Archaeology, Archaeology Research

Upper Pool – 16th century to today

Here’s the third and final part of a piece on the past of the Tooley Street area: this one tackles everything from the 16th century onwards…

By the 16th century London was booming. With the massive influx of people came an expansion in the settlements not just to the north, but also on the Southbank. This meant that out area north of Tooley Street was no longer the abode of the rich and famous, but by the 17th century had been colonised by the more practical members of London’s fraternity.

Excavations show that the network of waterways, moats and the mill streams were swiftly altered, with many being culverted at first in wooden pipes such as hollowed out elm trees, and later in lead pipes. Rubbish and other material was brought in and dumped to raise the ground level and dry out the area, and small buildings and alleys sprung up.

By the end of the 18th century maps show that these initial buildings had been replaced by rows of terraced buildings. However by the 19th century London was the biggest city in the world, and the expanding population required massive imports of food. Thus our area swiftly became dominated by docks and wharfs where the ships of the day would unloads foodstuffs originating not only in Britain, but from across the world.

Incidentally, in 1861 there was a fire that destroyed many buildings over two days, eventually smouldering for two weeks before being put out. However at this time the London Fire Engine Establishment was being run by insurance companies, and it was this fire (in which the head of the Establishment was killed) that made the companied put pressure on the government to take over. As a result, it was the Tooley Street fire which spurred on the develompent of the National Fire Service!

Wikimedia image by David Illif

Anyway, the area became known as “The larder of London”, surviving the advent of the train and both World Wars. It was dominated by brick warehousing, wharfs, alleyways and stairs, crowded round by low cost housing for the workers. Part of this landscape can be recaptured if you walk along the riverbank under London Bridge, near The Clink Museum, where the cobbled streets and close-packed warehouses remain from this time. It was an important part of the Port of London, referred to as the Upper Pool. Today it seems impossible to imagine, but this area would have been teeming with people, horses and carts, and full of noise. It would have been almost impossible to even see the river, as at its peak hundreds of ships would have been moored on banks and wharfs.

However use of the wharfs declined as the size of ships increased, and the final nail in the coffin was the advent of containerised transport, which required much larger vessels. In the 1960s docks and wharfs up and down the south bank from Southwark to the Docklands closed, and by the 1980s many of the Victorian warehouses were left derelict and, despite being close to the City, the area was populated by less than 4000 people.

In answer to this a massive regeneration work was undertaken. London Bridge City Phase I tackled the area roughly from London Bridge to approximately the Battle Bridge Lane, and attempted in many places to refurbish and find new occupants for the river-front buildings. A success story from this project is Hays Galleria, where the wharf buildings were constructed in a U-shape around a dock in the 1850s. Today the dock has been filled in, the area roofed in glass, and the building successfully converted to a shopping precint.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the area between Battle Bridge Lane and Tower Bridge Road, where Phase II of the project saw the demolition of much of the riverside wharfs and the loss of the original road plan. If we look at the current Googlemap of the area (zoom in a bit):

Both Abbots and Morgan’s Lanes are still marked, despite that fact that the modern satellite images show that both are in the process of destruction. As can also be seen, construction work is still ongoing, and there is still debate as to what will fill the final area near Tower Bridge Road. Although I like the modern riverfront and the new Town Hall, I think it’s going to be very difficult to find a suitable building for the remaining area – the empty site lies directly opposite the Tower of London and near Tower Bridge, both sites which are prominant landmarks and important parts of the landscape.

Any structure situated on the site will be of constrained hieght to prevent it impacting on views of the Tower and the bridge, and less floors ultimately means less potential for profit. Add to that the recent downturn in construction, and it remains to be seen whether the site will see anything but its current hot air balloon occupants for some time. Let’s hope that when the time for construction comes, there will be the chance for archaeological excavation, as its clear that this area could be very interesting.

As with the other two parts, information was derived from reports by Museum of London Archaeology, some of which can be found online under the Southwark fieldwork summaries, or general fieldwork summaries (search for ‘Tooley Street’ for starters), or under “Excavation Reviews” in the back issues of London Archaeologist available at ADS here. See also Tooley Street Fire at MOLA, and Port Cities and an extract from a diary of the period. And there’s always Wikipedia.

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