Newcomen Street: History Hiding Above Your Eyeline
Newcomen Street is somewhere we visit on the Bankside Behaving Badly tour and on a recent walk I looked up (taking my own advice!) And spotted a new detail, a curious plaque on the wall.
Of course, it’s not a new detail at all, it’s been there for centuries! But it set me down a rabbit hole of Newcomen Street’s history…
Early History of Newcomen Street
Like many of the streets that branch off Borough High Street, Newcomen Street was once a yard linked to a pub – The Axe – which is mentioned in 1560.
The reason there are so many yards (and pubs) here is thanks to London Bridge. From its completion in 1209, the (old) London Bridge was the only bridge to cross the Thames in Central London until 1750 when Westminster Bridge was built.
As such an important artery, dozens of coaching inns were dotted along Borough High Street, a flourishing trade until the railways arrived in the early 19th century.
Later the street’s name changed to reflect the charitable institutions based here, more on them later.
Axe and Bottle Yard
The Axe pub was later known as the Axe and Bottle and if you look up you can see a reminder of this hanging from the Southern side of the street.
There’s also a winch, but the only link I’ve found with an R. Easton & Son is a lift manufacturers listed in 1922 on Southwark Bridge Road.
From 1879 the street was renamed Newcomen Street after Mrs Newcomen, widow of the Mercer, Jonathan Newcomen who died in 1675. Presumably she had no heirs because she left her property to the parish of St Saviour’s including a few properties in Axe Yard. The money from the rent was for “the clothing of poor boys and girls … and for teaching them to read and write and cast accounts.”
This plaque presumably indicates that the property is still owned by the charity. From 1887 to was known as the Newcomen Foundation and is still going as the Newcomen Collett Foundation.
Elizabeth is buried in Southwark Cathedral and you can view her Memorial Plaque here.
The other land owner was John Marshall. He died in 1631 and also having no heirs left his property on Axe Yard to the trustees of various charities.
You can also find little plaques which (I assume) indicate JM along the street;
But a far more obvious clue is this curious building further along Newcomen Street at no.66
John Marshall House
Built in 1853, this was the former offices of the John Marshall Trustees, on the site of the John Marshall’s mansion house.
It’s covered in these lovely little heads, which always bring to mind characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury tales but I haven’t been able to find out much more about their identities.
The trustees were based on Newcomen Street until 1967 and amazingly the charity still exists today, supporting the parish of Christ Church in Southwark and giving grants to various English parsonages.
Today the building is owned by Kings College London, part of their Guy’s Campus and though its boarded up now you can still see reminders that it was once used for students.
As we began with a pub, it seems fitting to end with one…
Kings Arms Pub
This was rebuilt in 1890 but has a remarkable coat of arms on its side.
Rather grand for a side-street pub you might think. That’s because this once graced a gateway across the Old London Bridge!
It’s thought that it dates from 1728, a replacement from the coat of arms damaged by fire on the bridge in 1725. Royalty buffs will note that the inscription mentions King George III when he only came to the throne in 1760. The most likely explanation is another ‘I’ was added to King George II (r.1727-1760) who would’ve had the same Royal arms.
What are they doing on the pub? I don’t think anyone has a firm answer to be honest! But it’s rather wonderful…
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