An abundance of historical markers in one of the nation’s most historic boroughs
The blue plaque scheme began in Britain in 1863. A blue plaque is a permanent sign, almost always placed on a wall, which commemorates a person, an event, or the building itself. Southwark has more than a hundred blue plaques. Some are there to remind us of people who achieved great things while others are, to be frank, more than a little boring to read about. And then there are the others…
We are drawing attention to this one because, if you’re in the area and you haven’t yet been to Borough Market, it’s time you went.
There’s been a market of some sort at the south end of London Bridge since at least 1014, when Ethelred the Unready was on the throne, and Borough Market has been where it is now (right by Southwark Cathedral) for more than 300 years. There are more than a hundred stalls, with produce sourced by locally and internationally. There are also restaurants, cafes, and some of the best sandwich shops you’ve ever seen. If you haven’t yet been, we recommend a visit.
The Clink Prison
“Clink” is now a British slang word for prison – ‘he’s in the clink’ – but The Clink was probably the oldest prison in England, and its location in Borough reminds us what a lawless place Southwark was. We know that the Bishop of Winchester set aside a cell in a college for priests to act as a prison as far back as 860. The earliest record we have of what went on there is dated 1076, when the then Archbishop itemised solitary confinement, bread and water to be eaten in silence, and scourging with rods. It was downhill all the way from there, and by 1400, if you didn’t have money to pay for a bed, bedding, candles and fuel, you went without. Food wasn’t provided as a matter of course – bear in mind that there were now far more cells than just one, and that many of the people held were awaiting trial – they had not been found guilty and might never be. If you couldn’t pay for something to eat, and a fellow prisoner did not take pity on you, you might starve before you came to trial. You can now get a feel for what life was like in the prison by visiting the Clink Prison Museum.
It seems strange to refer to Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, KBE, but so he was towards the end of his life. Chaplin was an actor, comedian, and film maker with a career that lasted for more than 75 years. He rose from poverty in London and died a wealthy and successful man in Switzerland in 1977. He toured the British music halls while still a child. Fred Karno signed him at the age of 19 and took him to America, where Keystone Studios turned him into a film actor. In 1919, he was one of the founders of United Artists. This gave him control of his own films, and he became immensely popular, until the 1940s, when the strait-laced American public disapproved of his involvement in a paternity suit, and accusations that he had Communist sympathies.
Sir Michael Caine
While on the subject of British actors born in straitened circumstances in the borough who made it big in America, we can hardly leave out Maurice Micklewhite, otherwise known as Michael Caine. His film career has been enduringly successful, but to many he is perhaps best known for a single line in The Italian Job. Rehearsing for the robbery of a security van carrying bullion, the bandits carrying out the operation blast the van to smithereens. Caine, in his distinctive Cockney accent, intones, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
There’s a plaque to Sir Geoffrey Chaucer in Talbot Yard, Borough High Street. Chaucer lived from 1343 to 1400, and is regarded as the ‘father’ of English literature. He was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey, wrote at least one scientific treatise and several books and was a civil servant, diplomat, and courtier. But today he is known for The Canterbury Tales. This is a series of stories told by travellers on pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Tales give us an insight into the minds of medieval English men and women. The plaque is in Talbot Yard because it is the site of the ancient Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims gathered before setting off on their journey.
Mary Wollstonecraft is regarded by many as the first feminist writer. Her blue plaque is on the wall of 45 Dolben Street. Wollstonecraft never lived in the building, because she arrived in Southwark in 1788 and left in 1791. This building was built 200 years later to replace Mary’s actual home. Mary would, however, recognise the next door building, now known as Thompson House.
She came to Southwark after losing her job as a governess in Ireland. At that time, Blackfriars Bridge had just opened and Dolben Street was, as a result, on the up. While she was there, she wrote the treatise for which she is best known, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her daughter, Mary, was the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and is best known for her novel, Frankenstein.
If you want a more up-to-date guide to what’s happening in the area and why it may just be the place for you, call us.
No one knows the area just south of London Bridge as well as we do.