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Bad Bankside

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By Alice Ford-Smith (Principal Librarian, Dr Williams’s Library) and Dr Richard Barnett (Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow)

‘Here the costermongers, tramps and thieves dwell, in close, ill-built, pestilential courts, in filth, squalor and degradation …’

Twenty-first-century Bankside is on the rise, and quite right too. But the district’s grim past is only a footstep away, lurking in the shadows with who knows what intent.  This self-guided walk will carry you back through the swirling miasmas of urban history, to a chapter in Bankside’s story that you did well to avoid. Created by Alice Ford-Smith (Principal Librarian, Dr Williams’s Library) and Dr Richard Barnett (Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow), this walk will exhume the lives and deaths of Bankside’s residents and workers at a time when this huddle of docks, slums and workshops was respectable London’s murky mirror-image. 

The walk will end a few minutes from London Bridge station, and just seconds from a cosy pub!

Start by celebrating a man who may well have inspired the character of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas carol. George Peabody established the Peabody Donation Fund in 1862 at a time when there was no state obligation to help the poor. He ended up giving away around twenty five million pounds in today’s money for the provision of better housing through estates like this one.

Almshouses have existed for over a thousand years to enable individuals in need to retain their independence in the local community. These almshouses were founded from a trust set up by Charles Hopton who died in 1731. Each of the twenty six cottages consisted of a sitting room entered directly from the courtyard with a single room above.

For more than a century Kirkaldy & Co was Britain’s leading quality-control engineers. The company performed tests for such stresses as pulling, thrusting, bending, twisting, shearing, punching and bulging. The original 48 foot long machine, built in 1865 by David Kirkaldy, is able to apply a load of over three hundred tons and can be seen working on the first Sunday of every month.

The Women's University Settlement came here in 1887 to focus on improving the welfare of the area’s women and children. The volunteers established such services as Saturday schools, a home for district nurses and an employment register for disabled children. Their work is still continued, over a hundred years later, as the Blackfriars Settlement in nearby Great Suffolk Street.

In the Victorian era some of the largest warehouses of tea, coffee and chocolate anywhere in the world were here. James Ashby & Sons traded tea and coffee, and the Menier chocolate factory was just a few streets away. The area was also renowned for its taverns. By the eighteenth century many landlords were making a fortune by selling new distilled spirits like gin.

London was the first city in the world to have more than a million inhabitants but there was no coherent infrastructure for providing fresh water or removing sewage. The outcry led to sanitary and social reform in the nineteenth century. One of the major improvements was an effective sewer system and the cast iron ventilation column is a memorial to this work.

The Victorian inhabitants of this area were famed for low levels of church attendance excepting such special occasions as weddings, baptisms and funerals. The Ten Commandments may not have been strictly followed but there was a good shared sense of social justice .This was probably one of the few pluses about living here, as the homes were overcrowded, insanitary and poorly built.

In 1907 this building was opened by the charitable Shaftesbury Society to educate and assist the children of the area. Its original use was relatively short and now a photographer called Zanna manages the building as a multi-use arts space. Meanwhile, the Shaftesbury Society’s work is continued as Livability, the UK’s largest Christian disability charity.

The Bishop of Winchester built a palace nearby in 1109, parts of which can still clearly be seen on Clink Street. Much of this luxury was funded through the activities of prostitutes as the Bishops had the right to license and tax the many local brothels. Prostitutes could not be buried in consecrated ground and were laid to rest instead here in what is known as Cross Bones Graveyard.