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

A second phase of development

While many of the early housing developments, such as those on and near Blackfriars Road and in the Temple-West estate, were of undeniable quality, their surroundings were uninspiring. On one side were the shabby tenements built by James Hedger, and on the other still undrained marshland. The relative lack of drainage meant that surface water could only run away in open ditches; increasing development caused these ditches to act as foul open sewers. Passing vehicles turned the surface of the land into a quagmire in wet weather.

The Bridge House Estate was aware that the new bridges had increased the potential value of its land – and the fact that Hedger’s activities and the poor drainage undermined this value. Consequently, in early years of the 19th century, it started to retrieve the situation: by draining the area, and by taking action against Hedger’s developments. Draining the area was first suggested in 1807, when the City and neighbouring landowners promoted a bill in Parliament. This was passed two years later, but no action was taken for another ten years. In 1810 a further Act was passed, which abolished all common rights, allowing landowners a much freer hand in building; moreover, a number of Hedger’s leases expired in that year, which the City chose not to renew. This clearly displeased their disruptive tenant, who proceeded to destroy many of the buildings he had built in an attempt to salvage the materials. Hedger probably saved the City a job as many of the houses were of such poor quality they would have been demolished anyway. The City furthermore refused to maintain any of the houses that remained.

The City drew up a number of grand plans for the development of the fields, but very few of their schemes were ever built. The one exception to this was around St George’s Circus, where buildings with a concave frontage were erected at an even distance from the centre of the junction. The concave front of the Duke of Clarence public house still survives. The rest of the Bridge House Estate land was let to developers – other than the Hedgers – on building leases; land owned by other bodies was similarly dealt with. The Bridge House Estate still owns much property in the area and its mark appears on many of these buildings. It also gave its name to a pub, the Bridge House, on Borough Road. Many of these building plots followed the shape of the original medieval fields and this explains the unusual pattern and orientation of some of the streets in the area today: Lancaster Street, Boyfields Street (previously Gun Street) and Rushworth Street (previously Green Street), which all run obliquely to the surrounding streets, are good examples.