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Top 5 Free and Weird Places to Visit in Southwark

Billington Pix

Five Weird and Educational Things to Do in Southwark

These Southwark alternative top tourist spots are guaranteed to make your hairs stand on end!

With many places still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic it is hard to find things to do safely whilst getting a bit of exercise. Well here are five special places that are free and that you can visit on foot all at the same time as they are within walking distance of each other. What's more, you can visit all these places whilst practising social distancing!

Just head to Borough Tube Station (currently closed, alas, but walkable from London Bridge) and take it from there.

But first, here is the premise behind this article. Southwark is an incredibly special place, dear to my heart. And sometimes I just want to write about it and share it with people (other times I want to keep these secrets to myself!). What I have boiled this article down to is what I believe to be the soul of Southwark, all based around what is called the Liberty of the Mint.

Continue to read below and be intrigued by the history and richness of this part of London.

What is the Liberty of the Mint?

This conservation area in Southwark sits between Marshalsea Road to the north, Southwark Bridge Road to the west, Borough High Street to the east and Great Suffolk Street to the south. It tells an interesting story about the progression, demise and ultimate revival of the area over the last 500 years. From housing one of the most impressive estates in the country to one of the worst slums.

Wandering through the intricate streets within this area brings a real sense of what it was like to live in 19th century London from a social point of view. Some of the architecture is amazing and the whole place oozes history. From industrial warehouses to individual dwellings and old pubs. However, it is first necessary to peel back the layers of time from the 19th century and go even further back to about 1522 and the reign of Henry VIII.

1. Tudor fans, let your imagination run wild at Suffolk Place (Brandon House)

Sketch of Suffolk Place by Anton van den Wyngaerde, showing the grandeur of Suffolk Place, included in his Panorama of 1543

What is fascinating about the area is that it once housed a splendid “large and most sumptuous house” on the corner adjacent to Borough Tube Station. We are talking on the level and style of Hampton Court Palace.

These days there is little evidence other than a plaque along Borough High Street to mark the general location that was once Brandon House, owned by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. A modern block of flats and retail now occupies the spot but still uses that name.

Who was Charles Brandon?

Charles Brandon was a successful courtier, favourite of Henry VIII and later second husband to Henry’s sister Mary Tudor. He earned his Dukedom from the King following a successful campaign in France and looked to build a suitable property to demonstrate his newly elevated status.

He had already inherited the plot (Brandon House) containing an existing late-medieval courtyard house that was to be upgraded to his new and exciting plans. By 1522 what he had built was a spectacular four storey quintessential Tudor red-brick extravaganza, complete with onion-domed turrets and ornate architectural terracotta decorations, as was fashionable for the wealthy in the first half of the 16th century. The house was renamed Suffolk Place to show off his newly acquired Dukedom.

Above is a sketch by Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde, showing the grandeur of Suffolk Place, included in his Panorama of 1543.

This was Brandon’s main property and in fact was used to entertain Henry VIII, and also Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, Brandon did not own it for exceptionally long as by 1536 he was suffering financial difficulties and the house passed to King Henry.

The Mint

In 1545 Henry established a Royal Mint on the Suffolk Place estate, which was in use until 1551 when, following some serious fraud at the Mint, the new King, Edward VI issued a Charter closing the Mint and transferring crown-owned land in Southwark to the City of London, but with the exception of Suffolk Place. However, when Queen Mary took the throne she passed ownership of the house to the Archbishop of York who sold it on in 1556 (probably to Lord Mayer of London, Sir Edward Bromfield) when it was demolished, after fewer than 40 years, around 1557-58, in order to further develop the area. Mint Street is, of course, a connection to the Royal Mint that was in use there for that short period of time.

View of Mint Street timber entrance to the Mint

Consequently, the area became an asylum for criminals and debtors. It was not cleared until an Act of 1723:

What is interesting is that, because Suffolk Place was not included in the transfer of ownership in Edward VI’s 1551 Charter, there developed an idea that there was a special exclusion within the Mint area that rendered it separate from all civil and criminal laws. In fact this privilege was so well defined that the exclusion area is documented as entered via a timber gateway on Mint Street, as can be seen in the drawing on the left. Other entrances to this exclusion area were gated.

Consequently, the area became an asylum for criminals and debtors. It was not cleared until an Act of 1723:

‘An Act for the more effectual Execution of Justice in a pretended privileged Place in the Parish of Saint George in the County of Surrey, commonly called the Mint; and for bringing to speedy and exemplary Justice, such Offenders as are therein mentioned; and for giving Relief to such persons are proper Objects of Charity and Compassion there.’

However, it remained a slum area until Marshalsea Road was built in 1888 and many of the decrepit buildings were cleared.

Directions

Head up Borough High Street as you exit Borough Tube station. There is not much to see of Brandon House itself. Its modern replacement is immediately across the road from the station on the corner of Marshalsea Road. The plaque is further along the street on the left. Having read this article, you should get a sense of the grandeur that once stood there.

2. Check out the St Saviour’s Union workhouse site in Mint Street Park

View of northern entrance to Mint Street Park with old workhouse wall on the right

Probably the epitome of the slum of the Mint area was demonstrated by the workhouse on Mint Street. The first building was located on the north side of the street and dated from 1729 where it served the poor of the Parish of St George-the-Martyr, offering residency to 62 people in return for spinning yarn for mops and stockings.

A new building on the same plot was built in 1782 and named the St Saviour’s Union Workhouse, which by then was already a cramped and dirty environment, which probably inspired the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. In September 1865 it was condemned in a Lancet report, which detailed the foul stench and general uncleanliness of the place. It was also prone to diseases such as typhus, dysentery and scarlet fever with an average mortality rate for the year of 300 lives.

Dickens had lived nearby in Lant Street whilst his father was imprisoned at Marshalsea Prison for debt in 1824. So, he would have been deeply knowledgeable about the local area and might even have visited the workhouse.

By the way, in 1679 Thomas Lant had married the daughter of Sir Edward Bromfield (who had taken ownership of Suffolk Place around 1651, or 1656 whichever version you want to read) and in doing so gained a lifetime interest in Suffolk Place. As a result, it was he who in 1702 petitioned the House of Lords to allow him to develop the local area for tenements, a lot of which was still open land. By 1770 Lant Street had been created and by 1800 was fully built up.

The workhouse remained until 1920 when it was finally demolished. The plot forms the east side of Mint Street Park along with the land once occupied by Evelina Hospital. You can still see some remnants of the old workhouse wall along the Mint Street and Caleb Street boundary to the park.

In fact, this is where I recently captured an image of the wall in closeup, with a beautiful flowing geranium protruding, which I have created as a greeting card photo art. Have a look if you are interested in capturing part of the local history.

Directions

From Borough Tube station head along Marshalsea Road and take the side road on the left which is Mint Street, which leads straight into the Park. You will pass the remains of the old workhouse on your right as you enter the park.

3. Relax in Mint Street Park, site of the old Evelina Hospital

Mint Street Park in Southwark

Mint Street Park is one of the few open spaces in the area. About ten years ago it was re-developed into the beautiful space that it is now. Not many people using it will realise its significance in the social history of the area.

I have already mentioned that the east side of the park was once occupied by the infamous St Saviour’s Union workhouse. The other half of the park has a completely different back-story. This is the story of love and personal tragedy.

Evelina de Rothschild was second cousin to her husband Baron Frederick de Rothschild. This extremely influential family was spread across Europe from Austria to Italy to the UK. Aged 26, Evelina married Frederick in 1865 in a lavish ceremony attended by Benjamin Disraeli and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge. The couple settled to married life at 143 Piccadilly.

Evelina soon fell pregnant with the couple’s first child. Very sadly, the child was stillborn, and Evelina passed away on the same day, 4th December 1866. Frederick was grief-stricken and never married again. However, he did achieve one positive outcome from this tragedy, which was to build a children’s hospital, named after his wife.

This first Evelina Children’s Hospital was situated along the Southwark Bridge Road. State of the art of its time, it was built on the site of the infamous Southsea Court to look after the local children in one of the poorest boroughs in London. The building was demolished in 1976 but Evelina Hospital lives on and today forms part of Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust. What a legacy!

Interestingly you can still make out the cellar windows of the original hospital along the pavement of Southwark Bridge road on the boundary to the park. There is also a plaque at the entrance to commemorate Evelina and Frederick.

Directions

Head for the main entrance to the park on Southwark Bridge Road, which is opposite the entrance beside the old workhouse. You will see the plaque on the wall on the right next to the Quilip Street sign. Also take a moment to walk along the perimeter of the wall down Southwark Bridge Road to see the old cellar windows of the hospital.

Bonus - take a selfie beneath the Commit No Nuisance sign!

Commit no nuisance street signJust across the road from Mint Street Park you can find a superb old public nuisance sign. It tells the story about how the locals were considered and treated during Victorian times by the local authorities. No doubt this was a signal of excessive drinking and bad behaviour by those who were forced to work most hours of the day. Most likely it was originally sponsored by the Welsh Congregational Chapel, which stands on that site and was built in 1872. Take a moment to imagine the working conditions of the poor in the local area. But also, take a selfie in front of the sign - and be sure to tag @BillingtonPix on Instagram!

Directions

From the west entrance of Mint Street Park cross Southwark Bridge Road and pop down Doyce Street where you will see a sign on the left side. There is actually another sign around the corner of the other side of  the Welsh Congregational Chapel building (take another left) on Great Guildford Street.

4. Visit the historic Marshalsea Prison wall

Old Marshalsea Prison wall

Marshalsea prison wall stands hidden just behind Borough High Street, down a discreet alleyway. Alternatively, you can access the other side of the wall through the gardens of the beautiful Georgian St George-the-Martyr church which resides on the crossroads of Borough High Street and Long Lane. Interestingly, the wall is just across the other side of Borough High Street where the old Suffolk Place that I have talked about was located.

The prison was one of five in Southwark, another one being Kings Bench in the Mint area and the Clink nearer to the river. Last time I came here it was being redone so I could not get very near, but now the works are completed and it is looking splendid.

If walls could talk.

There really is only a long wall left of the prison, which denotes the south side. So, we need to use a bit of imagination to understand what exactly the prison was about.

This second version of Marshalsea Prison was built in 1811 as a replacement to the first, a 500-year-old decrepit and corrupt one situated a few hundred yards away that had once incarcerated Ben Johnson. It lasted only 38 years before being closed by Parliament in 1842. Charles Dickens’s father was famously incarcerated here in 1824 for debt. As I have mentioned previously Dickens himself lodged at nearby Lant Street so he could visit. You see, it all ties up!

Another section of the prison besides debtors was for Admiralty prisoners (mutiny, desertion, piracy and “unnatural crimes”). This newer version was no less fifty and corrupt. The Marshalsea was privately run and made the most of extracting money for benefits. This was mostly from those who paid large amounts to be let out during the day, within a three mile radius of the prison walls, to earn something for their debts. Most inside were destitute and many died of starvation.

By the way, if you are interested, I have taken several closeups of the old bricks and other fab photos of the local area and turned them into greeting cards. You can see my Southwark products here. Or have a read of my blog post where I talk about my brick obsession.

Directions

Cross the road from Brandon House and head down the alleyway which is just to the right of the library and to the left of St George-the-Martyr church.

5. Pay tribute to the Winchester Geese at Crossbones

Skull and crossbones with a face mask

Just further south from the Mint, along Redcross Way is a sobering landmark. It is a 500 year old burial ground, containing up to 15,000 people. Not only that, it is a burial ground based on a racket that was run by the office of the Bishop of Winchester for many years.

Southwark, lying south of the River Thames is also just south of the City of London. Where rules applied in the City, they did not outside this jurisdiction. Activities such as theatre, bear baiting and prostitution were permitted here, and it was just a convenient row across the river, or a stroll across London bridge, from the City to get there.

What is incredible is that prostitutes could work in the area so long as they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester. You can still see the remains of the 12th century Winchester Palace just along from the old Clink prison in the north of the borough. However, whilst they could pay for a licence to work within the Liberty of the Clink, they were denied the dignity of a decent burial on their death.

Instead, Crossbones, an un-consecrated burial ground was used for these “single women” who were otherwise known as Winchester Geese. By 1769 it had become a pauper’s cemetery for the parish of St Saviours. You might wonder where those unfortunate 300 deaths a year from the St Saviour’s Union Workhouse ended up… The burial ground was closed in 1853 due to overcrowding as well as a public outcry of decency for the dead.

The land was excavated somewhat in the 1990s and many bodies were found, many lying on top of each other just a few inches below the surface. A large quantity were unborn children and most adults were women. A large number had suffered from diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and malnutrition, scurvy and syphilis. In fact the term “goose bumps” derives from someone catching syphilis from one of the Winchester Geese.

These days the site is a memorial garden, open to visitors. On the Redcross Way roadside boundary there is a moving tribute of colourful ribbons and other hand-written dedications left by members of the public to these outcast dead.

For information on vigils at Crossbones or opening times of the garden head to http://crossbones.org.uk/

Directions

From Marshalsea Road, turn right down Redcross Way. You will pass a lovely public garden on your left (Red Cross Garden) and a primary school on your right, with the Shard looming in the background. Keep going, cross Union Street and you will see posters of skulls pasted onto the wall. If you walk a bit further along you will see the tributes. There is quite a nice pub opposite called the Boot and Flogger, although this is currently closed due to the Pandemic. Entrance to the Crossbones garden (on Union Street) is also closed currently, but you can look past the tributes on Redcross Way to see part of it.

Take a look at my photo art to see more

I love history, especially social history. In my photography I examine the rise and fall of great buildings and civilisations. What made them crumble in the end?  Was it a sudden destruction, as in war, or was it simply due to social decline? I am also fascinated in how nature takes a role in this, decaying structures that were once elaborate and secure constructions. In the case of Suffolk Place, its destruction was human-made for profit. We can only imagine from the evidence how beautiful the building once was. Other constructions, such as the workhouse further along Mint Street, or the Marshalsea Prison were destroyed due to their poor construction, greed and bad management and neglect. Filth and dirt found a way in and the neglect was terminal. Other buildings, such as the Evelina hospital improved the area, providing a service to the local population, until it too fell victim to the modern economy and different ways of working. In the end though it left behind a beautiful park for us all to enjoy and its legacy continues anyway as part of the NHS.

Life is a brick: the walls go up and, eventually, the walls come down.

Try our suggested other things to do in Southwark!

BillingtonPix: Retro Aesthetic

BillingtonPix: Retro Aesthetic

Find out more about what BillingtonPix is up to in 2021. We love history, and we also love vintage style design. We use the London retro aesthetic to inspire us in our graphic design development. Take a look at our latest patterns, which are based on the shapes and visuals we see in and around urban London.

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