Famed for its market, the area around the southern end of London Bridge is generally simply known as Borough. But that’s just an abbreviation – Borough is actually a contracted version of Borough of Southwark.

Borough-StationThe origins of the word borough come from the Old English burh, a word which originally simply referred to a ‘fortified place’ and, in this case, referred to the settlement which, since Roman times, had grown up outside the city walls around the southern approaches to London Bridge.

It later came to mean a town with its own locally-based government and, according to Cyril M Harris in What’s In A Name?, Southwark was, in the later Middle Ages, the only London borough outside the City Wall which had its own MP.

The fact that the borough was outside City jurisdiction meant it become a popular place for inns, theatres and other forms of entertainment including the infamous Southwark Fair.

Although ‘Borough’ can still be used as an alternative word for the entire Borough of Southwark, these days when people refer to ‘The Borough’, they’re often referring to just a small district of the much larger borough.

While it’s hard to get a fix on exactly where the boundaries of this district are, at the heart of this area is Borough High Street and landmarks particularly associated with it include the Borough Market (see our earlier post here) as well as Southwark Cathedral and the galleried George Inn as well as the Church of St George The Martyr (and, of course, its own Tube station, which opened in 1890).

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One of those somewhat confusing placenames where the ‘w’ is effectively silent, Southwark (pronounced something like Suh-thuck) is a sizeable district south of the River Thames and one of the city’s oldest areas.

The area, which was settled as far back as Saxon times, takes its name from the Old English words suth or sud weorc which translates as “southern defensive work” and relates to the fact that the site is south of the City of London and at the southern end of London Bridge (the first bridge here was built by the Romans). While it was this name which was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, in the 900s the area was recorded as Suthriganaweorc which meant ‘fort of the men of Surrey’.

The name Southwark was also applied to borough which sat south of the river and still exists today – the Borough of Southwark. This in turn became shortened to just Borough, hence the name borough still exists as an alternative for part of Southwark even today (think of Borough Market and Borough High Street).

Part of Roman Londinium, Southwark was effectively abandoned after the end of Roman rule and then reoccupied by Saxons in the late 800s when the ‘burh’ (borough) of Southwark was created. It developed considerably in the medieval period and became known for its inns (think of the pilgrim inn, The Tabard, in The Canterbury Tales).

The area, particularly Bankside – part of the Borough of Southwark, also become known as an entertainment district with theatres and bear-baiting pits as well as a red-light district. It was also known for its prisons, in particular The Clink (controlled by the Bishop of Winchester), Marshalsea and the King’s Bench.

The area was also a centre of industry – everything from brewing to tanning – and came to boast numerous docks and warehouses (when it also became a centre of the food processing industry). With the closure of the docks, it’s retail, tourism, creative industries and the financial services which are dominant in the area today.

Landmarks are many thanks to the area’s long and colorful history (far too many to list in this short piece) but among major sites are Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market, and the George Inn as well as the Old Operating Theatre, Guy’s Hospital, and a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hinde. Personalities associated with the area (again far too many to list here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

PICTURE: Southwark Cathedral © Copyright Kevin Danks and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For more, check out Southwark: A History of Bankside, Bermondsey and the Borough