The British Newspaper Archive is a fantastic resource for local history, and in particular, it can be very useful in researching the history of your street.
In this special blog, we will give you all the hints and tips you will need to start your own research into your road, whilst also examining the story of one of London’s lesser known historic streets, which was once a pathway of pilgrims before becoming one of the city’s most notorious slums.
So without any further ado – let’s jump in and get started!
Making A Start
The best way to start your search on The Archive is to keep it simple. Try searching your street name, without applying any filters, and see what comes up. That way, you will be able to see if your search needs refining or not.
We tried this for the street we would like to research – Tabard Street, which is located south of the Thames in the Borough area, near London Bridge. Luckily, Tabard Street is quite an unusual street name, and we found lots of relevant results for it. One of the most fascinating of them came from the Belfast Telegraph in 1910.
And if you’re thinking, well, Belfast, that’s a long way from a street in the Borough, you’d be quite right. But one thing to remember is when searching our Archive, even from our earliest newspapers from the eighteenth century, is that news travels. So an editor in Belfast may want to include a story from Borough if it is newsworthy enough, and this story printed in the August of 1910 is particularly fascinating.
The Belfast Telegraph article is subtitled ‘Old Thoroughfare Doomed’ and provides this overview of Tabard Street, as it was in the Edwardian era:
This slummy, dingy, frankly filthy thoroughfare – leading from St George’s Church in the Borough to the junction of the Old and New Kent Roads – has at last been effectively condemned (says the ‘Daily Chronicle’) as hopelessly insanitary as well as disreputable by the Southwark medical officer. As a matter of fact, the housebreakers have already begun their work on the Southwark side.
But it also looks beyond the present, to trace the ‘poetic’ past of the street where now ‘vice and dirt seem to be in the very air:’
In the old, old days, before the new Dover Road wheeled round from the Borough into the Kentish highway, Tabard Street was called Kent Street, and was the main approach to London for everyone who arrived from anywhere in Kent, from Canterbury, from the Cinque Ports, and so, one might almost say, from Europe.
So, this street which now lies a little way off the hustle and bustle of Borough High Street, was once a vital thoroughfare, a street which many feet would have travelled as they came to London. The Belfast Telegraph article continues:
In the ‘Golden Days’ up Tabard Street, nearly 600 years ago, rode the Black Prince, conqueror at Poitiers, bringing with him in triumph the captive French king – a pageant compared with which these twentieth century shows are but half-hearted pieces of make-believe. Up Tabard Street swarmed the peasants of Kent under Wat Tyler and, later on, Jack Cade and his Kentish men, pouring in from the hearts of England’s industry – the ‘Lancashire lads’ of that day.
Down Tabard Street some time before either of these events, the Canterbury Pilgrims clattered over the stones on their way to Becket’s shrine, laughing, jostling, jingling in the May morning – a bevy of jollity and colour.
Tabard Street was at the heart of international and national events, whilst being the departure place for Chaucher’s pilgrims. And yet, says the Belfast Telegraph, even since the thirteenth century it was a ‘haunt of depravity and poverty.’
So why was Tabard Street so notorious? We decided to delve deeper into The Archive to find out.
The Search Narrows
If we had tried searching for Tabard Street in the eighteenth century, we would have come up empty. As the Belfast Telegraph tells us, it wasn’t always known by that moniker. No, indeed, it was known as Kent Street, a vital piece of information that helped to shape our research.
But Kent Street is a much more common name than Tabard Street, so how can one go about narrowing one’s results, in order to find the relevant street? A top tip when searching for a street name is to include the name of the locality where it is located. In the first instance, we narrowed our search for Kent Street by coupling it with ‘Borough,’ where the street is located. We chose to do this because we found many articles describing Tabard Street as being in the Borough, and so thus we restarted our search.
ROUGH CUSTOMERS – Margaret Nowling, fifty-six, charwoman, 32, Kent Street, Borough, was charged on Monday with being drunk and wilfully breaking a pane of glass, value 6s, at the beerhouse of William Davis, Golden Marine, Francis Street, Woolwich. Herbert Murray, twenty-one, of 9, Hanover Street, Southwark, and Thomas Nowling, thirty-one, wire-worker, 3, Kent Street, Borough, were charged with being drunk and disorderly in William Street.
Inhabitants of Kent Street, Margaret and Thomas Nowling, had ‘commenced quarrelling’ at the pub, which ended with Margaret ‘wilfully [putting] her first through a pane of glass.’
And we wanted to delve back further. You can do this on The Archive by filtering your results by year, and we chose to have a look at the period 1800 to 1809, and low and behold, we found another story of crime pertaining to Kent Street.
On Saturday a country dealer stopped at a shop in Kent-street, in the Borough, and left his horse standing outside, when a sharper availed of that opportunity, and rode away with the animal and a portmanteau, containing a quantity of wearing apparel, and other articles of value.
You can see here how we were able to tie this particular Kent Street to Borough, although this ‘sharper,’ or thief, took the opportunity to untie the country dealer’s horse.
We also found this desperately sad advertisement from the Oracle and the Daily Advertiser, which was published some years later in July 1805. This reveals more about the characters of Kent Street, and their trials and tribulations:
LEFT his Friends on Sunday Morning last, about one o’clock, in a fit of delirium, proceeding from a fever then on him, a MAN about 35 years of age. Had on an old outside fustian jacket, a pair of grey cloth breeches, and an old round hat, but no shoes or stockings, is about five feet six inches high, very thin from illness, and light hair. Any person giving information to his distressed mother, Mary Conquest, No. 4, Unicorn Court, Kent Street, Borough, will be thankfully rewarded.
We hope that Mary was able to locate her son, for whom she gives such a vivid description.
We wanted to push back earlier into the history of Kent Street, but found our search tactic of coupling it with the word ‘Borough’ was yielding less results. The most historic name for the area where Kent Street is situated is Southwark, and so we tried that, limiting our results to our eighteenth century newspaper pages.
Top tip: Did you know that our earliest newspaper page dates from 1699? We are delighted to feature four pages from the Edinburgh Gazette covering September 1699, which you can search here.
Our search for ‘Kent Street Southwark’ was a success, and again we found articles confirming its notorious reputation. This passage from the Oxford Journal, 15 July 1780, recounts a slightly unusual crime:
This Morning at St. Margaret’s Hill, Tho. Smith, John Davis, John Harrington, and Theodore Atkinson, were arranged on one Indictment, for aiding and assisting in demolishing the House of Margaret Cooper, in Kent Street, Southwark on Thursday the 8th June.
Again, you can see here that this case of demolition reached the press in Oxford, a reminder to keep your search geographically broad, even if you are searching within a set time period. And news of luck reaching a particularly down and out Kent Street inhabitant again reached the Oxford Journal, this time in December 1771:
This Week a Beggar, who lodged in Kent-Street, Southwark, came to the Possession of a Freehold of 200l per Annum, by the death of a relation.
In 1771, with £200 in his pocket, our friend the beggar now had enough purchasing power to buy 29 horses!
One of the earliest mentions of Kent Street in our Archive comes from 1745. You can filter your results by ‘Earliest’ to bring up the first mentions of your search term in our newspapers. And typically for Kent Street, the subject of the Stamford Mercury article, which was published on 3 January 1745 was murder:
Thursday the Body of a Man was found in a room belonging to the White Horse Alehouse in Kent-Street, Southwark, supposed to be murder’d about a Week ago, there appearing several Marks of Violence upon him; the House has been a common Receptacle for infamous People of both Sexes for some Years: The same Day the Landlord and three Women were taken up on a strong Suspicion of committing the Murder, and by William Hammond, Esq; commited to Gaol. The unhappy Person is at present unknown, but is supposed to be a Countryman who came there for a lodging.
Like the countryman who was robbed, this unknown man met with misfortune, but with such misfortune as to lose his life. And this article also backs up the claims of the Belfast Telegraph, over 150 years later. ‘Infamous’ people made Kent Street their home, and continued to do so throughout the coming years.
The Tapestry of a Street
Although Kent Street, Borough, has partially concealed its identity by styling itself Tabard Street, Southwark, it has not wholly lost its vicious odour, and strangers have lately been warned by the police of the nature of their surroundings.
The rebranding of Kent Street to Tabard Street had not done much to diminish its notoriety. But despite such notoriety, it was still home to many hundreds of people, who conducted their businesses and lived out their daily lives. We can get a sense of how these people lived and worked, and how they entertained themselves, through the pages of our newspapers, demonstrating how The Archive is a vital tool, alongside census returns (accessible via our sister site Findmypast), of building up a tapestry of your street history.
For example, we can find a range of businesses advertising themselves in Tabard Street, from harmonium tuners to horse slaughterers. For example, one A. Roberts in 1884 advertised his services in the South London Chronicle as a ‘Harmonium & General Reed Organ Tuner,’ working from premises at 222 Tabard Street, whilst at 199 Tabard Street were the premises of S. Nichols & Sons, ‘Licensed Horse Slaughters,’ who promised in the same newspaper how:
The most Money [is] given for Live and Dead Horses, Cows etc, and taken away immediately.
And whilst the census may provide us with a person’s occupation, our newspapers can really add colour to perhaps a single word description. All along Tabard Street were joiners, manufacturers, even pigeon dealers, so you can vividly imagine the noise, the pollution, and the bustle, as the tapestry starts to come to life.
Meanwhile, Tabard Street was home to ‘about seven or eight public-houses,’ as relates the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, of which only one remains today, the Royal Oak. The fact that the street was home to so many pubs must have contributed in many ways to its notoriety, and our newspapers give an account of what sort of entertainment was offered by them.
In 1884 the proprietor of the Sir John Falstaff, which lay on the eastern end of Tabard Street, placed this advertisement in the South London Chronicle:
J.W.T. [the proprietor] begs to inform his patrons, friends and the public that a select concert is held at the above establishment every Monday and Saturday evening at 8 o’clock. All wines and spirits of best quality and bar prices only charged.
A Skittle Tournament will take place at the above house on Monday February 11, to be played 6ft from the frame. First prize, a handsome marble clock valued £8; second prize, a grand timepiece; third prize, splendid ten service, given by Mr. Ben Williams, the proprietor. Entrance-fee, 1s. Nobody barred.
And alongside descriptions of its watering places and businesses, our Archive can shine a light on the characters of your street, with some being rather less pleasant than others. For example, we found this account of the ‘Doings in Tabard Street’ from the South London Chronicle, 25 June 1898:
Mary, Kate, and Julia Connor, sisters-in-law, were charged with disorderly conduct in Tabard Street, Borough – Carlton, 13 MR, stated that at five o’clock on Monday afternoon Tabard Street was greatly enlivened by the doings of the Connors. After a war-dance upon the pavement to the strains of a piano-organ, they wound up with a general scrimmage in the road, fighting like wild cats, and rolling, kicking, biting and hair pulling in the kennel together.
Then there was the case, a year later, of a Tabard Street lodger named Michael Parker, which was reported in salacious crime national the Illustrated Police News. He had come to lodge in the home of Mrs Knox on Tabard Street, and it had got about that:
Parker had assisted the police in Lambeth on one or two occasions, which rendered him obnoxious to his landlady and to her other tenants, who declared that they could not tolerate a ‘policeman’ in the house. They therefore agreed to ‘out’ him, and proceeded to assault him with a bludgeon, a broom, a fire-shovel, a broken jug, kettles of hot water, broken bricks and lamp glasses, and such other weapons and missiles as could be collected. Finally he had to escape out of the window of his room, but before he got away he suffered severe injuries to his head and face, besides being beaten and kicked ‘black and blue’ all over.
You certainly did not want to mess with the characters of Tabard Street. One of Tabard Street’s most famous characters, meanwhile, was Emily Brown, known as the ‘Old Lady of Tabard Street.’ She hit the headlines in 1909 when she was ‘forcibly evicted from the house in Fox’s Building, Tabard-street, in which she was born and had lived all the eighty-six years of her life.’
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper describes how after Miss Brown was evicted, she ‘died of a broken heart.’ She had declared that she should ‘die in no time if they move me,’ and in the event, her death was ‘extremely sudden,’ as she passed away an hour after the new tenants had moved in.
A New Start?
It would probably take another blog, or indeed a book, to describe all the various characters of Tabard Street, the crimes that they were victims to, the tragedies which they experienced. But by the beginning of the twentieth century the authorities had had enough, and the landscape of the street was set to change forever.
These changes are detailed by our newspapers, and demonstrates how our Archive can be used to trace shifts in the urban environment. Indeed, in this case, they should how Tabard Street of old, the slum, changed into a pleasant street with a large green open space. But how was this change enacted?
The London County Council propose to clear away three of the worst remaining slums south of the Thames, of which the Tabard-street area in Southwark is the principal, the total expenditure involved being upwards of half-a-million pounds.
The London County Council were prepared to spend £500,000 (approximately £39 million today) to clear ‘London’s worst spot,’ its death rate, as reported Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper being ‘more than twice that for Southwark as a whole:’
‘Vice, crime and immorality abound in much of this area,’ the borough medical officer reported some months ago: ‘the scum of South London takes up its abode here generally for short periods.’ Previously the official had declared ‘out of self-respect the metropolis cannot allow such a degraded and unhealthy spot to remain.’
The average yearly death-rate per thousand from all causes, was, during the period 1904-8, in London, 14.9, in Southwark 18.2, in the Tabard Street area 36.8…There can be no question as to the necessity for some drastic action being taken with reference to these areas.
The same article also furnishes a vivid description of the actual dwellings in Tabard Street, and the conditions in which people lived:
The Tabard Street area is about 13 ½ acres in extent, and contains 649 houses, in which live 3552 persons. The characteristic feature of this area is the narrowness of the streets and the bad conditions of the houses. For example, George Court, is, in parts, only 3 feet wide, Little Britain 5 feet, Wickham Court 7/12 feet: and several other streets do not exceed 10 feet in width, including the pathway.
Things had to change, and change they did, not before the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, had a chance to visit the ‘London Slums’ of Tabard Street. The Belfast Telegraph in April 1919 shows ‘the Prince in the midst of a crowd of inquisitive children,’ whilst the Woman’s Dreadnaught in the same month sardonically recounts:
We are told that the Prince of Wales actually spoke to some of the Tabardites, as if it was an accomplishment. In fact every little thing he did was put down in type, and just to show he was a human being, there was a photo of our dear Prince walking on his own legs.
By the next year, 1920, one of the new Tabard Street Garden Estate’s buildings had tenements that were ready to let. Becket House was the name of this tenement, and it is still standing today, an example of one of London County Council’s early social housing schemes. The East London Observer, December 1920, reports on the rates that the LCC would be charging as ‘landlords:’
Two rooms (living room and one bedroom), 11.; three rooms (living room and two bedrooms), 13s 6d; four rooms (living room and three bedrooms) 15s 6d; five rooms (living room and four bedrooms), 17s.
Rent started from £15 a week in today’s money, rising to £24 for the larger flats. Meanwhile, in 1924, the Daily Herald provided photographs and drawings of Tabard Street before and after, in an article entitled ‘The Long Slow War for Better Homes.’
And there we end our look at the history of Tabard Street, a history of a city in microcosm, representing the worst and the best of society, in its move from slum to social housing.
There is so much we can garner and discover about the history of our streets in The Archive – so why not start your research with us here today?