Southwark is a borough of pioneers.
We were a place of ancient worship, London’s first Roman suburb, a springboard for pilgrims and adventurers. We have long been a gateway to places both near and far, whether leaving on vessels such as the Mayflower or arriving to find a welcome community in a borough of travellers.
Southwark was the rebellious, untamed cousin to the City of London where vice and virtue mixed freely, outwith the law.
Our prisons and churches alike overflowed, as did our great theatres and places of spectacle and entertainment. The first modern day circus was here, started by Phillip Astley 250 years ago.
Our hive of merchants, provisioners, engineers, shipbuilders, sailors, dockers, builders, entrepreneurs and artisans enabled exploration, trade and industry. Literary, social, and scientific pioneers include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faraday, Babbage, Kirkaldy, Chaplin, Wollstonecraft, Harvard, Browning, Salter, Hill and many others.
The area developed from a series of rural villages into a major urban development, bringing a different feel to its new streets.
Dulwich Picture Gallery was the world’s first purpose built art gallery. London Bridge station was the first railway terminus in the capital. The Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens in Walworth tried to rival Regent’s Zoo and had the biggest glass house in Europe, before the Crystal Palace. We even pioneered the modern British biscuit when Peek Freans gave us garibaldis, bourbons and digestives, not to mention the Joy Slide, a gift of the Peak Freans chairmen to the children of Bermondsey.
Our experiments in health care and social improvement were groundbreaking.
Octavia Hill led the way on decent housing for the poor and her own Southwark model idea, based in open, healthy and green living spaces, was copied by authorities all over Europe and the USA.
Bermondsey Borough Council and Dr Alfred Salter pioneered health improvements for the working classes, including the first centralised municipal clinic in the country and took the message to the streets using cine vans showing public health films.
Ada Salter was the first woman mayor in London (and the first labour woman mayor in Britain). Her tireless work, both with Alfred above and leading her own campaigns, tackled poverty, suffrage and women’s rights, housing and “beautification” of the urban environment, which she saw as a key to health and wellbeing.
The Peckham Experiment included the building of the Pioneer health centre and the roll out of a bold mid-20th century social experiment which involved selected families to take part in programmes of social, cultural and physical activities and closely monitored the results. This holistic approach was ahead of its time and proved health was about more than just the absence of disease.
In more recent times, the new Globe theatre revitalised Shakespeare for a new era, the Shard broke records with height and design, Tate Modern revolutionised the art experience by slamming our industrial past together with the revolutionary art of their times.
At a local level this borough has championed fresh and highly successful ventures bringing new life to our buildings and streets. All of these have culture at their core but even more importantly they bring new jobs and opportunities. They include the Bussey Building, Peckham Levels and Hotel Elephant, independent ventures for artisans, artists, performers and entrepreneurs.
People always came here to express themselves, to recreate themselves and prepare themselves for a new life. People still do.
We proudly claim to be one of London’s most historic boroughs and we want to truly celebrate our rich past. But we also champion our growing and vibrant cultural present.