Few things in the present chic appearance of the Borough Market hint at its boisterous history. Except for the fact, that last year it celebrated its 1,000th birthday. It flourished in developing, mercantile London of the Middle Ages; it flourished in colourful London of Shakespeare and Marlow; it flourished in strict, progressive Victorian London, and never lost its vitality or importance.
Like many great things, it sprung from humble origins. Its story began with 11th century traders, attracted to London Bridge, where they sold fish, grain, vegetables and other staple foods. It should be noted, that this bridge, rebuilt in stone by Henry the II a century later, didn’t look like a rustic version of practical, straightforward structure we see today. If anything, it resembled a busy high street. It was clogged by more, than a hundred houses, whose construction on the bridge actually helped to pay for the bridge itself (the concept of public funds was murky at best, and was going to stay such for centuries to come). Enterprising tradesmen set up shops and stalls on the bridge; young apprentices fished from it during hazy summer afternoons. Customers stopped to admire the wares or bargain about a price. The result was, of course, a severe bottleneck, and in 13th century traders had to be relocated to Borough High Street, where the market stands to this day.
But it didn’t become a peaceful conclusion; far from it. Burgeoning market retained its popularity, attracting crowds of customers. And, inevitably, congestion problems arose, creating serious impediments for the commercial life of the City.
Unruly, bustling Southwark, where the market thrived, was often painted almost as an antipode to strict, mercantile City with its ancient walls and powerful guilds. Never did that difference become more pronounced, than in the 16th century, in the days of Elizabethan glory. Southwark, with its alehouses and new theatres, scandalous plays and gambling dens, was perceived as a place, where “anything can happen”. Despite – or, probably, because of – its risqué reputation, it exuded almost a magnetic attraction over people. Poor apprentices and fashionable foreigners, eager to taste less conventional side of the powerful city, thronged to Southwark. Some of its pleasures and vices (and problems) are too familiar to us – gambling, for instance. Some are more exotic and bizarre, such as bear-baiting. There is now no shortage of casinos in London as in any other capital; but what was left of the bloody arenas and the raging crowds? Only a name for one of the more obscure Southwark streets: Bear Garden.
Speaking of less morally questionable diversions – attending a Shakespeare play nowadays seems like a very family-friendly activity, even a lofty one. Not so in the era, when these plays were actually written. Sword fights, risqué innuendos, crossdressing – they were insanely popular among apprentices and students and a target of fury among Puritan preachers. The audience’ conduct at the same time was anything but quiet and respectable. Cheers and remarks were a normal part of watching the play, cheap beer was sold openly, and the theatre-goers routinely enjoyed not only the exquisite drama, but also sweet, dark cherries from the market…
A change of dynasty, a Civil War and Restoration happened in Britain, before in 1671 Charles II finally issued a charter that fixed the limits of the Borough Market. But, less than a century later, as the Georgian era bloomed, the market had grown so much in response to the increasing population of London, that it became unmanageable. The Borough Market Act of 1756 practically abolished the ancient market, but at the same time gave the parish of St Saviour’s Southwark (Southwark Cathedral) the right to revive it on a new site. So intrinsic was Borough Market to the inhabitants of Southwark, that a group of them raised £6,000 to purchase new land for it. This area was known as the Triangle. Located just south of the cathedral, it remains at the market’s heart still.
Victorian era ushered in a new age for the ancient market. Grand, gothic buildings, which it occupies to this day, were designed in 1851 by Henry Rose. By this time, Borough Market became one of the most important markets of the capital. It catered to the old City as well as to rapidly developing suburbs of the South London. Its position close to the wharves of the Pool of London made it readily accessible to ships unloading their cargoes – and what cargoes these were! Trading might of the British Empire made its capital into an emporium of exotic goods from all corners of the world. One could argue, that this tradition continues to this day: in the modern Borough Market, fresh vegetables from Kent would be traded just as in its medieval days; yet on the stalls nearby you would find cheese from Switzerland and sweet honey from Greece.
The market now is open from Thursday to Saturday. There, you can find treats ranging from fish and chips to pastries and chocolates, from vegetable burghers to oysters and foie gras. And, of course, you can admire the intricate Victorian ironwork, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Gothic cathedral.
Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis.
London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd.
Globe Theatre Museum, London.