Roman Southwark is where South London began.
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.
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.
And a few yards before the church of St. George the Martyr
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
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.