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Horsleydown also written as Horseley Down
written by Margaret Helen Weeks in 1972
When I was a little girl, my Grandfather and old Aunt who lived with us, used often to talk about a place called Horsleydown. My Grandfather and his brother owned a small building and decorating business in Tooley Street, to which I must have been taken at some time, but all I can remember is a white painted shop and a street lined with plane trees. What I do remember, though, is how much I liked the name 'Horsleydown' probably because it had such a pleasant rural sound. So I found myself trying to do a bit of historical investigation with very little idea how to set about it.
Publications on Horselydown
First of all, I borrowed Walker Besants' book on South London written in 1898. Beyond reproducing a rather delightful picture of Horsleydown fair in 1590, by Hoffnager, a pupil of Holbein (this picture is now at Hatfield House), he gave me no encouragement at all for my project.
Well that was not a very encouraging start, and written too before Hitler had had a go at Dockland, but it was rather what I had feared.
My own investigations
The only thing to do was to take a look at it myself, so on a damp Monday morning I took a train to London Bridge and walked down Tooley Street about three quarters of a mile to the site of the original Horsleydown.
In sunny June the place would not have been attractive, but, I think, the damp winter air made a more sympathetic atmosphere for the colourless, almost deserted streets. I had expected to find heavy dock traffic thundering down Tooley Street, but was surprised to find it much easier to cross than Wickham High Street! The plane trees were gone, and bonded warehouses and importing houses towered above the roadway with here and there a dreary public house or a cafe called Sole Mio or Ted’s. Nearer Tower Bridge there are some very solid flats called Hanover Buildings - put up at the end of the last century - to last! The few rather empty shops are evidence that people do not live here if they can possibly get away. In fact it is only in Horsleydown Lane itself where the restrained affluence of Courages’ brewery shows any evidence of prosperity. At the spot where Tower Bridge Road crosses Tooley Street stands the shell of St Johns’ Church -bombed on September 20th 1940 - surrounded by high railings and bright green grass. I was told it looks very pretty in the summer with flowers growing out of the top! On the other side of the street the graveyard (without green grass) and a few ancient tombstones leaning against the walls, is intended to be a children’s playground. There must be some children about because there is quite a large - but not modern - school in Fair Street. Right by Tower Bridge is the building which until four years ago housed St. Olave’s Grammar School. Owing to the decline in population this boys school has moved to new premises at Orpington.
As Sir Walker warned me, I could not find an ancient fragment left except in the names of the streets. Fair Street I have mentioned; then there are Potters Fields, Weavers Lane, Abbots Lane, Shad Thames and Crucifix Lane. To find out more, I went to Southwark Central Library where Mr. Hampton the curator was most kind and helpful. At his suggestion I looked up two articles on the history of Horsleydown in the surrey Archaeological Collection at Croydon Libraiy. These presented a very different picture.
Horselydown in medieval times
In medieval times Horsleydown was just what it’s name suggests - a pasture where horses and cattle were put to graze. There is, I am afraid, no truth in the legend that King John (or as my Aunt Maria averted - Queen Elizabeth) had trouble with his mount there. It was probably, at one time, an eyot formed by two tributaries of the Thames; one flowing in at a spot below London Bridge now known as Battle Bridge Stairs and the other a mill stream entering at St. Saviour’s Dock.
The Down was the property of Bermondsey Abbey and was reached from London Bridge by Tooley Street. This street as you probably know takes its name from St. Olaves, for centuries the parish church of the district, which stood near the site of the present London Bridge Station. ‘Tooley’ is thought to be a corruption of St. Olaves and in old maps it is often marked as St. Toolys Street. In the middle ages many church dignitaries and noblemen had establishments in Tooley Street where they could live in rural surroundings close to the city. Horsleydown was, at that time, according to documents, unbelievably idyllic - the Thames was sparkling and full of fish; the mill stream was famous for its swans, the meadow was lush and green. Only a reference to the Cage and the Stocks erected on the western approaches to the Down, struck a slightly discordant note.
Horselydown in Tudor times
In 1537 the Abbot was forced to surrender the possessions of the Abbey to Henry VIII and later the Manor was granted to the City of London by Edward VI. In 1559 Henry Leake, a brewer, endowed £8 for the purpose of building a grammar school and in I 561 a free grammar school was founded by the parishioners of St. Olaves. Ten years later, by Charter of Queen Elizabeth I, the freehold of Horsleydown was conveyed to the Governors of the school, to whom it still belongs, for £6 per annum. Later, a piece of the Down was leased. Leasees for the parish were:
- William Whitworth - parchment maker
- Henry Dalton - citizen and apothecary of London
- John Mann - mariner
- Isaac Dacey - citizen and dyer
- Agatholes Carter - felt-maker
- George Harvey - baker
These leasees (on behalf of the Church warden of St. Olaves) were enjoined ‘To hold the same unto the Leasees, their Executors, Administrators and Assigns from Mid Summer Day, then last, for the term of 500 years at the yearly rent of a red rose, payable at Midsummer if lawfully demanded, upon Trust that the Churchwardens of the said Parish during the said term should be permitted from time to time during the said term of 500 years to hold and enjoy all and singular the said premises and all erections and buildings thereafter to be erected upon the same to receive and take for the use of the Churchwardens and rest of the Parishioners the better to defray the public charge of the said Parish and for the maintenance and relief of the Poor and lndigent People there’. The Charitable Trust still exists but the estate known as the Red Rose Estate was made over in 1948 to the Borough Council who have built a block of flats on it - much more useful but less romantic than a red rose!
During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, too, there was an influx of Flemish and French refugees. They brought with them their skills as brewers, tanners and gardeners. Tanning is still carried on extensively to the south of Horsleydown and there was by the governors to the parish for a charitable trust. The certainly a brewery in Horsleydown Lane in the time of Dr. Johnson, owned by Mr. Thrale who with his wife was a good friend of the Doctor.
In 1636 a Captain Grooves sought licence to enclose a piece of the south west corner of Horsleydown with a brick wall, and later, the Artillery Hall was erected where the train bands of Southwark could practice. This hail was in 1725 converted to a workhouse.
Horselydown in the 17th and18th centuries
In 1662 the Governors of the school sought licence to build brick houses near the water, where they were let to seamen. it was at this period that the district began to lose its rural character. A tract of meadow over by St. Saviour’s Docks was covered with streets and houses, and, in consequence of the great increase in population., St. John’s Church was built on part of the fields where the old train bands had exercised. The church was consecrated in 1733, being one of about fifty new churches built during Queen Anne’s reign. It was built in the classical style had seating for a thousand. The rather distinctive steeple was an Ionic column with a weather vane on top.
Horselydown in Victorian times
Soon after this St. John’s Girls’ School was established at the corner of Potters Fields and Tooley Street ‘for the instruction, clothing and maintenance of a certain number of female children of the poor with a view to fitting them for service’. St. Olave’s Trust made a grant of £100 but when in 1871 this was discontinued a charge of 2d, and later 6d a week was made.
The streets on the river side of Tooley Street were crowded and unhealthy and many of. the houses were still made of wood. Here a cholera epidemic broke out in 1850; followed in 1861 by a great fire which raged for several weeks. Great masses of burning fat floated down the Thames from warehouses and set small craft alight. It is said, that for months afterwards, people waded into the river and skimmed off the floating fat.
As far as I can discover, Victorian Horsleydown was a hardworking community whose livelihood depended on the wharves and docks of the Pool of London. A dockers life in those days was a precarious one. Whether he had work or not depended on the number of ships in the Pool. A few permanent hands known as ‘Royals’ were employed on a casual basis by the hour, but for the vast majority waiting to be taken on was a most degrading business. Then there were the Lightermen who manned the flat-bottomed boats from which ships in mid stream were loaded or unloaded. Their situation was quite different since they were licensed by the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company.
At the steps - Battlebridge and Horsleydown - were the ferrymen who earned a living rowing people across the river, or sailors to their ships.
Every summer there was a regatta at Horsleydown. This was quite an event and the streets were decorated with flags and bunting. The watermen competed for a new skiff and prizes varying from 30/- to £5 would be given.
In the last decade of the century, an event occurred about which information was . surprisingly scarce - the Tower Bridge was built and Tower Bridge Road, sixty feet wide, was cut right through the middle of Horsleydown. One street - Freemans Row -disappeared in the process, but entirely, as far as I can find out, without protest.
From 1880 onwards the population of Horsleydown was slowly decreasing. The younger generation, as they married, moved away to New Cross, Peckham and other south eastern suburbs - as did my mother and father and all their friends.
Horsleydown in the early 20th century
Now, since with larger ships trade has moved further down river, the wharves are closing – Hayes Wharf has gone, Butler’s closes next month. The district must be due for redevelopment sometime in the near future. I do not imagine that the Thames will again be sparkling and full of fish, that swans will glide on St. Saviour’s Dock nor that Horsleydown will be a meadow once more. But surely it is a possibility that there may be open space again along the Thames bank - rather in the style of the South Bank development.
How Horsleydown has changed in more recent times