form the east end of what is today called The Cut.

The building of these new roads accelerated development in Christ Church parish and St George’s Fields. A series of new institutions established themselves in St George’s Fields, and houses were built along Blackfriars Road and other main roads.