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Book review: Liberty over London Bridge: A history of the people of Southwark by Margaret Willes

23 February 2024

Andrew Nunn looks at Southwark’s history

THERE’s a framed handwritten copy of a poem hanging in my bedroom. It’s by the former Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the poem is called “A Human Haunt”. Duffy wrote it over ten years ago as a reflection on Southwark Cathedral and it contains the line in which she says, in answer to her own question “Who came?”,

players, publicans, paupers,
   politicians, princes,

all to this same, persistent,
   changing space

Margaret Willes, in her book Liberty over London Bridge, takes very much the same line. The subtitle is A history of the people of Southwark, and they were just as Duffy also describes: colourful characters, many of them poor, eking out a living in whatever way they could, others rich and influential. Instead of a chronological account of the history of the south bank of the Thames, Willes chooses a more thematic approach. She looks at the bridge, the housing, theatres, writers, brewers, sex workers, and many more.

Even though I had the fortune to live in this area for a quarter of a century and used to tell many of the stories that she tells, this book contained much information that I didn’t know. It is a fantastic read about a really fascinating area. Southwark is described not as the poor relation to the City of London, however much some in civil society and the Church might wish to see it that way, but as a town in its own right, with its own history and a character that survives to the present day.

AlamyWith its great rose window, the ruins of the great hall of Winchester House, the medieval episcopal palace in Clink Street, Southwark. From the book

Willes brings all of what is a complex story alive by telling the history through the lives of people. For instance, I had never heard of Reasonable Blackman, originally from West Africa, but, in the 16th century, established as a weaver in the parish of St Saviour and an Anglican, buying “two sacramental tokens for St Saviour’s Easter Communion in 1579”. Given the amazing and wonderful influx of people from so many nations to south London and Southwark, and not least from West Africa, Reasonable represented for me their forerunner and a person of Southwark to be celebrated.

So, this is a history of people, living, working, playing in an area; but it is also about a church, Duffy’s “persistent” space, St Saviour’s, Southwark Cathedral, which has seen it all and blessed it all, and will be there, as the church should be there, for what is yet to come.

The Very Revd Andrew Nunn is a former Dean of Southwark.

Liberty over London Bridge: A history of the people of Southwark
Margaret Willes
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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