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| 4 minutes read


From the early 17th century, Southwark has been central to London’s brewing industry. Historically, it was made up of a dense network of streets that crept south of the River Thames via the Old London Bridge, with the City of London – its more prosperous neighbour – on the skyline to the north. Cutting east to west through what was a maze of alleys and passageways, as designed by Joseph Bazalgette and laid out in 1867, is Southwark Street; beneath it, one of his famous sewers that sought to clean up London in the 19th century. 

Southwark Street quickly became home to this brewing industry. Warehouses and showrooms that stored and sold hops lined its streets, and along Southwark Street itself, the most prominent of all buildings – the Hop Exchange (1867, Grade II) – was built. Its repetitious series of windows meet the ground, with large central courtyards bringing light into the centre of the structure. Light was core to the function, allowing traders, brewers, and buyers to clearly view the product they were buying. Architectural form, in this instance, did follow its function. 

Coupled with this significant piece of development was the growth of the railways. London Bridge had quick connections into Kent, which, being the Garden of England, was known for its hop growing. Hops sustained this urban development and provided the impetus for this significant period of urban change. 

The land here has been used for centuries and is evidenced by the remarkable discovery of a Roman mausoleum and series of mosaics, found by a team from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in 2022 at what has become known as the Liberty of Southwark site, situated opposite the Hop Exchange.

The Liberty of Southwark itself is located on Southwark Street, largely bound by the historic buildings and alleys that are representative of the finer grain of townscape that characterised the area. To its south is the Crossbones Graveyard, which for centuries housed the bones of Southwark’s paupers, sited within one of the most destitute areas in London. Today, the Liberty of Southwark sits as a cleared area, with hoardings promising change a forthcoming prosperous chapter in Southwark Street’s history. 

Within this complicated historical and social context, Montagu Evans’ Historic Environment and Townscape team have advised the Liberty of Southwark’s owners, Landsec, on a recently approved development. While advice dealt with the whole of the site, there was one particular area of focus that drew interest. The façade of a former hop warehouse occupies the address at 15 Southwark Street and is on the far north-eastern flank of the Liberty of Southwark site. The building has been vacant for several years following the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Economic Community in 1973 and the consequent downturn of the hop industry. It is not listed, but was incorporated into the original consented development in 2021 and clearly contributes positively to the wider Borough High Street Conservation Area, which includes nationally important buildings such as Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market. 

The building does not have the grandeur of the Hop Exchange, but, like its neighbour, form follows its function. Orientated north, its ground floors have large openings to allow for soft light to penetrate into the salesfloors of the building. While Leon Batista Alberti published De Pictura in 1450, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man sketched in 1490, and more recently in the 20th century, Le Corbusier puzzled over the Modulor Man – all of which articulated an anthropometric scale of proportions – 15 Southwark Street’s proportions were drawn from the Hop Pocket, a bag, approximately six feet and two inches tall, which needed to be carried into the ground area from its entrance on Southwark Street. On the first floor, the openings are marginally smaller, and is where the board of the hop company, would sit, above the busy street with an eye on the Hop Exchange. The third and fourth-storey openings shrink again, providing a sense of perspective rising above through the building. 

Against this functional backdrop, the building at 15 Southwark Street is very well-detailed. While it is tired – having been disused and unmaintained since the early 1970s – there is evidence of its wealthier history through its use of marble and ornament in its detailing, providing kerb appeal within the competitive context of adjacent hop merchants who similarly used architecture to attract hop punters. Lettering is cut into soft sandstone, reading the ‘Calvert’s Buildings’, and beneath it, the ghostly markings of the former signage for Wigan Richardson and Co are still legible. 

The proposals include the retention of this frontage, following dismantling and rebuilding that is necessary because of structural instability. The reconstruction will reuse the existing salvaged brick and stone and will take the opportunity to make like-for-like repairs to the historic fabric. Behind the elevation, the building is integrated into the wider scheme, with routes through the site which echo that of the historic alleys and passageways, through to Southwark Street, Borough Market and beyond to Bankside. Through the redevelopment of the Liberty of Southwark’s site, thousands of years of history will be legible, while new spaces fit for the 21st century provide a new, sustainable use for the area. 


london, heritage, insight