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History at Bankside Pier

'The Thames was the river which curled through the affairs of state noble or ignoble, bloody or benign, and was an intrinsic part of Royal London. That is why the Houses of Parliament were built by the banks of the river. That is also why the great palaces of the nobility and clergy were built on the banks of the river, so that they might be near the ultimate source of power.'

Peter Ackroyd


BANKSIDE NORTH - City West, City Quays, St Paul's, Newgate, Smithfields


The oldest ports of London, Roman and then Medieval, grew up along this strand before the low stone arches of Old London Bridge pushed marine trade downstream to the Pool of London. The wharves carry the names of the goods unloaded there such as timber, salt, garlic, wine, and hay, and in the surrounding streets are many reminders of just how focussed London was on Thames-borne trade, nearly everyone directly or indirectly connected to its waters, and their activities closely regulated by the City Guilds.

Castle Baynard

At the eastern end of the City William the Conqueror built his second, long demolished, castle controlling the important port at Fleetmouth. Together with the Tower to the east Baynard Castle, named after an Earl who fought with William at Hastings, bracketed the City; a reminder to the Guilds and mayor of London of Norman supremacy.

Puddle Dock

Geoffrey Chaucer may have been born here 1343-4.

Paul's Wharf

The stone for Wren's St Paul's Cathedral all came by river to be unloaded here. For centuries before that it had been London's main fish market.

Stew Lane

The name indicates the function; this lane led down to the waterside embarkation point for women working in the brothels (stews) of Bankside.


Named in honour of Queen Matilda who founded the first public toilet here in the early 12thC there has been a dock (hythe) on this site for at least 800 years. In the middle Ages this was the foremost harbour of the city and successive Queens charged a toll for its use until the 15thC.

Here, as at Billingsgate the second most important harbour of that time, all vessels were required to moor for duty assessment. Saxon shipwrights also worked here until London Bridge forced them downstream. Originally it was known as Ætheredesyd or Ethelred's Hithe indicating the intense royal interest in the cargoes unloaded here.

Behind the dock once sat the grand river-facing church of St Michael, Queenhithe. Demolished in 1876 its weather-vane was rescued and now sits atop Cole Abbey Church in Queen Victoria St. The vane depicts a corn ship, which holds exactly one bushel of grain, the most important trade of Queenhithe for more than a thousand years, the source, some believe, of the true derivation of Queenhithe's name. A quern was a millstone.

St James, Garlickhithe

First documented in 1170, and dedicated to St James of Compostela, this is a pilgrim's church, with shell decoration throughout, and still offering stamps for Santiago-bound pilgrims' travel books. Its name was taken from the garlic unloaded nearby, no doubt carried from Galicia, along with the returning pilgrims.

M Cold Harbour Mansion, OLD Waterman's Hall

The long-demolished Mansion of Cold Harbour was once the home of the Watermen's Hall before it was moved to St Mary-at-Hill, near Billingsgate.

For centuries The City of London forbade the building of any other crossing than London Bridge. Often the only other way to ply the river was by ferry and with jetties, wharves and craft of all sizes, traffic on the river was so dangerous that accidents and drownings became commonplace.

In 1555, under Henry VIII, an Act of Parliament decreed that only The Company of Watermen could carry passengers and supervise the unloading of cargo on the tidal Thames. Watermen became the taxi drivers of their day and qualification for a master's licence involved its own 'Knowledge' and the ability to name of all the reaches, banks, currents, channels, stairways, and wharves of the river, from Teddington to the Yantlet Line near Southend.

But on January the 1st 2007, in line with EU regulations, a new National Riverways Licence was introduced slashing the apprenticeship from five to two years, limiting the necessary 'local knowledge' to Central London, and allowing those who have qualified elsewhere to captain a boat on the Thames.

With the coming of the 2012 London Olympics and plans to get Londoners back onto public transport, and with regeneration of ever more stretches of the Thames, the life and use of the river is set to transform.

Le Vynetrie (Vintry)

The Vintners Guild was granted the monopoly on trade with Gascony in 1634. This wharf and the nearby Vintners' Hall became known as the place to come for good wine. Along with the Dyers the Vintners still follow their old tradition of 'Swan-Upping'. Every July they mark swans beaks upstream with two nicks, to distinguish ownership from the Dyers' single nicks, and the monarch's unmarked swans.

M The Walbrook (OE walebroc)

The Romans built Londinium around this river, using it as their main water supply and building a temple to Mithras on its banks. Anglo-Saxon for 'British stream' (Old English, Walebroc; walh = Briton, brōc = stream), the settlement was clearly not abandoned after the Romans had left and a cache of human skulls was found on its course, presumed to be a sacrificial offering to the river. Like so many Thames tributaries it was soon full of rubbish and by the time Stow wrote, in 1598, it was already buried.

The Roman Temple of Mithras, an empire-wide military cult based in caves, was discovered by the Walbrook in the 1950s, and was moved to its current location on Queen Victoria St.


The name of this ancient wharf is derived from Anglo-Saxon meaning of 'Dovegate'.

Power in the post-Viking Baltic was more about the ship than the state. The maritime tradition was organised around joint ownership of only one or a few ships, and around the qualities of leadership, and knowledge of the boats and their crews. Networks of loose and shifting alliances formed to meet the needs of local marsh-isolated Baltic city-states and to exploit the market for furs, wax and wood in the more complex states to the south.

There arose affiliations, united in search of profit. This could be through piracy such as the Vitalienbrüder, allowed to prey throughout northern seas as long as the Danish crown got its cut. More successful in the long-term was the development of a strategy of exchange. In 1161 in Visby on the Baltic island of Gotland an association arose for sharing trading knowledge and protection against piracy that came to be known throughout Europe as the Hanse or Hanseatic League.

In the 13thC, the Hanse established one of their major Kontors (trading posts), 'The Stalhof', where Cannon Street station now sits, beside the Dowgate mouth of the Walbrook stream. Granted land in perpetuity they built an enclosure with its own wharves, warehouses, workshops and chapel and they soon controlled much of England's main export of woollen broadcloth.

At it's peak by the 14thC the League, which by then included more than a hundred city states, had come to control most northern maritime trade, and was strongly represented at the main commercial centres of Antwerp and London. The League was able to wield a major weapon, the 'Verhansung', an effective port blockade that allowed them to hold entire sovereign-states to ransom.

The Hanse, or 'Men of Cologne', sent trainee merchants to live and work in the Steelyard, often for years at a time. Under strict discipline, they learned the local language, the tools of trade in England, and came to dominate the wool market. Along with the nobility and royalty of England Hans Holbein painted their portraits, bedecked in the furs and sables that they imported. They had access to the Guildhall, were waived tax, and were granted 'liberties' of duty fees.

The Hanse were both empowered and limited by their non-centralised organisation. They would deal only in cash though, preferring Silver, thus the origin of the word Sterling as part of the name of the current British pound. Unable to raise credit, the Hanse could not offer the same opportunities for profit as the emerging financial mechanisms under development by the Italian merchants of Venice and Genoa.

Because of conflict with the increasingly powerful City merchants Elizabeth I eventually expelled the Men of Cologne in 1598. Though destroyed in the 1666 fire, Steelyard land stayed in Hanse hands until its sale in 1858, eventually sold to make way for the soon to be developed Cannon Street Rail Bridge and station.

M All-Hallows-the-Great

When congregations overflowed their own tiny church the Hanse moved to the neighbouring church of All-Hallows-the-Great, which once stood on All Hallows Lane. Otherwise known as 'All Hallows ad foenum in the Ropery' indicating its seafaring connections, and proximity to Hay Wharf. The congregation openly displayed the coat-of-arms of Charles II as much as a month before the 1688 Restoration, when the Dutch destroyed the Navy and their armies occupied London for two years.

M St Swithin London Stone, St Swithin's Lane

Now lost, this church once housed the 'London Stone' in its walls. Believed by many to hold mystic significance, a remnant 'Long Man' or standing-stone, once guarding the south side of the ancient track that ran along what has become Cannon St, it may well be merely a remnant of the Roman Governor's Palace that once sat here with its own riverside access. The church and its stone were bombed to pieces in WWII but a remnant sits in a glass case in a shop window on Cannon St.

Fishmongers Hall

One of the few Guilds that still pursue the craft of their name, the Fishmongers built their hall on the site of a 2nd C Roman Quay in the 13thC. The existing 1835 hall contains piles from Old London Bridge and the knife used by a former Master to kill Watt Tyler in Blackheath in 1381, thus saving the City from the peasants' revolt.


M Lud Hill, Paul's Cross, Folkmoot

This, the second highest hill in the City, was the site for the great Saxon 'Folkmeet' or meeting place before the Cathedral was built over it. Ancient tracks converge here and some claim, without any evidence, that a stone circle once existed here. Nearby Paternoster Row was the centre for publishing, where great works of art and sedition were penned.

Lutgate (Ludgate)

A postern, or back entrance, the name of which is probably entirely unrelated to the god-king Lud, though myth has it that he founded New Troy here in 66BC. Called Caerlud, later corrupted to Caerlundein, this is suggested as the origin of Roman name Londinium. Ludgate may well have been simply named 'Flodgate' in reference to flooding from the nearby Fleet.

M St Paul's Cathedral

Paulesbyri (Lud Hill) was the location of 3 Saxon predecessors before Old St Paul's, the medieval Gothic Cathedral that dominated London skyline for 600 years, was built. By 1666 it was already so shored-up and unsafe that the great fire was considered a blessing by some. Wren's original design was deemed 'too modern' but the final stone of a scaled-back design was laid in 1708. The cross at 111m above ground is taken as the target for several protected 'lines-of-sight' that prevent the random siting of skyscrapers within the City.

M Westchepe (Cheapside)

The main medieval market (chepe is Anglo-Saxon for market) all the streets around were named from their wares. It was to here in the 13thC that the waters of the Tyburn were channelled through the lead and wooden pipes of The Great Conduit. Water was in short-supply though and 'Keepers of the Conduit' were appointed to prevent its overuse by traders. Unsurprisingly there are many documented cases of people illegally tapping the supply into their private houses or wells.


M Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Newgate

There had been a church here since 1137; known as St Edmund's. Later it was rededicated after the Crusades as St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, in homage to the church of the same name that still sits outside what was the north-west gate of Jerusalem. The Church had a long association with nearby Newgate prison and its bells that pealed at each execution were know as the bells of the Old Bailey from the rhyme Oranges and Lemons. John Smith, first governor of Virginia, rescued by Pocahontas, is buried here.

Newgate Prison

The most notorious of all London Prisons, the condemned were led out through Newgate, along Holbornstrete, through St Giles, and on to the Tyburn Gallows at the headwaters of the Tyburn Brook, to the west. Because of general unrest at what became riotous public spectacles the practice was discontinued. The Magpie & Stump Pub had public galleries from which executions, now performed within Newgate Gaol itself, could be viewed, at a price.

Nearby, Cork Lane was the only street in the medieval City licensed for prostitution; a local alternative to crossing the river to Bankside.

M Smethefelda (West Smithfields)

Smithfields Cattle Market, once upon an open space just outside City walls, and not far from the navigable limit of the river Fleet at Holborn Bridge, is named from Old English for 'Smooth Field'. This was an important execution ground where William Wallace was ripped to pieces in 1305, and it is still a meat market. Not unimportant to its butchery trade were the many wells and pools in the area, such as the long-gone 'Horse Pool' chronicled by Stow, the great recorder of vanished rivers and wells, in 1598.

St Bartholomew-the-Great (The Priory Church of)

This is the oldest London hospital still on its original site. Once an enormous grand monastic Church it may once have sat at the source of a long lost stream that ran south through the city, past Lud Hill, and into the Thames at Wood Wharf. Inside is the original Norman church, the oldest surviving parish church in city since it escaped WWII unscathed, which sits a whole floor below ground, showing how much London rubble has raised the City above the natural earth.


BANKSIDE SOUTH – Bankside, Southwark


M the Banke syde (Bankside)

The riverside road along the old river wall, once had 22 inns, and was the Elizabethan 'West End' or 'red-light' and theatre district, outside the control of the strait-laced City guilds. Here were theatres, bear pits, and numerous stews or brothels. Along with the 'world's oldest profession' was practiced the second oldest, and the area thronged with spies and counter-espionage agents of the Queen's Spymaster General, Walsingham.

Globe Theatre, Rose Theatre, Bear Theatre

Established in 1599 The Globe used timbers from the first playhouse that had stood in Shoreditch. It was founded by an actors' troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, amongst whose members was Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear for this playhouse. It was closed in 1642 by Cromwell along with all other playhouses.

Edwyn Allen, actor and 'Master of the Royal Boars, Bulls & Mastiff Dogs', saw a devil on the stage of The Rose and set up The College of God's Gift which became Dulwich College. His title shows how closely the theatre of the time was allied to bear-baiting and other popular pursuits shunned in the business-oriented City, a wherry ride away across the Thames.

The Anchor

Built on the site of older inn named 'The-Cock-a-Hoop' of 1755, this is the oldest Bankside Tavern and has had many existences: inn, brothel, coffee-house, chapel, brewery, and ship's chandlers, testament to the thriving nature of Bankside before its 20thC decay and desolation. Dr Johnson is said to have written his dictionary here.

Bankside, Winchester Palace

The Bishop of Winchester's 1626 London residence, once part of large estate with river access via Stoney St, and a diocese that stretched as far as the South Coast, once sat here. The Bishop raked in the cash from the Bankside 'stews', prostitutes were known as Winchester Geese, and had his own prison in Clink St.

The Clink

This gaol, which has become a slang word for prison itself, probably stood here since medieval times. Under the Liberty of the See of the Bishop of Winchester it was used for those normally exempt from prison, such as the clergy, as well as to maintain order in this wild place.

The Founders Arms

Now a pub, offering warm blankets on a cold night, this was the site of the casting of St Paul's bells from those rescued after the fire of 1666. Wren is said to have lived in a terrace not far upstream while rebuilding St Paul's, though this is unlikely.

M St Mary Overeye (St Mary Overy)

Now Southwark Cathedral this is in parts one of oldest buildings in London. It was founded in 852 by St Swithin, Bishop of Winchester, and became part of the Abbey of St Mary Overie. On dissolution under Henry VIII it changed its name to St Saviour's but by the 1830s it had fallen into ruins. In 1897 it was rebuilt as a cathedral for the newly created diocese of Southwark (which stretches between Richmond, Woolwich, and Reigate, Surrey). The cathedral contains memorials to Shakespeare and the Marchioness disaster.


M Suthringa Geweorc (Southwark)

This is one of the oldest settlements in the UK with evidence dating back to the Mesolithic (8-6,000 BC) when the tundra-like shoreline of the multi-braided river was colonised, though probably only seasonally. It was first mentioned in the 10thC Burghal Hidage, which detailed the local Anglo-Saxon and Danish fortifications of Lundenburgh and Suthringa Geweorc (OE sūthe = south, (ge)weork = fort(ification), or 'Surreymen's fort'. Domesday (1086) mentions 40 households and a Minster.

The 'Liberty of Southwark', which included the right of sanctuary, attached to St. Saviour's (St Mary Overy) allowed the trades banished from within the City Walls by the Guilds of London to flourish. Foreign craftsmen could set up business here where the marshes, islands, and causeways were watery and ideal for the filthy trades of tanning and dyeing.

The area remained predominantly rural until the 18thC when the docklands rapidly developed after London Bridge's arches were widened and the enclosed docks were built downstream.

M Old London Bridge

For most of the City's history, the only bridge functioned more as a barrier to shipping than as a river crossing. In 1014, the Danes occupied 'Lundenburgh' and King Ethelred and his Norwegian ally King Olaf pulled down the bridge with their long ships, then stormed the Danish stronghold at 'Sudvirke' (Southwark).

London Bridge is broken down. –
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing –
Odin makes our Olaf win!

Saga of Olaf Haraldson, Heimskringla
By Snorri Sturlusson (c. 1179 - 1241)

M St Olaf's, Tooley St

Dedicated to Olaf Haraldson in 1096 this vanished church stood at the South East corner of Old London Bridge. There was an Olaf cult with five churches in London, and Tooley St is derived by strange corruption from the name of this church. Demolished in 1926 the Art-Deco St Olaf's House now stands in its place by the river.

The area around Tooley St and Shad Thames came to be known as 'London's Larder' where refrigeration of lamb, butter, and cheese from New Zealand was introduced. This was the founding site of many household packaging firms that developed to process and distribute imported goods; Pearce Duff – custard; Crosse & Blackwell – pickles; Jacob's – biscuits; Hartley's – jams; Courage's – beer; and Peak Frean's - milled goods.

St Thomas's (Old London Bridge)

A chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket once stood right in the middle of the bridge and on pilgrimage route to Canterbury. The pilgrims threw their badges and shells into the river, a tradition that goes back to Neolithic times as can be seen from more ancient finds around the Vauxhall Causeway.

Hay's Wharf (Hay's Galleria)

The Hay's Wharf Company was founded by Alexander Hay in 1651 on an inlet known as St Mary Overy Dock after the church at the end of Old London Bridge. It was destroyed in the Great Southwark Fire of 1676 but by the 1930s the company owned most warehouses between London and Tower Bridges. Bombed to bits in WWII it finally closed in 1969. This abandoned area was colonised by artists inn the 1970s, most famously Derek Jarman, until they were evicted by developers and dock filled and roofed over by the 1980s Hay's Galleria.

History of the piers

Download the exclusive Dark Waters history of the piers pdf here (pdf - 2MB).