Our Home: A History of Bankside, London
Tour Guide and Exhibition Assistant Jon Kaneko-James explores what the area of Bankside would have been like in Shakespeare’s time.
The Globe is a work of beautiful and almost impossible dedication, the result of a mission to reconstruct the best possible version of a timber-framed 16th century amphitheatre and to explore what that building would do to and for performance. Built with the time and money of a dedicated group of supporters, it sits framed by trees next to Tate Modern.
The area has moved on around it. Just as the King’s Pike Garden became warehouses which became Shakespeare’s Globe, the Victorian buildings of the Bankside have become bars and eateries. New buildings replaced old. Breweries became apartment buildings.
However, for a few decades in the 16th and 17th centuries, The Bankside – a handful of streets between what is now London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge – was alive with a strange mixture of industry and entertainment.
From the start, Bankside was where London put things it needed, but didn’t want. The city might have been covered in a perpetual pall of smoke, but there were things that even Londoners didn’t want for a neighbour: dyers, creating their pigments by fermenting ingredients in urine; sulphur workers; mercury boiling – important both for hats and medicine; tanners; brewers; soap makers and paint makers.
These businesses would have rubbed shoulders with the amphitheatres and other, more violent, entertainments of Shakespeare’s world. Park Street, now a mixture of offices and housing, would have been Maiden Lane. A visitor to The Globe on a show day afternoon would have turned onto the street with the Monger Brewery on their left and commercial pike fisheries to their right. The Globe and Rose playhouses would have been surrounded by tanneries, dyers and glassworks.
Alarmingly, for a modern person, plays would have been disrupted by the roars of bears in the local baiting arenas: buildings in similar style to the Globe and Rose, but used for blood sport between animals. Fliers for celebrity bears like Old Harry and George Stone would have papered the area, with occasional glimpses of the animals being wrangled from the bear sheds on what is now the street Bear Gardens, to nearby baiting houses like the Davies amphitheatre and the Hope.
The way home would have either been a dark, hazardous journey across London Bridge, under the heads of those who had offended Elizabeth I, or the slightly more pleasant experience of a ferry ride, leaving behind the smells and noises of the Bankside for the claustrophobic overcrowding of the smoke-haunted city of London.
The Bankside Tour explores the sights and culture of Shakespeare’s Bankside. Tours depart every half an hour from the Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition on matinee afternoons.
Words: Jon Kaneko-James
Photo: From William Smith’s MS. of the Description of England, c. 1580 – The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams, Wikimedia