There’s another side to London.
Beyond the jurisdiction of the City,
Undiscovered by outsiders.
Loved by insiders.
An ever-changing place …
That teases our wildside and thrills our artside.
Blurs our workside into our playside.
Where we live on the brightside..
And explore our darkside.
Hidden in plain sight, this is Bankside.
Dan Radley, NB Studio
You’ve seen the ravens at the Tower of London, enjoyed evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral and visited Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. So, you might just be ready to seek another side of the city. Join London Blue Badge guide Antony Robbins as he heads south of the river to discover London’s darkside – at Bankside.
Bankside – Banksyde in old English – was London’s original centre of chaotic fun and riotous debauchery. Occupied by invading Romans, attacked by rampaging Vikings, favoured by exotic foreigners, Bankside developed outside the city’s jurisdictions. Here the strictures of polite society never quite applied. Chaotic taverns and riotous brothels thrived from the 11th century. Various kings, including (somewhat surprisingly) Henry VIII tried to regulate the taverns and the sex trade: seeking to discourage disorderly behaviour in his soldiers.
Back then, taverns and brothels were largely the same thing. Ladies of the night – though integral to local life – were shunned by society. For centuries, Bankside prostitutes found a final resting place in the Crossbones Graveyard. The Victorians closed the crammed cemetery when heavy rains forced bodies to appear above the soil. Today Crossbones is venerated as Bankside’s Shrine to the outcast dead. This is an atmospheric slice of contemporary London folklore. Here, those outside the mainstream – from Elizabethan courtesans to 20th century DJs – are remembered in a monthly candlelit vigil.
So where exactly is Bankside?
A newcomer to the city might struggle to place Bankside on a modern map. It’s the former working-class locale just over the river from the more buttoned-up City of London. If you know New York’s Lower West Side and love the Meatpacking District, then you are in for a treat at Bankside.
Bear pits and the Bard
By the 17th century, Bankside was also home to bloody bear-baiting pits, whose evidence can still be found – if you know where to look. The neighbourhood’s big draw, however, was its raucous theatres. William Shakespeare and his associates opened the Globe here in 1599. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1613 when a theatrical cannon ignited the set during one of the Bard’s lesser-known plays – Henry V111. The only victim of the conflagration was an actor whose pantaloons caught fire. The flames were extinguished with a bottle of beer – an admirably Bankside solution.
Birth of the drag queen
Women were forbidden from treading the boards in Elizabethan times. Young men undertook female roles instead and many became adept at traversing the stage in complicated hooped female costumes. They became known as the queens of the drag. And so, the drag queen was born here in Bankside.
Bawdiness and the Bard
Re-built in 1614, the Globe was demolished in 1644. In 1997 it rose again, recreated by American actor-director Sam Wanamaker. Today, Londoners can once again see Shakespeare’s dramas, comedies and tragedies ‘in the round,’ just as Shakespeare intended. Bankside’s bawdiness didn’t begin with the Bard, however. Geoffrey Chaucer’s raucous Canterbury Tales from the 1400s relate to a pilgrimage that departs from the Tabard Inn, just off nearby Borough High Street.
A neighbourhood re-born
The re-establishment of the Globe here in Bankside kick-started the revival of this post-industrial neighbourhood. The former Bankside power station became the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in the year 2000. The Millennium footbridge, which runs to its front door, was opened at the same time. Today the neighbourhood is characterised by theatres, bars and fine restaurants and people flock to Borough Market to sample some of the city’s finest produce.
Bankside’s history is nevertheless one of riot and insurrection. During the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the local Marshalsea Prison was torched. In 1780 the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots kicked off here too, this time they burnt down Bankside’s Clink Prison. In 1841 Dickens captured this torrid episode in Barnaby Rudge – his first historical novel.
Long-dominated by smelly industries, like brewing, vinegar-making, light industry and tanneries, tenter grounds flanked the neighbourhood. These were open areas where animal skins were dried: hence the origin of our modern-day expression ‘being on tenter-hooks,’ when we feel anxious.
Grit in the oyster
Bankside’s chaotic and rebellious past influences independent spirit today. There’s still a bit of grit in the oyster here and the neighbourhood’s history is etched into its very stones. See where the 18th-century watermen (the Uber drivers of yesteryear) transported fine gentlemen from the city for a night on the tiles. Discover the old ship’s gun re-purposed as 19th-century mooring.
A little moment of calm
Despite its edgy past, Bankside still has space to relax and reflect. Blitzed in the war, the former church of All Hallows, Southwark, is today a community garden. The evidence of the 1940s firebombing still scorches the remaining stone of this former neo-gothic church, the work of architect George Gilbert Scott.
Scott was part of a dynasty. His father (also George), built Hyde Park’s Albert Memorial. His son Giles built what is now Bankside’s Tate Modern – and designed the red telephone box. The younger George (known as middle Scott) although less celebrated, was the finer architect. But he was riven by demons, dying an alcoholic aged 52, in a building designed by his more famous father – the Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras. All Hallows has another claim to fame. The adjoining Copperfield Studio was the birthplace of British electro-pop: 80s synth band Depeche Mode recorded its seminal album Speak and Spell here. The band’s still going strong.
Day of the Death Eaters
There’s plenty here for film buffs. Bridget Jones (she of the diary) lived in the Borough Market. Nearby was the drug den in Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The Millennium Bridge was destroyed by those pesky Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Bankside’s rich, chaotic and diverse cultural heritage has shaped the world. And today the neighbourhood is re-inventing itself and, yet at the same time, returning to its roots as London’s centre of entertainment.
Join me to unearth London’s secret history here in Bankside, London’s other side – London’s darkside.
Antony Robbins, aka Mr Londoner, is a communications consultant and broadcaster. He’s also a Blue Badge London Guide. He leads regular tours of Bankside, working closely with Better Bankside, the neighbourhood’s business improvement district.
Thanks to Better Bankside and Dan Radley of NB Studio for reproducing his words, part of a recent campaign to promote the neighbourhood.