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

New streets and houses

The northern part of Christ Church parish developed rapidly after the building of Blackfriars Bridge and the laying out of Great Surrey Street. Many of the houses on the main roads were of good quality and imposing size. These included those on Blackfriars Road, which were built 1765-90; the eastern portion of Stamford Street, of c.1790, and Nelson Square of c.1807. New streets were laid out, such as the western sections of Stamford Street (1803 and 1815) or the smaller streets east of Blackfriars Road such as Pitt Street, (now Scoresby Street) George Street, Charles Street, Edward Street, William Street (now Gambia Street) and Robert Street. New houses were built on existing roads such as in Bear Lane and Green Walk (now Burrell Street).

In contrast, the first buildings on St George’s Fields were houses of the lowest quality. They were built by members of the Hedger family, who ran the Dog and Duck tavern; from the mid-1780s onward, James Hedger obtained leasehold of most of the Bridge House Estate land in St. George’s Fields and began developing housing on it.

The Temple West Estate

At the same time other landowners also started to build on their land, prompted by the improved transport connections and resulting higher land values. The Temple-West family, who owned about two acres of land in St George’s Fields, built houses in West Square, St George’s Road, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road and Belvedere Place to the north of Borough Road. The houses in West Square, occupied from 1794, were the most substantial: in the early years of the 19th century they were home to the wealthy and influential. Various members of the Hedger family lived there until the 1820s; Robert Barker, a painter of panoramas, lived there until his death in 1806, and Henry Perkins, a partner in the large and profitable Anchor Brewery, on Bankside, was headquartered there between 1848 and 1849. Some of the buildings mentioned above remain today as the most substantial domestic properties in north Southwark.

In James Smith’s words of 1813:

“St George’s Fields are fields no more, The trowel supersedes the plough; Swamps huge and inundate of yore, Are changed to civic villas now.”

The Southwark Local History Library has a large collection of this estate’s deeds, and its management can be traced from the construction of the first buildings through the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the early 1790s the West family let land in small plots for periods of around 90 years to a variety of developers. These developers, variously described as stationers, surveyors or ironmongers, built houses, which they in turn sub-let to tenants. Typically each developer built only a small numbers of houses; the largest number mentioned is fifty. At the expiry of the head lease the houses came back into the direct control of the Temple-West family and consequently there is a further large batch of leases dating from the later years of the 19th century.