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Got Hops?: Southwark Borough High Street

This is a post on the geography of the hop trade in London in the 1730s, but it’s really more than that. It’s actually the product of research I had to do to figure out where exactly my protagonist was walking in one scene of the novel I’m writing, and what it probably looked like. As such, it veers between all of this:

There’s woodcuts and drawings of the time, and texts too. All that, for a few pages of fiction… which is why historical fiction is so tricky to write well! You can’t just walk out your door and see how the Londoners of the early Georgian era lived.  You have to sit down and do the research… or get stuff wrong.

Today, if you want hops, you either need to visit your local homebrew show (or “LHBS,” as homebrewers online call them) or go online and place an order. However, in Georgian England, at least in the countryside, homebrewing was so common that small packets of hops were at grocer’s shops. This may have been the case in some grocer’s shops within London as well, though my source (Peter Mathias,  The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830) specifies this as a phenomenon outside London.

I’ve already discussed the Stourbridge Hop Fair in a past post (with much more in a follow-up post)… so much so that I may have given a mistaken picture of how the hop market worked in England in the 1730s. Stourbridge was impressive, and served a lot of brewers outside London… but most of the hop trade was really centered on London, and even a lot of the hops in Stourbridge passed through London first. Not all, but a lot, at least according to Peter Mathias.

In some future post, I’ll talk a little about the geography and economics of hops in England more generally, since it’s pretty fascinating: the waves of urban poor heading out into the countryside to pick hops–which was the closest thing to a holiday in the countryside that many people in their circumstances ever got–and the interesting pattern of hop-cultivation being limited to three major areas historically, but also expanding and contracting as hop harvests improved and worsened year-to-year.

And, before I move on, it’s worth noting that the hop trade was a big deal in England prior to the twentieth century: so much so that Victorian newspapers regularly carried updates on “The Hop Market” detailing the current hop crop nationwide: was a good or a bad harvest anticipated, was fungus blighting the crop significantly here or there, how good were the hops this year… you name it. This wasn’t usually headline news, but it was deemed fit to print, in the equivalent of a modern newspaper’s Business section.

Still, for now, I’d rather talk about Southwark.

Southwark Borough Market is celebrating its millennium this year: it is a thousand years old. That means as far back as 1014, people have been gathering there to trade and sell. Here’s a little bit from History Today:

By 1276, according to a document of that date, it had become a nuisance by spreading to the south side of London Bridge. The bridge had been rebuilt in stone a century earlier by Henry II and was itself a severe bottleneck, clogged with over a hundred shops and houses whose construction on the bridge had helped pay for it. The bridge was also home to London’s first public latrine.

The proximity of the market, which sold grain, fruit, vegetables, fish and some livestock, accentuated the congestion problem, causing a serious impediment to the commercial life of the City. Almost three centuries passed until Edward VI granted a charter in 1550 conferring the market rights on the Lord Mayor and citizens of the City, who were thereby able to regulate the management of the market and the space it occupied. In 1671 Charles II issued a charter that fixed the limits of the market. This mapped it as extending from the southern end of London Bridge to St Margaret’s Hill, close to the present site of Guy’s Hospital, and to the former home, in today’s Talbot Yard, of the Tabard Inn from where Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury.

By 1754 the market had grown in response to the increasing population of London and was proving unmanageable. The continued chaos caused by traffic to and from Borough prompted the City Corporation to petition Parliament to relieve it of the responsibility for its running. The Borough Market Act of 1756, therefore, abolished the ancient market but gave the parish of St Saviour’s Southwark (Southwark Cathedral) the right to set up a market on a new site. A group of Southwark residents raised £6,000 to purchase land known as The Triangle, south of St Saviour’s, which remains at the market’s heart.

Notable here is the fact that London Bridge was actually clogged not just by traffic, but by houses. Yes, houses.

Apparently, the sale of “land” for housing and shops was how the construction of this version of the bridge–constructed mostly under Henry II, and as a penitential act for Thomas Becket’s murder–was funded. In fact houses were still going up in the 1720s, and demolition didn’t begin until 1757, according to the London Bridge Museum site. Also notable, there, is this line for 1725:

Fire destroys all the Southwark end houses over the first two arches including the Great Stone Gate.

That’s interesting for reasons I’ll mention in a moment.

There’s plenty on this over on Wikipedia, including the tantalizing note that in this era, in fact, London Bridge seems to have been the first place where congestion was so bad that it was deemed necessary to organize movement on the bridge. The Lord Mayor decreed that “all carts, coaches and other carriages coming out of Southwark into this City do keep all along the west side of the said bridge: and all carts and coaches going out of the City do keep along the east side of the said bridge.” This may even be the origin of the “keep to the left” law in England’s road rules, and certainly points to the thing I’ve been noting time and again: that the early Georgian period was kind of a watershed moment in terms of Londoners figuring out how to be modern, urban people, rather than just village folk living in a gargantuan sort of village. (A process that is, fascinatingly, happening in other places right now, too.)

In any case, it sounds like visiting Southwark Borough Market–which was on the “High Street” of the district–was a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, Southwark was home to the warehouses of the great London hop merchants–thanks to the close proximity to the Thames, upon which a lot of hops were shipped–and there was a lively street market. I’m guessing it wasn’t just the proprietors of large breweries who went to Southwark for hops, but also the smaller operators. And while the official hop trade apparently was conducted on the ground floor of Town Hall for some time (the better to impose taxation on the hop-trade), there inevitably would also have been individuals selling small packets of hops in the street.

Hops were so signally a part of that market that the following engraving of Southwark Borough Market was chosen for the 1729 book The Riches of the Hop Garden Explain’d by R. Bradley (“Profe∫sor of Botany at Cambridge, and F.R.S.”) (available here):

The image, by one R. Sheppard and reproduced in George Clinch’s 1919 book English hops; a history of cultivation and preparation for the market from the earliest times (where I first ran across it) depicts Southwark’s hop market. You can see the entryway to London Bridge in the distance–that “embattled gate” as Clinch calls it, the hop market, a lot of people tippling, and more. Here’s Clinch’s commentary on the engraving, from page 45 of his book:

For many years past the main market for hops in the south-east of England, including those of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire, has been in the Borough High Street, Southwark. Prefixed to Bradley’s little book on the Riches of a Hop Garden, 1729, is an engraving (see frontispiece) giving an animated picture of the Borough Hop Market. It represents the butchers’ and green-grocers’ stalls, and on the ground-floor of the old Town Hall is the Hop Market. Several pockets of hops in the Market and other pockets on adjacent two-wheeled carts are shown. Many of the people attending the market as well as those in the local inns are shown drinking beer.

There are several noteworthy points about the engraving. One sees in the distance, for instance, the embattled gateway which forms the entrance to London Bridge. Near it is the church of St. Thomas, and the Cock Public House is also shown near the market.

You can also see several dray-carts loaded with massive bags of hops, leaving the Town Hall area where many more massive sacks are visible.

Now, remember that fire I mention up above in 1725, while discussing London Bridge? One line down from it, on the London Bridge Museum website, it’s noted that the “Great Stone Gate” was cleared away, and the roadway widened; the work started in 1727, and, I imagine, was surely complete by 1736. Then again, I have to wonder about the accuracy of that site: they also claim the last head to be displayed at the Southwark Gate-House was in 16__, which is contradicted–with evidence–in Curiosities of London by John Timbs:

Above the centre of the pediment, upon iron spikes, were formerly placed the heads and limbs of persons executed for treason. The first of these revolting displays was one of the quarters of Sir Thomas Armstrong, implicated in the Rye-House Plot; and next the quarters of Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend, and Perkins’s head, who had conspired to assassinate William III.

” April 10, 1696.—A dismal eight, which many pitied. I think there never
was sueh a Temple Bar till now, except in the time of King Charles II, viz.
Sir Thomas Armstrong.”– Evelyn’s Diary.

After the Rebellions of 1715 and 1746, the heads of some of the victims were placed upon the bar; and in 1723, the head of Counselor Layer, who had conspired for the restoration of the Pretender: Layer’s head  remained here 30 years, till blown down in a gale of wind, when it was picked up in the street by an attorney. But the last heads set up here were those of Townley and Fletcher, the rebels, in 1746. Walpole writes, Aug. 16, 1746: ” I have been this morning at the Tower, and passed under the new heads at Temple Bar, where people make a trade of letting spying-glasses at a halfpenny a look;” in 1825, a person, aged 87, remembered the above heads being seen with a telescope from Leicester Fields, the ground between which and Temple Bar being then thinly built over. (J. T. Smith.) In 1766 a man was detected discharging musket-balls, from a steel crossbow, at these two heads; which, however, remained there until March 31, 1772, when one of the heads fell down; and shortly after, the remaining one was swept down by the wind. The last of the iron poles, or spikes, was not removed from the Bar until the commencement of the present [19th] century. 

(Timbs’ source for some of the later anecdotes is an 1853 book against capital punishment and public executions titled Temple Bar: The City Golgotha, which is a pretty killer title, if you ask me. It’s also available in the public domain, if you’re up for a history of bloody head- and body-parts displaying at London Bridge, plus some Victorian moralizing against that sort of thing.) In any case, at the very least my protagonist would be looking up and seeing the head of Counselor Layer, since it was there from 1723-1753 or thereabouts; possibly one or two other heads from the 1715 rebellion might have been up there, but probably not many–Layer’s head got mentioned doubtless because of the longevity of its tenure on the bar.

Either way, it seems likely that the “embattled gate” in the engraving above was at least modified or damaged, and even perhaps gone, by the time Bradley’s book was published… so the image was dated and inaccurate either way already by the time Bradley used it. According to the London Bridge Museum website, the gate was cleared away in , which relieved congestion somewhat, though not completely. I suspect the church remained intact, as well as the Town Hall, but the houses along Southwark Borough High Street would have been brick, like the portions of London rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666.

How would one get there? If you were in London in 1736–say, at the Brewer’s Company House which was roughly near by the Barbican–Southwark is the borough that you’d reach most directly by simply crossing London Bridge. In fact, cross London bridge and you’d land directly in this chaos. But the congestion of the area seems apparent. Going by cart seems unlikely to be preferable to going by foot… and I’m guessing that those operating bigger breweries outside (like Alderman Parsons, for example) were likely able to avoid some of that, through the advantage of forming contracted agreements with hop merchants and by visiting the factories directly for samples.

Still, those hop sacks look pretty big. Possibly some of those dray-carts are bound for Stourbridge Fair, indeed: it seems that while some hops did reach Stourbridge directly, a lot went through London first, and were sent north by the hop merchants of the capital. But within London in 1729–or whenever the engraving was done, surely before 1727 (when the depicted gate was destroyed by fire), at least half the brewing was done by smaller operators, who enjoyed smaller overheads, but also didn’t enjoy some of the fiscal luxuries that bigger brewers enjoyed. Doubtless some poor brewers did have to make their way across the congestion of London, through the congestion of Southwark Borough Market, then procure their hops (paying in cash directly for their goods) and then go right back out the same clogged way they came in.

For those interested in hops in Southwark a bit later on–in the 1800s, mainly from 1830 onward–I recommend this paper by Stephen Humphrey on “The Hop Trade in Southwark.” I cannot vouch for its accuracy, and perhaps Ron Pattison has torn it apart somewhere or other, but nothing jumped off the page at me as being wrong, not that I’d necessarily know; it was colorful and interesting as a bit of writing on the subject, nonetheless.

Oh, and as a bonus: I rather doubt that “the Cock”  mentioned here is the same as the Cock Public House in Southwark (I rather doubt it–there were a lot of Cock Public Houses all over the place, and who knows whether this pub from the 1720s was even still standing in 1860s!), but just imagining that it is, this 1868 satirical piece is amusing and interesting:

Of the “Cock ” we shall say but little, as, although it is always crowing about its stout, which for the rest is very good, it has not yet attained a sufficient degree of civilization to admit pale ale on the premises. If the reader wishes to see a waiter horrified, let him go to the “Cock” and ask for a glass of pale ale. It would produce less effect were he to call for a bowl of prussic acid.

One wonders whether there was similar resistance, from like-minded types, to the popularization of porter back in the 1730s (with such establishments maybe serving only unhopped, or lightly hopped, “ales”?), or whether this kind of resistance to change only developed in the 19th century? Certainly, hopping helped increase product stability, but resistance to change isn’t always about rational decisions. I think just as an amusement, I’ll probably go with that as an in-joke, and have the Southwark Cock Public House defiantly serving only unhopped ales, when my protagonist is hunting for a porter to find out whether the alchemically-adulterated hops he’s discovered have been used in any beer that’s made it down the pipeline to consumption.

Oh, and Prussic acid? It is, in fact, hydrogen cyanide; it was discovered in 1780, and got used in mining… though it’s more familiar to us as the active component in Zyklon B. Which I suppose is where the hilarity comes to an abrupt stop, and this post with it.

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