Ancient Inns of the Borough High Street

This is the first of a two-part Guest Post about the inns to be found on Borough High Street, specially written for CabbieBlog by Adrian Prockter.

Adrian has been lecturing on the subject of Inner London for many years, his specialist knowledge covers the City of London, the City of Westminster and the River Thames His website Know Your London contains a wealth of information about the capital.

[B]orough High Street is a busy street – busy with never-ending traffic and busy with endless pedestrians pounding the narrow pavements. Everything is rushing about and, as you join the throng, you are in danger of being swept along as well. This is a pity because Borough High Street needs to be studied carefully. It can be considered one of London’s oldest streets. It was laid out by the Romans – as part the route from London Bridge via Shooter’s Hill and Dartford to Canterbury and Dover. With the Norman invasion, England had many connections with France and those who came from the Continent would also have landed at Dover and travelled to London via the same road.

In medieval times many travellers passed through Southwark – on their way to or from the Shrine of Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury. Pilgrimages to Canterbury started after the slaying of Becket in 1170. By the 13th century, one of the main ‘industries’ of Southwark was to provide for pilgrims in the form of inns where they could stay. The entire eastern side of Borough High Street and much of the western side as well were both taken up with large inns. Pilgrims could sleep in them and also find stabling for their horses. In total there may have been as many as 40 or 50 inns.

By the 17th century, the idea of going on a pilgrimage had rather faded. However, stage coaches were being introduced and, for the first time ever, passengers who were rich enough could access long-distance public transport. The vehicles were called ‘stage coaches’ because the journey was made in ‘stages’. A team of four horses could only trot for about 10-15 miles and then it had to be changed. Inns across England provided stables for changes of horses and accommodation where the passengers could obtain food or even stay overnight. Many inns were referred to coaching inns.

The days of coaching inns lasted into the 1800s when they died ‘a sudden death’ with the coming of railway trains. The first passenger train in London ran in 1836 and within a couple of decades coaching inns had lost most of their customers and therefore closed. By the 1880s they had all been pulled down. However, if you know what to look for, there are clues still to be found on the east side of Borough High Street for no less than twelve of those inns. Here is a brief outline of what to look out for.


King’s Head Yard

[T]he narrow street, leading off Borough High Street via an arch was once the yard of the Olde King’s Head Inn. Its length – extending to the boundary of Guy’s Hospital – shows how far back the land of the inn went. The pub from the inn remains to this day. Beside the street would have been sleeping accommodation for guests, stables for horses, hay-lofts storing food for horses and also straw for them to sleep on.


White Hart Yard

[T]his narrow street was the long yard of White Hart Inn. Today it links up with King’s Head Yard, at the eastern end. The view looks out to Borough High Street. An interesting doorway (see in the picture) once led into a room where coachmen logged their journeys after arriving at the inn. The entrance archway might seem rather low but Victorian prints show that it was always this height.


George Inn

[P]art of the original yard still remains. The name was probably once ‘St George and the Dragon’ – a common name in medieval times. The property once extended back from Borough High Street twice the present distance. Just a small number of buildings – which include the pub from the original inn – was saved from demolition at the very last minute in the 19th century and are now owned by the National Trust.


Talbot Yard

[O]riginally the entrance yard for the ancient Tabard Inn mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, published in 1386, the long, narrow street shows the original length of the inn yard and its other buildings. A ‘tabard’ was a sleeveless garment worn as the outer dress of medieval peasants and clerics. The later name of ’talbot’ was used, which is the name of a type of hunting dog. Nothing from the original inn remains on the site today.


Queen’s Head Yard

[T]his is part of the entrance yard to the ancient Queen’s Head Inn. Its name probably derived from an inn sign bearing a likeness of Queen Elizabeth I. The building was once owned by John Harvard who emigrated from England and became the founder of the well-known Harvard University – in America. The yard once extended back much further than the present one does today. Its existing stone cart tracks remain from the days of the horse and cart and also possibly the ‘coach and four’. The inn was one of the most famous in Southwark.


Three Tuns Yard

[O]nly the name on the entrance arch acts as a reminder of the inn that once stood on the site. The name ‘Three Tuns’ was a common one in early times – a ‘tun’ being an old name for a large beer or wine cask. The ugly, overbearing archway, seen today, is a product of the 1960s or 1970s and is quite out of keeping with the older surrounding buildings.

Stagecoach image by Firkin (CC0 1.0), all other images © Adrian Prockter

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The author has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog.
Other articles can be found on Adrian Prockter’s Know Your London.
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