‘St George in Southwark’ by Dr Sam Riches

A version of this paper was presented at The Urban Sacred in Southwark conference on 20 April 2016.

St George in Southwark: locating meaning and manifestation
Dr Sam Riches, Lancaster University

The earliest dedication of a London church to St George occurs in Borough – the building known as St George the Martyr is eighteenth century but the church is documented on this site since 1122. This dedication seems to be the original expression of interest in this saint within Southwark, perhaps responding to the Crusaders’ reinforcement of the cult of a holy man and soldier-saint which was found in Britain before the Norman Conquest but had remained fairly restricted in its appeal. The saint is also invoked in many locations nearby such as St George’s Fields, St George’s Mansions, St George’s Cathedral and St George’s Circus. Furthermore, Green Dragon Court, the George Inn and a number of other namings allude to aspects of this saint’s cult.

St George’s Fields is an essentially rural area which is now buried beneath buildings, but it is notable that the road layout documented in the late eighteenth century is largely preserved today. Even the names given to the roads across St George’s Fields persist – Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth Road and Borough Road can all be found in the same positions on a composite map of 1760-70 (below).

St. George's Fields
Plan of St. George’s Fields circa 1760–70. From: ‘St George’s Fields: Enclosure and development’, in Survey of London: Vol 25, St George’s Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), ed. Ida Darlington (London, 1955).
© University of London & History of Parliament Trust

One significant invocation of the saint in Southwark has now been lost: St George’s Spa (or ‘Spaw’) on St George’s Fields, at the Dog and Duck ponds, is known only from newspaper advertisements:

“St. George’s Spaw, Dog and Duck, St. George’s Fields. The Waters of this Spaw are now in their utmost perfection, and to be had at 6d. per gallon … These waters are recommended by the most eminent physicians, for the cure of the rheumatism, stone, gravel, fistulas, ulcers, cancers, sore eyes, and in all kinds of scorbutic cases whatever; and are remarkable for restoring a lost appetite . . . A cold bath from the above mineral. The long room fitted up for large entertainments. Tea, coffee and hot rolls as usual.” (1773; noted in the Rendle Collection of Newspaper Cuttings in footnote 154).

Although St George is popularly associated with healing, and indeed water and healing wells, in many parts of the world, it seems likely that this particular advertisement uses his name because of the location of the spa rather than because of any specific aspect of the saint’s cult – and the presence of the spa probably owes more to contemporary fashion for ‘taking the waters’ than for any genuine healing properties that the water possessed. In the same way, the naming of St George’s Fields is probably a simple transfer from the dedication of the church of St George the Martyr, as it seems that this tract of land was known as Southwark Fields until the end of the fifteenth century. (See British History Online)

Equally, the fact that the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark is dedicated to St George is probably no more than a transference of a locally significant saint – this foundation is said to be the first Catholic cathedral built in Britain after the Reformation, albeit that it was not specifically built as a cathedral but was raised to this status in 1850 when the archdiocese of Southwark was established by Pope Pius IX, two years after the building was formally opened in July 1848. The cathedral is built on part of St George’s Fields, but it seems that this is simply because it is the parcel of land which was made available to Father Thomas Doyle to purchase, for the sum of £3,200 in 1839, rather than because of a specific wish to build the new church in that place. It is sometimes claimed that the site of the high altar is the place where the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 actually started, and hence represents a (re)imposition of the Roman Catholic faith onto a very specific location, but there seems to be no evidence to corroborate this legend. Rather, we seem to have a coincidence of dedication and historical event: a combination which undoubtedly lends itself to myth-making.

Returning to the original locus of interest in St George within Southwark, the site of St George the Martyr, a fascinating excerpt from the Illustrated London News of March 1847 comments on the second church on the site, the immediate predecessor of the current building:

“Hogarth, in his plate of Southwark Fair, represents Figg, a celebrated prizefighter and a worthy named Cadman, flying, by means of a rope, from the tower of St George’s Church.”

The prizefighter concerned was James Figg (1684-1734), a native of Oxfordshire who fought bareknuckle at Southwark Fair and in a number of other locations in London, and was acclaimed as ‘Champion of England’ from 1719 to around 1730, apparently only losing a fight once, when he was ill. Hogarth’s painting of 1733, and the associated engraving, show the second church of St George the Martyr shortly before its demolition due to an unsafe condition.

Southwark Fair by William Hogarth, based on the 1733 painting.
From: Benjamin N. Ungar, “Take Me to the Southwark Fair: William Hogarth’s Snapshot of the Life and Times of England’s Migrating Early 18th Century Poor,” The Site for Research on William Hogarth.

A figure performing aerial acrobatics from the bell tower can indeed be discerned in both images, but of equal interest is the bucolic setting that Hogarth has chosen to present. In part this is probably because of his interest in providing a sense of the loss of innocence – the naïve waif from the village who is corrupted by the big bad city is a recurring theme in his work – but it also gives us a sense of the liminal space that Southwark represented, poised between the city and the countryside with the river as a specific barrier, or conduit, between what was quite literally civilised urbanity and the subversive space that was to the south.

As we have seen, the frequent referencing of St George in this locale may be due to little more than coincidence and a self-reinforcing tradition, but it should be acknowledged that this saint is a very suitable patron for a church in such a position. One of the many meanings mapped onto this saint – especially when he is presented with his dragon – is that of the urbane knight who protects the town against the ravages of the chaotic wilderness beyond, embodied in the form of the monster. Hence St George is a frequent dedicatee of gate chapels on medieval city walls, and the legend of his encounter with the dragon stresses the fact that he is saving a city, not simply a princess. Thus the naming of St George’s Fields, and the dedication of the church, the cathedral, a school, a pub and so many other places in Southwark indicate that a universally significant saint can be made very pertinent to a specific space, and reflect – or be mapped onto – a range of aspects including the physical, emotional and spiritual.

Further reading: