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Southwark in the early seventeenth century was a very significant place with numerous churches, taverns, several courts of justice, a royal mint for coinage, four prisons and eight inns for travellers. Southwark was described in 1603 by John Stow in his meticulous and celebrated, Survey of London, as a town with ‘diverse streets, ways and winding lanes’. He also documented the important finding that, owing to its prosperity, Southwark paid £800 a year in taxes to the Crown, the highest of any location after the City of London.

It also raised the second highest muster of men for the local militia. For the maintenance of law and order there were sixteen constables and to maintain public health there were six ‘scavengers,’ who cleaned the streets and disposed of refuse. Maps of the day portray Southwark to be a small complex of streets leading directly south from the bridge and east along the river, with the remainder given to fields.

The fine manor houses which had been built by dukes and bishops were in ruinous condition by the early seventeenth century and became tenements (like the eastern end of the City). Stow described them as ‘many small cottages of great rents for the increasing number of beggars in the borough’.

Following the defeat of the Armada in 1588 eleven captured standards were hung on the gate on the day of the Southwark Fair ‘to the great joy of all the people who repaired thither,’ according to Stow. Southwark had been awarded town status under the Tudors and the population doubled during Elizabeth’s reign owing to its prominent location. London Bridge, it was said, was ‘built on woolpacks’ which meant that its continual repair was financed by a tax on wool. The timber and stone bridge was about 13ft-wide with carts, wagons, coaches and pedestrians crowding into the two-way traffic. It had buildings on both sides including shops, simple dwellings and a few substantial, even grand, residences. From the bridge all the traffic to the south and to Europe travelled down Borough Road.

Part of Southwark’s great prosperity was decidedly its location outside the walls and restrictive statutes of the City. This allowed immigrants, principally from France and Holland, to set up skilled trades. They were barred from locating in the City and not eligible to be members of a guild. They worked in tailoring and weaving, pottery, ceramics and the metal trades. Flemish glaziers in Southwark, by appointment to the king, made the celebrated stained-glass windows for King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in the 1530s.

Another source of Southwark’s prosperity was its location on the road to Kent and the coast. There were several inns along Borough Road, the oldest being the Tabard Inn (a tabard was a short jerkin originally worn by nobles under their armour and by this time worn by heralds and peasants). The Tabard Inn is mentioned in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400:

It befell in that season, on a day

In Southwarke at the Tabert, as I lay,

Ready to wend on my Pilgrimage,

To Canterburie with full devout courage.

Other local taverns and inns included the White Lion, the Queen’s Head and the King’s Head, all of Elizabethan origin, and the George, which still stands in its original location. There were also printers, stone carvers and stone merchants. There was a large brewery milling hops brought in from Kent. Pawnbrokers and moneylenders offered poor families an opportunity to make ends meet in hard times.

Southwark had a larger share of maritime trades than Rotherhithe, including ship’s chandlers, warehousemen, clerks, porters and carters as well as lightermen. Both competed for the unskilled labour needed for loading and unloading cargo with other riverside locations like Wapping, Limehouse and Blackwall on the north side of the river. Watermen carried people across to the City and along the river to the bear gardens and theatres in Bankside. Southwark trades also included leatherwork, cloth dyeing and soap-making. Borough Road was lined with butchers, grocers, shoemakers, saddlers, joiners and tailors. These spilled over into Borough Market which had been thriving with produce stalls and butchers since 1014.

Order was kept by the local constables and disputes were settled in the courts. Southwark was the location of several important prisons including the King’s Bench and the Marshalsea (later made famous by Charles Dickens as a debtors’ prison in his novel Little Dorrit). There was also a country jail and a house of correction as well as the well-known Clink Prison. Three-quarters of the male population of the City were freemen, yet there was a much smaller fraction in Southwark, which allowed residents to avoid the civic responsibilities connected to freeman status. Since entry to a trade was not protected, all manner of petty local businesses thrived. The population of Southwark tripled between 1550 and 1630 with comings and goings from other locations throughout England and the Continent.

Business and social relationships were on the whole conducted face to face. There were strong ties of commerce, neighbourhood, family and parish which formed local communities. Households of differing wealth and status settled in different streets of Southwark. Many people were transient and there was much overcrowding in certain areas. Neighbourhoods began to become important as people in the same locality looked after each other and tried to settle disputes in the alleyways which stretched inland from the river. The links between status and wealth were apparent in the seating in the local parish churches and the clothing that people wore. Social mobility was limited and the lifespan of a builder or carpenter was short. As people aged and could no longer work, they became beggars if they could not rely on family support and were taken in by local charities. Church wardens and vestrymen gained power and influence by their control of poor relief for struggling households.

From The Mayflower: Myths, Truths and Legacies by Rita Cruise O’Brien, publication April 2020 from and


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