Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable
South Bank in the sixteenth and seventeenth
Jessica A. Browner
It is a commonplace of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English history that Southwark was the most disreputable quarter of London. It was lambasted by pamphleteers, and damned by Puritan preachers. "Better termed a foule dene then a faire garden," according to Donald Lupton, "here come few that either regard their credit or losse of time."1 Yet through most of the Middle Ages, Southwark's reputation was anything but notorious. Indeed, prior to this time the borough, with its inns, public gardens, and vast open spaces, was fashionable as the residence of great men: towards the end of the thirteenth
century there were established on or near the river bank a number of town houses of great ecclesiastics and other magnates, to whom it was a convenience to live where the river provided them with an easy means of access to Westminster. Sir John Fastolf, the famous captain in the French wars, was among the well-known inhabitants of Southwark and maintained a considerable establishment there during the fourteenth century. Even more impressive was the Bishop of Winchester's house just west of the Bridgehead, described by John Stow in his 1598 Survey of London as "a very fair house, well repaired, and hath a large wharf and landing-place, called the bishop of Winchester's stairs." It is to be seen plainly on all the sixteenth-century maps of Southwark.2 How then may we explain this apparent transformation of London's southernmost suburb during this time -- which we may define more precisely as from its incorporation in 1550 to around 1676, the date of Southwark's own "Great Fire" -- from an upper-class retreat to a place of disorderly resort? The answer, it seems, is predicated on two factors: (1) the jurisdictional anomalies of the borough; and (2) the persons, professions, and pastimes which these jurisdictional anomalies attracted.
A proclamation of 16 July 1615 described London as "the greatest, or next the greatest Citie of the Christian world."3 With a population of around 200,000 in 1600, out of a national population of probably less than five million, it was more than ten times as large as the greatest provincial city, Norwich -- a predominance unmatched by that of any other western metropolis save Amsterdam. Furthermore, during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the population of London and its immediate suburbs grew much more rapidly than the population of the country as a whole, attracting immigrants from the rest of England as well as from a continent distracted and damaged by religious wars. "Soon," wrote King James I (1603-25), whose dislike of the city was notorious, "London
will be all England," and for once he echoed the sentiments of a large proportion of his subjects.4 Within the metropolis itself, however, growth was not uniform. While the central area of the City5 within and without the Walls maintained fairly constant numbers, London as a whole increased four-fold in population. Some of this outlying growth was accounted for by the expansion of the area to the west of Temple Bar, where more prosperous citizens chose to live. For the most part, however, newcomers were settling in the parishes to the east of the City or, in the case of poorer folk, congregating on the
other side of the Thames in Southwark. It is no wonder that the suburbs, with their concentration of population and the ensuing social evils of overcrowding, bad sanitation, vagrancy and disorder became notorious. A 1596 Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex sums up the popular and official view of the suburbs: