Roman Stane Street: on firm ground through Ewell & Epsom


We saw in a previous post that in his book on Roman Stane Street published just before the First World War, Hilaire Belloc insisted that it followed a single straight alignment from Merton Priory to Pebble Lane, seven or eight miles to the south on the downs above Dorking. If true, this would mean that Stane Street was unconnected with the suspiciously straight stretch of the modern A24 from Morden to Nonsuch Park, and it would mean that it simply bypassed modern Ewell and Epsom.


After the Great War, Captain Grant published his damning rebuttal of Belloc. He argued, correctly, that the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24 was an authentic part of Stane Street. He then projected this line to the south-west, and argued that the road ran through Ewell and Epsom and on to Ashtead, before turning south-east to cross the River Mole at Burford Bridge. In Grant’s view, Pebble Lane had nothing to do with Stane Street.


Grant was right in general, but wrong in this particular. Both the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24, and Pebble Lane, are bona fide survivors of Stane Street. But they are clearly on quite different alignments. So we have to ask (a) how do they connect? and (b) why did the Roman engineers make things so complicated in this area?

First of all, let’s sort out the route of the Roman road through Ewell, which was clarified by excavations in 1970-75 and 2003.


The modern road runs down from Morden and alongside Nonsuch Park, then does a dog-leg before meeting the dual carriageway which by-passes Ewell. The Roman road, however, carried straight on along the Morden-Nonsuch alignment, crossed the dual carriageway, crossed St Mary’s churchyard, and continued to the Old Tower just beyond the church.


Here it shifted slightly to the west to cut through Ewell’s residential streets (Staneway, St James Avenue).

It ran on to cross the modern railway line close to Windmill Bridge, through St Martin’s churchyard in Epsom,


and on to the top of Woodcote Park. Here it shifted east, ran on, shifted west, ran on, shifted east, and finally met Pebble Lane just beyond Thirty Acre Barn.


There is nothing unusual about a few changes of direction in a road or path over the course of four or five miles, the distance from Nonsuch Park to Pebble Lane. However, this is not just any road, but a Roman road which is notable for its long straight alignments. As we saw in the previous post, the Roman engineers liked their alignments – but they were also happy to make pragmatic compromises when circumstances justified it. So: what were the circumstances around Ewell and Epsom?

According to Ivan Margary, the doyen of Roman road studies, it was all about the road surface. We saw previously that the course of Stane Street at Newington, and possibly at Clapham, was diverted to skirt around areas of marshland. In the Ewell and Epsom area the issue wasn’t marsh but clay: the connecting route between Ewell and Pebble Lane was chosen to keep the road off the clay and on firm chalk.

Finally: note once more the recurring theme of churches. Medieval churches situated directly on Stane Street as it passes through South London include St George the Martyr, Merton Priory, St Mary’s Ewell, and St Martin’s Epsom.

Belloc made much of this connection and, however wrong he may have been about other things, he was right about this. There is a pattern here to which we will return.

South London Modernism: Threepenny Bit

Just look at this lovely print


of the NLA Tower in Croydon, aka No. 1 Croydon, aka the Threepenny Bit to us oldies who were around before 1971, aka the Fifty Pee to callow youngsters for whom pre-decimal coinage is as historically remote as the Battle of Hastings or the England football team actually winning something.

The building was designed by Richard Seifert, master of the high-rise tower in the 1960s and 1970s, architect of Centrepoint near St. Giles in 1966, which notoriously stood empty for many years; and the NatWest Tower in the City in 1980, which we are now required to refer to as ‘Tower 42’ as if it had been cast for a bit-part in a near-future urban dystopia directed by Ridley Scott. Seifert didn’t only do towers. He also designed the vile monstrosity of Euston Station, and as such was implicated in the demolition of the nineteenth century station with its famous and irreplaceable Euston Arch.

But the Threepenny Bit is OK. It works. It has character. It’s high but not too high. Its clambering, stacked jaggedness is strangely satisfying. And it has stood the test of time: it was completed almost half a century ago back in 1970, since when other buildings have crowded in, and East Croydon station next door has had a post-modern facelift, and the Croydon Tram has arrived and squatted down in its shadow. But the Threepenny Bit, middle-aged and concrete-clad, is still comfortable in its space, one item – rather a late item – of Croydon’s Modern Moment.

In Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, that extraordinary exercise in utopian social democracy, Croydon loomed large as a centre of population, commercial services and manufacturing industry. In general Abercrombie was hostile to industrial development in the suburbs, but he regarded Croydon’s significant industrial base as a special case that deserved protection.


He also argued that working class housing should be close to workers’ jobs, and lambasted Croydon’s Tory Council for its pre-war cynicism in siting a new working-class housing estate out at Lodge Lane, far from either jobs or decent public transport. That estate continued to grow and became New Addington.

Abercrombie’s vision did have an impact – the Green Belt, New Towns – but the Plan as a whole was not implemented. Local planning stayed with the local boroughs, and in Croydon the borough council was dominated by an ambitious group of Tories. Where Abercrombie had advocated a deliberate, planned redistribution of manufacturing and services across the metropolitan area, they sniffed a local opportunity for a different sort of redistribution – competitive rather than planned, investment pulled in by low rates and good transport links, a zero-sum redistribution of jobs and money to Croydon from central London, with the emphasis on commercial services and scant interest in manufacturing.

The 1956 Croydon Corporation Act gave them the powers they needed, and Croydon’s Modern Moment arrived. The focus was on Wellesley Road, which was comprehensively refashioned as a zone of commercial and cultural modernism: the Fairfield Halls in 1962; St George’s House (the Nestlé building) and St Georges Walk (a first stab at a shopping mall) in 1964; the Wellesley Road underpass in 1965; Taberner House in 1967; the Whitgift Centre (a more ambitious and successful stab at a shopping mall) and the Wellesley Road flyover in 1968; Apollo House and Lunar House (a grimly familiar landmark to generations of migrants) in 1970; and the Threepenny Bit, another couple of hundred yards to the east, in the same year.

Croydon’s Modernist Moment was, therefore, a Tory Modernist Moment. Which is annoying for those of us who (a) don’t like Tories but (b) are rather fond of some bits of Croydon Modernism, such as the Threepenny Bit and the Fairfield Halls. But I suppose we’ll just have to learn to live with complexity.

Meanwhile: if you like the Threepenny Bit print, go to where there are many more wonderful London Modern designs by Kate Marsden.

Stane Street at Merton: the Wandle and the Priory

Despite arguments about the precise course of Roman Stane Street as it makes its way through South London, there has always been a consensus that the road crossed the River Wandle at Merton, close to the site which later became Merton Priory. However, for a long time no-one knew the exact location of the crossing.   

In trying to identify this location, we might expect the River Wandle itself to provide a reliable fixed point from which to start. But rivers are not fixed. It is in their nature to wander, to find new courses, and in Merton the course of the Roman Wandle was some way to the east of the modern Wandle. Two thousand years ago the river ran close to the line of today’s Christchurch Road, and passed in front of today’s Colliers Wood tube station. In fact Colliers Wood tube station is the site of the Roman river crossing. An extended and highly successful archaeological excavation, which ran from 1976 to 1990, answered this and other longstanding questions. 


The Roman river crossing was simply the first in a long line of interventions which have continued right up to the present, and which make this part of Merton into a perfect illustration of the rationale for this blog. My aim in PengePast is to look beyond and beneath the suburban familiarity of South London, and to reveal it as an ancient landscape of human endeavour, struggle and strangeness. Merton certainly does that. 

To illustrate the point: here is the southern edge of the retail park, next to Merantun Way, as it is today. 


Three thousand years ago, this site was a riverside meadow. A little less than two thousand years ago, it carried the Roman road. 800 years ago it was the west end of a large priory church, as shown in the map at the top. 100 years ago  


it was Merton Abbey railway station. And today it is a retail park of quite astonishing ugliness. But in its very ugliness it makes the point that even the most mundane and hideous expressions of suburban modernity are part of an historical process. Even a shoppers’ car-park represents another set of meanings, laid on the palimpsest of South London’s landscape. 

Roman Stane Street was first built around AD 50, with further work carried out between 150 and 200. It seems to have fallen into disuse – or at least, it wasn’t repaired any more – towards the end of the Roman period, from about 350. But the string of Anglo-Saxon settlements and medieval churches along its length show that even if its paving fell short of the Roman ideal, it continued to serve as an important highway long after Britain fell out of the Empire. 

The map at the top highlights two phases of the site’s history: the Roman phase, including the course of the Wandle, the line of Stane Street, and the river crossing; and the medieval phase, including Merton Priory church, and the boundary of the Priory precinct. Both phases were addressed by the 1976-1990 excavations.    

The Augustinian Priory at Merton was founded in 1117, and became an important ecclesiastical institution enjoying royal patronage. At this time abbeys, monasteries and priories acted as clerical, economic and educational centres in their surrounding areas. Merton certainly played this role, and in the Priory’s early years the young Thomas Becket was sent from his home in the city of London to be a scholar here. By the time the Priory church was built towards the end of the C12th, Becket was already a martyr, murdered at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. 

The church was built in the Romanesque style, its west door standing directly on top of the Roman road, and for more than three centuries it stood as the most imposing element of a powerful institution. With the C16th Reformation, of course, like other abbeys and monasteries throughout the country, Merton Priory was closed down. But whereas the buildings on many other sites were simply left to moulder, Merton’s church was promptly dismantled, its stones robbed for re-use in Henry VIII’s new palace a few miles down the road at Nonsuch. Some buildings seem to have survived into the 1640s, when the site was used to garrison troops in the Civil War. But the whole area was transformed from the late C17th as the Wandle in general became increasingly industrialised. Among these industries was textile manufacture and printing, which eventually led William Morris to establish his Abbey Mills works here in 1881.  

By this time, any physical traces of Merton Priory were thought to have disappeared. But in 1914 a Romanesque gate-way was discovered, built into the fabric of a local house. It had clearly belonged to an important Priory building, such as a guest-house or chapel. It was removed and re-erected about a mile away in the church-yard of St. Mary the Virgin.  


Here it still stands, a robust piece of C12th masonry, its chevron pattern still sharp, a surprising and rather wonderful remnant of the great medieval Priory at Merton.  

Roman Stane Street: the Clapham Deviation

Ivan D. Margary was the doyen of Roman road studies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He is still recognised as a formidable authority, and his books such as Roman Roads in Britain and Roman Ways in the Weald


are a wonderful resource. Margary always stressed the disciplined pragmatism of the Roman engineers. They used straight alignments to identify ideal and economic lines across the landscape, and would happily run their roads along these alignments where practicable. But when local topography or soil conditions intervened, they adjusted.

So for instance, at the northern end of Stane Street close to the Thames, the Roman landscape was made up of small islands, creeks and marshes (for more on this see ‘South London Begins‘). Between Newington Causeway and Great Dover Street was a marsh later known as ‘Stewfens’; just to the north was the aptly-named Marshalsea, later the site of a famous debtors’ prison; and the name ‘Newington Causeway’ suggests a raised track around boggy ground. Pragmatic Roman engineers were hardly likely to run their road straight through a marsh, when a minor detour would keep it on firm ground. This is why Margary and others agree that the curve of Newington Causeway round to Elephant and Castle does represent the original route of Roman Stane Street.

But for the next six miles or so, from Kennington right down to the Wandle crossing at Merton, Margary argued that Stane Street was guided by a single straight alignment pointing to the road’s ultimate destination of Chichester.

The modern road more or less sticks to this alignment, with one major exception. It is pretty straight from Kennington to Stockwell; and despite some wandering it stays broadly faithful to the alignment between Balham and Merton. But between Stockwell and Balham we have the “Clapham Deviation”: at Clapham North tube station the modern road veers off to the west up Clapham Rise and Clapham High Street, and then along Clapham Common South Side and Balham Hill, only re-joining the alignment at Balham Station.

In Margary’s view, the route followed by Roman Stane Street was much more direct. It did not veer west at Clapham North, but ploughed straight on through the tube station, through the residential streets to the east of Clapham High Street, through Clapham Crescent, across Clapham Park Road, running just east of Klea Avenue to cross Cavendish Road, and on to meet the modern road close to Balham Station. The map below


shows the deviation in diagrammatic form: Margary’s alignment is in red, and the course of the modern road in black. It also shows the locations of the Northern Line tube stations. I like tube stations. They are friendly and familiar markers in the London townscape, and along this section of the Northern Line they represent a string of ancient South London settlements which sprang up along the length of the road. Kennington, Clapham, Balham, and Tooting are all recorded in the Domesday Book, and must go back many centuries before that.

Essentially Margary’s argument was an application of Occam’s Razor: since the Romans who built the road followed a clear alignment from Kennington to Stockwell, and resumed that same alignment from Balham, the most economical assumption is that the section between Stockwell and Balham was also on that alignment. However archaeological excavations, while not proving him wrong, have failed to prove him right. An excavation in the 1940s at Tableer Road/Worsopp Drive south-west of Clapham Park Road; and another in the 1960s at near-by Lambeth College; found no sign of a road, though both were close to his projected alignment. A 1970s dig on the north side of Gaskarth Road did find pebbles and gravel which seemed to indicate a road or path, but not necessarily a Roman one.

Consequently local historian Michael Green, in his 2008 book Historic Clapham, argues that Roman Stane Street passed through Clapham not on Margary’s alignment, but on the route of the modern road. And he suggests that the Roman road took this course in order to avoid boggy ground in the area which later became Clapham Park. If this is right, then the “Clapham Deviation” is no deviation at all, but a sensible adjustment undertaken for the same reason as the adjustment at Newington Causeway.

Next time: Stane Street, the Wandle crossing, and the tragic fate of Merton Priory.

Contested routes: the Stane Street controversy

Stane Street was the Roman road from London to Chichester – an important military highway from the very start of the occupation, when the Romans’ single most important British ally was Cogidubnus, whose power base lay in what is now Hampshire and West Sussex.

From London Bridge and Southwark, running down through South London, much of the route of Stane Street is on or near the modern A24. But at Merton things get messy. For many years there were very different views, and furious arguments, about its route beyond this point. Everyone agreed that Stane Street crossed the Wandle at the site of Merton Priory (usually called ‘Merton Abbey’). Everyone agreed that, 20 miles to the south, it crossed the River Mole at Burford Bridge just outside Dorking. But there was little agreement about its route between Merton and Dorking, or about its relation (if any) with Morden, Ewell, Epsom and Ashtead.

In the years before World War One, the popular writer Hilaire Belloc walked the route of Stane Street – or at least the route as he understood it – and in 1913 he published a book about it.



Belloc was a bundle of contradictions: a devout Catholic of French descent who loved England and the English countryside; a former Liberal MP with a decidedly conservative streak. His book on Stane Street was readable, entertaining, and in large part wrong.

Like many of us, Belloc was impressed by Roman roads, especially those stretches where a long highway streaks, straight as an arrow, through the countryside. But from this he seemed to draw the conclusion that straightness in itself was the Roman engineers’ overriding ambition, and that their roads followed point-to-point “alignments” cutting through the landscape almost regardless of obstacles.

Finally, and quite separately, he argued that in the centuries after the Romans, their roads remained sufficiently important to act as magnets for the siting of medieval churches and abbeys.

Putting these convictions together, Belloc argued that Stane Street ran through South London on a single straight alignment from London Bridge to the downs north of Dorking, where it is represented today by a footpath called Pebble Lane. And he claimed that this alignment ran straight through Merton Abbey on the River Wandle:

“The whole of my argument is based upon the exact alignment of the Stane Street where it has survived with the direction of London Bridge, and upon the identity of the crossing of the Wandle with Merton Abbey, and with the royal land of Merton”.


 Merton Abbey Mills today, commemorating William Morris’s C19th printworks, which commemorated the C12th Priory

 By committing himself to this alignment, Belloc chose to ignore some inconvenient evidence. Firstly, his alignment by-passed Ewell and Epsom altogether, although he knew perfectly well that traces of Roman road had been found in both places. And more significantly, it required him to ignore long stretches of the modern road which, in his day as in ours, were generally accepted as following the route of Stane Street through South London. To turn a blind eye to this enormous fact on the ground, in favour of an abstract theory of ‘alignment’, was somewhat perverse. We might almost suspect that he was deliberately courting controversy.

Whether or not he was courting it, he got it. In 1922, a retired cavalry officer published a furious refutation of Belloc’s account. The very title of Captain W.A. Grant’s book made his purpose clear – The Topography of Stane Street: A critical review of ‘The Stane Street’ by Hilaire Belloc.



Blissfully unencumbered by any sense of literary courtesy, Grant laid into Belloc with a will:

“Mr Belloc … jumps to conclusions without taking the trouble to verify them, and gives bearings and distances as ‘exact’ when they are not even approximate … “;

“ … neither of these alignments points where Mr Belloc says it does … ”;

“Surely this must break all previous records for carelessness and inaccuracy”;

“If I seem to have handled Mr Belloc somewhat severely, it is, I think, no more than he deserves … “.

I suspect that, as a military man, Grant was piqued by what he saw as Belloc’s amateurism, and was keen to defend the professionalism of the Roman military engineers who had built the road:

“What Mr Belloc appears to have done was to start off from Chichester along the known course of the road, groping his way as it were from point to point … But what we have to do, I think, is to try and put ourselves in the position of the Roman engineers before there was any road at all … “.

I like this passage. Grant makes no claim to be an historian, but in these few gruff words he neatly summarises the importance of historical sensibility and historical empathy. He recognises the distance in time and circumstance which separates us from those Roman engineers, but also the shared humanity which unites us to them, and he invites us to try to view the world as they viewed it.

Two things in particular infuriated Captain Grant. Firstly, Belloc was cavalier with his data, and even altered it to fit his theory – for instance, by drawing a misleading map which surreptitiously moved Merton Priory a quarter of a mile to the east so that it would appear to lie directly on his pet alignment. And secondly, Grant was convinced that Belloc simply misunderstood alignments. Grant believed that the Roman engineers used them not as building instructions, but rather as practical points of reference:

“ … I am strongly of opinion that in every case the direct alignment would be plotted out, whether it were practicable for the road to follow that line or not” (my italics).

In the case of Stane Street he suggested that the engineers plotted three ‘great alignments’, ‘ideal lines’ across the landscape which they used to find a route which was as direct as possible while allowing pragmatically for local topography.

Grant’s critique of Belloc is unrelenting, entertaining, and mostly justified. Among other things, he confirmed that the modern road from Epsom to London Bridge does indeed follow the route of Stane Street through South London (give or take some wanderings and gaps which I will investigate in the next post). But he didn’t get everything right.



Grant argued that after passing through Ewell and Epsom, Stane Street ran on through Ashtead where there is a small Roman camp, and past Leatherhead to make its way down to the River Mole at Burford Bridge, and so on to the camp at Dorking. He therefore denied that Pebble Lane, which was so important to Belloc and lay further to the east, was part of Stane Street at all. In this, Grant was mistaken and Belloc was correct.

However when it came to the big picture, to the methods of the Roman engineers, an appreciation of the manner in which the road was made, and a practical sense of its route through South London, Captain W.A. Grant, formerly of the 13th Hussars, got it mostly right, while Hilaire Belloc, celebrated popular writer, got it seriously wrong.

Future posts: more on Stane Street’s route through South London including the Clapham Divergence, the Merton Tragedy, the Ewell and Epsom Mysteries, and several significant churches.

Roman radials: South London’s Roman roads

Previously I argued that the Romans may have chosen London’s (Londinium’s) site for three reasons: its status as virgin territory, a place of no particular British tribal significance; its location on the tidal Thames, a good place for a port; and its potential as a road junction, given the early focus on Kent, Essex and Hampshire as target areas for the consolidation of Roman power. In the next few posts I will focus on “the southern radial roads” as Ivan Margary, the great authority on Britain’s Roman roads, called them.

There are four of these “radial roads” running through South London, three of which still function today, as they have for nearly two thousand years, as major routes to and from the city.

Roman road map

Stane Street was the Roman road to Chichester and is now the A24 running through Kennington and Clapham, Balham and Tooting, Morden, Ewell and Epsom and on towards Dorking. Watling Street was the Roman road to Kent, more or less represented today by the A207 running down the Old Kent Road to New Cross, and on from Greenwich, Shooters Hill, Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford. These were both high-priority military highways.

The roads to Brighton and Lewes, on the other hand, were about trade and industry. They linked Londinium to farmland on the South Downs and iron-works in the Weald. The road to Brighton is now the A23 running through Brixton and Streatham towards Croydon.

Finally, the Roman road to Lewes is, for my money, the most intriguing of the lot. It heads down from the Old Kent Road through Peckham, Nunhead, Brockley, Beckenham and West Wickham, and passes by New Addington on its way to Titsey. It is represented by no major modern road, and effectively cuts across the grain of south-east London’s suburbs. But there are other traces on the landscape – parish boundaries, borough boundaries – which still remember it.

If the Lewes road is the most mysterious of the four, each of the others still has some controversy or debate attached to it.

Stane Street sign

Stane Street is remarkably well-represented by long, straight stretches of modern road, such as those from Newington Butts to Stockwell, and from Morden to Nonsuch Park. But it disappears completely from the modern map where it crosses the River Wandle; and again where it passes through Ewell and Epsom. Its precise course at these points has at times provoked furious debate.

Watling Street too comes with a conundrum, which centres on the ford or ferry which crossed the River Thames between Lambeth and Westminster. The question is: did Watling Street continue to the west, beyond its junction with Borough High Street, to link up with this ford? And if so, did it also continue on the other side of the river towards Marble Arch, to meet up with its northern branch on the Edgware Road?

Old Kent Road

As for the road to Brighton, the surprise here is its route through Croydon and beyond. Down through Brixton and Streatham to Thornton Heath the Roman road is reasonably well-represented by the A23. But from Broad Green onwards it takes a course which is quite unexpected, and which shows just how differently Roman engineers, and modern engineers, have responded to the landscape.

These are some of the questions I’ll be looking at in the next few posts.


South London begins

Roman Southwark is where South London began.

Rocque 1768 Southwark

 Of course ‘Southwark’ is not a Roman name. On the contrary, it is emphatically English, dating from the ninth century or later, when King Alfred re-occupied and re-built the city. Anglo-Saxon Southwark was the ‘South Work’, the works or workings on the south bank, and in this context ‘work’ probably meant ‘defensive work’, walls or stockades. Southwark’s alternative name of ‘The Borough’ recalls this, because ‘borough’ or ‘burgh’ was Alfred’s name for a defended settlement.

 However right now we are concerned not with the ninth century, but with the first to the fifth centuries; not with Anglo-Saxon Southwark but with Roman Southwark. Sadly we have no idea what the Romans called it, and no very clear idea of its relation to Londinium across the river.

  This stretch of the south bank of the Thames was an intricate river-scape of tidal creeks and mudflats, reeds and marshes, dotted with small islands which managed to keep themselves a few feet above the high-water mark. The Roman settlement at Southwark was based on two of these islands, north and south.

The north island was settled first – naturally, since it provided the bridge-head for the Thames crossing – and some basic riverside revetting was carried out even before Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61. After the revolt Londinium entered its boom-town phase and Southwark followed suit: both islands were settled by AD 100, in an orderly fashion with clear property boundaries. Quays were built along the riverfront in the late first and early second centuries, and marsh-land was drained and reclaimed at sites such as the future Courage’s Brewery and Winchester Palace. At its height, Roman Southwark had a population of perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 people.

 The general consensus is that Londinium started to decline from the late second century. Some of its quays were dismantled in the later third century to make way for the defensive riverside wall which marked the city’s shift from being primarily a port and market, to being primarily an administrative and military stronghold. Southwark apparently continued to flourish, maybe by tempting merchants to move their business from the north bank to the south. But it couldn’t hold out forever. By the fourth century it was in decline, and by the end of that century it had shrunk back to a small area around the bridge-head on the north island, reminiscent of its beginnings more than four hundred years earlier.

 But let’s imagine Roman Southwark in its prime, around AD 150. Anyone leaving Londinium to head south would cross the Thames bridge to Southwark, and carry on down the main road for about half a mile as it crossed the two islands, until it reached the mainland. There the road split into two at a junction: Stane Street heading south-west towards Chichester; and Watling Street going south-east to Kent.

Roman Southwark map

 We can still follow this route today. Borough High Street follows the line of the Roman road. A few yards beyond the junction with Southwark Street is roughly the crossing-point between the north and south islands.

 Southwark north south channel

 And a few yards before the church of St. George the Martyr

 Southwark St George's church

 is roughly the crossing point between the south island and the mainland.

 The road junction in front of the church is the Roman junction: the final section of Borough High Street and Newington Causeway form the first section of Stane Street; and Great Dover Street is the start of Watling Street.

 Close to this junction, behind the church, on land now bounded by Long Lane and Tabard Street

Southwark Roman temple 

 was a temple complex including ritual buildings and guest houses. This was established in the late second century, expanded in the third, and reduced in the fourth. Its location close to a junction of Roman roads, and to a later Christian church (St George’s was built in the 1730s to replace an earlier medieval church), is highly suggestive. We will pick up this theme in future posts.  

 From the fifth century, Roman Southwark went the way of London as a whole, abandoned as Britain was cut loose from the Empire, and lost touch with imperial networks and institutions. Nevertheless, this is where South London began, inseparable from the city across the river, but also distinct as a place in its own right.


London Begins: Only business

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather, when Tessio’s plot to assassinate Michael Corleone fails, Tessio is abruptly led off to execution. He turns to Tom Hagen and – mournfully and memorably – says: “Tell Mike I always liked him. It was only business”.

“Only business”. It could be London’s motto.

In my previous post I argued that the pre-Roman London region – and South London in particular – was an unregarded, thinly-inhabited back-water. Admittedly it sat on the banks of a major river, but so too did many other places with better soil and better prospects. Politically it was part of the Catuvellauni territory, but there is nothing to suggest that it held any importance for them, unlike Colchester, St. Albans, Dorchester, Rochester or Canterbury. And yet, within ten years of the Roman invasion, London was an entrepôt, a market, a place to make money, a place to do business.

The decision to create London involved political, military and commercial interests, and must have represented some sort of compromise between them.

From the point of view of the army and imperial authorities, their priorities in these early years were dictated by the geography of the invasion, and the locations of allies, and of actual or potential enemies. They needed to consolidate their grip on recently-conquered Catuvellauni territory in Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex. They needed a secure connection with their allies the Atrebates, on the south coast. They needed a jumping-off point for continuing campaigns to the north and west. They needed a single site from which they could reach out in all these different directions.

Roman priorities AD 43

But that site also needed to work for the merchants and craftsmen and financiers who were an indispensable part of the imperial project. They needed good access to the sea to bring in supplies for the army; and to kick-start a British export trade to tie the new province into the wider imperial trading system; and to import luxury goods as part of the standard Roman strategy of cultural assimilation, bribing local elites into acquiescence.

And finally, crucially, the Romans needed this site to be their site, a virgin site, unencumbered by local tribal associations or traditions.

The site they chose became London. They chose it because it was convenient as a river-crossing, acting as a junction for roads in all directions; convenient as a port because it was on a tidal river; and convenient because it had no previous existence, because it was a back-water. It offended no tribal dignity. It was a blank slate upon which the Romans could write a new city and make it entirely theirs.

Admittedly, this raises a question: if London was founded as an entirely Roman creation, why didn’t it have an entirely Roman name? Why was it called ‘Londinium’, which adds a Latin ending to a non-Latin place-name? The current philological view seems to be that ‘Londin’ is derived from the pre-Celtic, Indo-European word ‘plowonida’ meaning ‘fast-flowing river’, referring perhaps to the Thames from the point where it becomes tidal. If this is right, then ‘Londin’ is a metonym, a descriptive term for the river itself, recruited to serve as a place-name for a particular site upon the river. But this still doesn’t explain why the Romans chose to use this local term, rather than adopt one of their own.


Londinium Bridge – (c) Museum of London

 Until sometime in the second century, London seems to have kept itself outside the formal imperial/military structure which the Romans were imposing on the rest of the country. Former tribal centres such as St. Albans or Colchester were quickly adopted as Roman settlements; and large parts of the country were divided into civitates, cantons or administrative regions, sometimes based on pre-existing tribal territories and sometimes not. But London just got on with being London, so that around AD 98 the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that it “did not rank as a Roman settlement but was an important centre for merchants and goods”.

Rightly or wrongly, this conjures up a picture of a boom-town, devoted to the making of money, happy to turn a profit from import and export, and anxious to avoid outside control. This picture is consistent with the numerous letters on writing tablets, found during recent excavations in the City. These date from very soon after the city’s foundation, either side of Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61, and they are mostly concerned with business, with loans and repayments, purchase prices, deliveries, and the commercial value of a good reputation.


 Roman writing tablet –

Boom-town London didn’t last. In the late second and third centuries the Empire slipped into crisis. The cross-continental trade upon which London relied started to dry up. Horizons narrowed as imperial policy shifted to a new defensive stance organised around walled towns and cities, and provincial self-reliance. This was also a time of greater class inequality: Britain’s most luxurious villas date from this period. London meanwhile acquired new city walls, as markets and trade gave way to a new emphasis on administration and taxation, and its population fell.

In other words, London began as it has continued, an accommodation between money-making and power-play, profits and politics. Sometimes the emphasis is on money, sometimes on state-craft, but ultimately each feeds off the other. Nothing personal, it’s only business.


London Begins: Back-water

There is a whole literature about London as myth, ranging from the self-regarding psycho-geography of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd, to the seductive parallel-world fantasies of China Miéville or Ben Aaronovitch, plus countless bloggings and tweetings which in their various ways figure London as weird. And there are the wonderful age-old legends of London’s beginnings: its foundation as ‘New Troy’ by the Trojan refugee Brutus; its re-naming as ‘Lud’s Town’ by his descendant King Lud; or alternatively, its origin as a Druidic sacred site based on ritual mounds at Tower Hill, Tothill, Parliament Hill and Pentonville.

Sacred mounds

Frontispiece from E.O. Gordon’s Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles, 1932.

This is lovely stuff, enriching, poetically real. But not, sad to say, historically real. The historical reality is that London was created in cold blood in the AD 40s or 50s by brutal, energetic, and utterly prosaic Romans. Until then it was mainly a muddy stretch of riverside.

South London in particular was uninviting territory. Along the Thames it was a boggy prospect of marshes and creeks, dotted with ‘eyots’ or tiny islands of higher ground. Inland, much of it was on heavy London clay covered by dense oak woodland. It was not impossible to clear the trees and grow food: there are signs of Iron Age cultivation in Southwark, and at Canada Water and Elephant and Castle. But it was hard work. Most pre-Roman South Londoners chose to settle on better soils along the rivers at places like Charlton and Greenwich on the Thames, or sites on the Hogsmill and Cray; or further south, at sites such as Beddington and Keston. But in general South London in the late Iron Age, in the first-century BC and first-century AD, was a thinly-inhabited backwater.

Meanwhile, south-east Britain more broadly was a churning zone of tribal politics and rivalries, closely watched by the Romans just across the Channel. The key players were the Catuvellauni, whose home-base was in present-day Hertfordshire around St. Albans and Wheathampstead. To their east in Essex were the Trinovantes around Colchester; and to their south and west were the Atrebates in West Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire. The Catuvellauni were the most expansionist of these three peoples. It was probably their aggression against the other two – who had trading and tribal links with Roman Gaul and Germany – which provoked Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in BC 55 and 54, and Claudius’s full-scale invasion in AD 43.

For almost 90 years between these Roman incursions, however, the Catuvellauni managed their relations with Rome more discreetly, while continuing their territorial expansion. During most of this period they had just two kings, each of whom reigned for 30 years – an extraordinarily long time. First there was Tasciovanus, who ruled from about BC 20 to AD 10. He defeated or absorbed the Trinovantes and adopted their capital at Colchester, which was already the main point of entry for a lively trade with Roman Gaul and Germany. Tasciovanus set up a mint there and issued his own metal coins in the Roman manner. He also put pressure on the Atrebates to the south and tried – unsuccessfully – to persuade them to accept his brother as king. And he expanded his territories south of the Thames. His coins have been found across north Kent west of the Medway. His lands would therefore have included what is now South London, though I doubt if he paid it much attention. He would have been more interested in the richer land to the east, and in the Medway and the strategic site of Rochester.

Tasciovanus was succeeded by Cunobelinus – the historical model for Shakespeare’s legendary ‘Cymbeline’ – who ruled from about AD 10 to 40. He continued to expand Catuvellauni influence in Kent – his coins are found both west and east of the Medway – and came to control the whole Thames Estuary region on both the Essex side and the Kent side. From this position he maintained diplomatic and trading links with Roman Gaul and Germany, and tried to hold a pragmatic balance between the pro- and anti-Roman factions within his own family.

Cunobelinus coin

A coin of Cunobelinus, ruled AD 10 – 40:

When Cunobelinus died, power passed to two fiercely anti-Roman sons, Caratacus and Tugodumnus. Possibly they divided the realm between them, Tugodumnus taking the Catuvellauni heartland north of the Thames, while Caratacus took the smaller but strategically placed lands in Kent. They also resumed pressure on the Atrebates to the south, and when the Atrebates’ king asked the Romans for help, the Emperor Claudius took it as a justification for invasion. Having arrived on the imperial throne in dubious circumstances, and without any reputation as a warrior, Claudius needed a military triumph, and the exotic island of Britain, perched on the edge of the world, fitted the bill.

The Roman invasion in AD 43 was a grimly business-like affair. The invaders aimed to break the power of the Catuvellauni, and they succeeded, and their success stemmed from their ability to surprise. Their arrival was a surprise, landing unopposed at Richborough. They won their first battle against Caratacus on the Medway by adopting unconventional tactics. They crossed the Thames and won a second battle where Tugodumnus was killed. They then continued to Colchester and finished the job. But the question for us Londoners is: where exactly did they cross the Thames?

Our primary source for the campaign is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. However, he was writing more than a hundred years after the events he describes, and his account is vague and dwells largely on individual deeds of valour. Regarding the crossing point, he says that the Britons “withdrew to the Thames, at a point where it flows into the sea and at high tide forms a lake” which suggests somewhere on the estuary; but he then refers to warriors swimming across the river and using a bridge, which suggests somewhere entirely different. Nevertheless, his account has traditionally been treated as broadly reliable. The usual interpretation is that from the Medway, Roman soldiers marched west for about 40 miles along the line of the future Watling Street, to cross the Thames either from Southwark near the future site of London Bridge, or at a ford somewhere near the future site of Westminster Bridge. They fought and won their second battle: one author suggests that the City of London was the battle-ground. And then they set off again, now heading north-east towards Colchester, about 60 miles away.

According to this traditional account, therefore, the significance of London is that it was the crossing-point chosen by the Roman army in AD 43.


Sensible route

 Roman march on Colchester AD 43: traditional route vs sensible route

I’m no military strategist, but to my mind this makes little sense. Having won their battle on the Medway, the Romans’ strategic target was Colchester, lying north-north-east directly across the Thames estuary. So why set off to the west, even if the Catuvellauni were retreating in that direction? Why commit themselves to a round trip of 100 miles or so? Why not retain the initiative and head straight across the estuary, using the transports in which they had just crossed the Channel? This idea was floated by P. Thornhill in the 1970s, who suggested a crossing between Highbury in Kent and Tilbury in Essex, and it makes a lot more sense to me. Admittedly it contradicts some of the anecdotal detail of Dio Cassius, but not the overall logic of his narrative.

 If this is right, London is not the result of a Roman military decision in AD 43. Instead, it is the result of some other Roman decision, made as they consolidated their position in the following years. What might that have been? Watch this space.


London: adjacent to England

I want to talk about the EU Referendum, London, and history. And I want to flag up my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop on 4th July.

History first: a slippery term. We use it to refer both to the historical process, the raw sequence of past events; and also to the study, interpretation, and teasing out of meanings from that process. Historical interpretation is always about a past which is addressed from the standpoint of the present. It always involves a dialogue between past and present and – at its best – a new understanding of the past in the light of the present, or vice versa, or both.

So let’s talk about past and present. Let’s talk about yesterday and today. Yesterday – 23rd June 2016 – was the day when we all voted in the EU Referendum. Today – 24th June 2016 – is the day when we learned that we had voted to leave. By any measurement, this is an historic moment, a dramatic moment. It is also, in my view, a catastrophic moment. The 17 million people who voted Leave have set us on a course which will blight and belittle this country for the rest of our lives.

As for the national and regional breakdown of the vote, as expected, Scotland and London were the two great strongholds of the vote to Remain. The Scottish case is, I think, well understood: a direct outcome of its national politics over the past 15 to 20 years, including the 2014 Referendum and the current domination of the SNP. But what about London?

I think the London vote, and the divide between London and the rest of England and Wales, is the latest manifestation of an historic truth which goes back to the Civil War: that London is not part of England; that London is its own place.

What characterises London, and has done since the seventeenth century, is its sheer size, its weight, by comparison with the rest of the country. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, London was an average-sized European capital city. But by 1650 when Cromwell was in power, London’s population had grown five-fold. By 1700 it was the largest city in western Europe. By 1800 it was a city of a million people, an unprecedented urban phenomenon. No other capital city matched it either for size, or for the sheer weight of its economic, political and cultural dominance.

London’s population growth was based not on native Londoners having lots of children, but on sustained inward migration from the rest of Britain. The city’s death-rate was sky-high because it was over-crowded, filthy and disease-ridden – but immigrants continued to arrive on such a scale that, despite this mortality, it still grew.

And this had dramatic economic consequences, because each migrant from the countryside to London was one less agricultural worker, and one more urban consumer. London’s growth depopulated parts of the countryside, and gave farmers both an incentive and an opportunity to rationalise and reorganise agriculture on a capitalist basis in order to feed the city’s enormous appetite. Similarly with clothing: cloth trades were London’s biggest industry, again organised as a highly competitive sector, from petty-bourgeois artisans at the top end to deadly but profitable sweatshops at the bottom. And similarly with building: the absence of any city-wide administration meant that London’s suburbs simply sprawled outwards into the surrounding countryside, facilitated by the building-lease system which split risks and profits between landowners and builders. London drove the commercial logic that led to Britain’s emergence as the world’s first capitalist country.

London’s phenomenal growth was not a pleasant process. It involved enormous violence and misery. It was only in the nineteenth century that city-wide institutions started to appear to tackle dirt, disease, poverty and poor housing. I am not arguing that London was – or is – intrinsically nicer, or more sophisticated, or more advanced, than the rest of the country. What I am arguing is that London was – and is – utterly different from the rest of the country. It was – and is – a different place, in which politics and culture work in different ways. It was – and is – a city predicated on migration, in and out. It was not – and is not – England’s biggest city, but rather an extraordinary urban prodigy adjacent to England.

And I reckon London’s vote in the Referendum is the latest reflection of this difference. What we do with it, whether we can put it to work against the catastrophic consequences of Brexit, isn’t yet clear. But getting a grasp on London’s unique history should at least give us food for thought.

I’ll be tackling some of these issues in my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop in Upper Norwood, at 7.30 pm on Monday 4th July. All welcome. For more go to