49 Bankside: A Place In History
It often seems to me that despite its great age, London has few old ‘ordinary’ houses; only the grand mansions survive. We want history to be about paupers and prostitutes, or kings and crowns. What about those in the middle?
The London author and historian Gillian Tindall is concerned with ordinary people, and their lives shine through her delightful biography of a London house, ‘The House By The Thames’.
By rights, number 49 Bankside shouldn’t be there at all. It’s a home that has survived floods, fires, wars and developers since 1710, but it is the location that makes its existence all the more miraculous, for it faces St Paul’s across the river Thames in an area long known for its poverty, and the poorest areas of any city are always those ripest for redevelopment. Had the Millennium Bridge been built for traffic rather than pedestrians, for example, it would certainly have been erased.
Our capital is architecturally chaotic, where grand schemes for Venetian canals and baroque causeways have always fallen through, forcing us to settle for a maze of public and private buildings, sometimes beautiful, often inept or bogus, parts of which have been added, removed, rebuilt, transposed and generally mucked about with.
This is a process perfectly understood by the author, whose earlier book ‘The Fields Beneath’ provided a marvelous benchmark of urban history, examining the process by which villages coalesced into the metropolis. Rather than simply trawling other volumes, Tindall’s method is to take one small area as a core sample and excavate the past through diligent detective work in council offices and vestry records before taking to the streets to satisfy herself with visual proof.
Riverbanks are prime sites that provide European cities with a chance to display grandiose public buildings, but for a long time Bankside was barely regarded as part of the metropolis at all. Separated from its wealthy neighbors by the Thames, it was stocked with fishponds or ‘stews’, then brothels, theatres and bear pits, and so the South Bank avoided becoming part of London, remaining a low-life attraction for urbanites, a sort of Southend-On-Thames.
Prior to the building of the house, the site was occupied by an inn, the Cardinal’s Cap. The area around 49 Bankside connects with the Bishop of Winchester, to the point where the local prostitutes were known as ‘Winchester Geese’. These women were not from London but Flanders, marginalized outsiders employed in the sex trade.
They form part of a colourful parade passing through history beside the house, watermen and costermongers, publicans and performers.
The parallels with our modern world often dispel old myths; London did not merely comprise the wealthy and the desperate, but also a swathe of decent middle-class residents who fought to keep their homes cleaner than any others in Europe. Our hygene fetish dates to sooty crusts of coal-burning hearths; coal and the spread of industry gave us the means with which to furnish our homes, so ‘the dirt and the money had a common source’. The proliferation of spas is less an indication of healthy waters than a reminder of how unhealthy London’s other water supplies were.
For all the parallels, there are sharp disparities; one resident spoke of the demolition of eyesores allowing more light into the house, but she was probably referring to the destruction of the Globe theatre. Toilets were built directly over the river, and later flowed straight into it. Leather-tanning factories steeped hides in dogshit and evening strolls were partaken on bridges to ward off the ill humours of typhoid fever.
The dingy urbanisation that brought disease and dirt was seen as desirable and gentrifying. Still, a strong sense of community emerges, of altruism and even the fundamental goodness of number 49’s residents as they tried to improve their lives beside the river.
The house arose from the old inn’s footprint, at a time when the shapes and sizes of properties seemed more controlled for aesthetic appeal than they are today, and its history was bound up with that of the Thames. Watermen feared the construction of bridges would destroy their trade, as it had in Paris, and their fates eventually entwined with the arrival of coal, companies and prosperity, only to be killed by the arrival of steam-driven boats.
The house has remained in private hands, passing from the poor to the prosperous, eventually housing a 1930s film star. As with the site of the power station nearby, the plot acquired ‘a kind of generic programming that persists through time’.
‘You begin to feel the weight of all those spent, packed-away lives pressing in on you,’ says Tindall on the subject of research, and it’s sad that so many were lost when centuries of historical artifacts ended up in a building skip, courtesy of the corporation trusted with their preservation. Thankfully, Tindall’s graceful discursive restores forgotten lives, and unlocks a door to reveal London in its glorious breadth and entirety.