Shakespeare and The Clink: The history of Horseshoe Wharf

Today, Bankside is a popular destination for a night out or a saunter on the weekend, with Borough Market around the corner, as well as the many cafes, pubs, and restaurants. It is also often used in television and film, including Dr Who and Bridget Jones’s Diary! However, Bankside is also one of the most historic parts of London and has been through an extraordinary transformation over the centuries, from fields, to a Tudor and Stuart red-light district and theatre land, through to a busy Victorian industrial enclave. It may be a cliché, but Bankside really is ‘jam-packed’ with history!

Section of 'Long View of London from Bankside' by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647
Section of ‘Long View of London from Bankside’ by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647

The lower part of this drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar shows Bankside at the time of the Civil War, with the Bishop’s house and gardens to the bottom left and the theatres and entertainment venues behind, along with the old London Bridge to the right.

A short time ago, while I was with Chestertons estate agents, I was asked to research one of the more recent apartment buildings that had been built on the site of an old warehouse called Horseshoe Wharf. It is situated across from the remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s 14th century palace, and despite the young age of the current building, the site has a history going back to the 12th century.

Remains of the Bishop of Winchester's Palace
Remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace

Bankside has been occupied from as far back as the Romans in the 1st century, but an archaeological study of the site of Horseshoe Wharf revealed it was occupied from the 12th century – at exactly the same time that the Bishop of Winchester was establishing his home here by the banks of the Thames.

The Bishop of Winchester was the lord of the manor, separated from The City across the river, which meant he had his own court, and even his own prison – the infamous ‘Clink’. It formerly sat to the west of Stoney Street and eventually gave its name to the area, so it became known as the manor of the Clink. The Clink was one of the worst prisons in London, where prisoners were left to starve or even literally left to rot or drown in the rising tide. The name of ‘The Clink’ is believed to have originated from the word for keyhole, but it is also commonly thought to originate from the ‘clinking’ of keys. Whatever the origins, the name is now synonymous with the name for prison.

Theatre and Bear baiting, 1647
Theatre and Bear baiting, 1647

A closer look at the drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar also reveals Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and a Beere Bayting [sic] ring. During the 16th and 17th century, this part of London was notorious for its entertainments, with taverns, theatres, and brothels. Being outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, many came to the south side of the river, which became known as the ‘playground of the City of London’. It was also the original red-light district when Soho was just fields.

Clink Street
Clink Street

A revetment was first built along The Thames at Bankside in the 14th century, but it was in the late 16th and early 17th century that a stone wall was built (which corresponds with the time that a great many people were coming across the river to visit the taverns and theatres). The new wall also allowed for sturdier construction of houses and tenements, which were built around the time of Hollar’s drawing in the 1640s. The name of Clink Street also first appeared at this time. However, within 150 years most of these early houses were demolished and a new brick river wall constructed, which led the way for the tall warehouses and wharf buildings we recognise today.

It was at this time, in the late 18th and 19th centuries that industry took over the riverside. The first building named Horseshoe Wharf was built in 1837 and by 1838 was occupied by lighterman, John Raymond. Lightermen operated the small flat-bottomed boats known as ‘lighters’ that transported goods from the ships in The Thames to the quays. John Raymond & Son were recorded at Horseshoe Wharf for almost 40 years until the 1870s.

Section of map of London by John Rocque, 1746
Section of map of London by John Rocque, 1746

From the 1880s through to the 1930s, Horseshoe Wharf was occupied by a variety of businesses, including Doo Brothers lightermen, John Muir & Company, corn merchants, and Coombe Gordon & Co., granary keepers. It continued as a warehouse building after the Second World War, but by the 1990s the site of Horseshoe Wharf was chosen for a new apartment building. After the demolition of the old building, English Heritage had the unique opportunity to undertake an archaeological study before the foundations for the new building were put in place, revealing the fascinating details about the early settlements, as well as the evolution of the riverside walls and the story of one of the most historic parts of London.

Horseshoe Wharf from riverside
Horseshoe Wharf (in the centre) from riverside

Byron’s love affair at Burgage House

In 1806, Burgage House in Southwell was the scene of a scandal involving a young Lord Byron, and the daughter of the house, Julia Leacroft. The story unravels like something out of a Jane Austen novel and almost culminated in a duel between Byron and Julia’s brother, John Leacroft.

Burgage House, Southwell
Burgage House, Southwell (image courtesy of Humberts)

Burgage House was built in the late 18th century and is situated along King Street near Burgage Green in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was the home of the Leacroft family and where the poet, Lord Byron visited several times between 1803 and 1807.

Lord Byron, 1818
Lord Byron, 1818

Byron came to the small town of Southwell to visit his mother, who was renting nearby Burgage Manor. From 1803 he would visit during school holidays from Harrow, and then later when he was at Cambridge. While visiting his mother, Byron established close friendships with neighbouring families, in particular with Elizabeth and John Pigot, living across the road, and siblings, John and Julia Leacroft at Burgage House.

In the summer of 1806, the group of friends decided to amuse themselves by staging amateur dramatics in Burgage House – where the ‘…drawing room was converted into a neat theatre for the occasion.’ In fact, the story much resembles the scene in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park!

1806-1808 fashions (image courtesy of British Library)
1806-1808 fashions (courtesy of British Library)

Byron took the lead male role, while Julia Leacroft played the lead female role, and the pair became very close. After the fun of the theatricals, the flirtations between Byron and Julia continued leading to rumours amongst the people of Southwell. By January 1807 it was assumed amongst many – particularly the Leacroft family – that the pair would marry. However, Byron had no intention of marrying Julia and the circumstances soon caused a scandal in the quiet community of Southwell.

Byron also wrote two poems referring to Julia Leacroft, the first was actually entitled To Julia and published in his first collection, Fugitive Pieces, but the title was later changed to To Lesbia. In the poem he is addressing Julia and explaining he no longer loves her:

‘Tis I, that am alone to blame,
I, that am guilty of love’s treason;
Since your sweet breast, is still the same,
Caprice must be my only reason.’


The second poem, To a Lady, published in Hours of Idleness in 1807 talks of an assignation in the garden. It is possible to imagine a scene in the once large garden (now largely lost) beside Burgage House of a clandestine meeting between the young Julia and Byron.

It has been suggested that the Leacroft family attempted to entrap Byron and force him to marry Julia, but Byron made a hasty departure from Southwell just in time. Surviving letters between Byron and Julia’s brother John reveal the hostility between the former friends, and there is a rumour that John may have challenged Byron to a duel. In a later letter Byron wrote to John and said, “if we must cut each other’s throats to please our relations, you will do me the justice to say it is from no personal animosity between us.”


Byron never visited the Leacroft family again and soon after he stopped visiting Southwell altogether. Burgage House continued as the home of the Leacroft family throughout the 19th century, with magistrate William Swymmer Leacroft recorded as the owner from the 1830s through to his death in 1857. It then passed to William’s brother Edward and sister Caroline, until the 1870s, when after almost 90 years in the same family the house was sold.

Escape into the houses of the past

I have long believed (of course!) that houses are more than just a collection of walls, floors, and a roof – they are a literal doorway into our past. They reveal hidden stories of the lives of past residents, architectural gems, and offer us a window into how we used to live. This post is a little different to my usual blog posts as I have compiled a list of places to visit across the UK that offer fantastic insights into the history of houses. They will give you a glimpse into the world of our ancestors and perhaps make you think twice about the history of your own home.

Visit The Geffrye: Museum of the Home in London
Discover the history of houses through the period rooms, including 17th century hall and parlour, Georgian parlour, and Edwardian drawing room.

Walk through No.1 Royal Crescent in Bath
Step back into the world of Georgian Bath and walk through the preserved rooms of the most famous crescent in the world.

Find yourself in Medieval England at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
Experience the extraordinary collection of re-erected and conserved old houses from across the country and now situated in the West Sussex countryside.

Smell and hear the history of Spitalfields in Denis Severs’ House in London
Walk through the living history of a home of Huguenot weavers from 1724 to 1914. Why not try the exclusive Silent Night tour, which includes champagne and curatorial staff on hand to discuss the history of the house.

Walk in the footsteps of kings and queens
Visit Hampton Court Palace in the year of its 500th anniversary and take yourself back to the world of Henry VIII, as well as other monarchs, including Charles I, and William III and Mary II.

Peek into the world of Gladstone’s Land in Edinburgh
Get a glimpse of how the people of 17th century Edinburgh lived in the tall tenements of the old town.

Delve into the literary world of 19th century Chelsea
Tucked away in the quiet streets of Chelsea is the former home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle. Take note of the early kitchen with its basic facilities.

Escape into the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy
Visit the former home of Jane Austen and her mother and sister, at Chawton House, in Hampshire.

See the newly opened private apartments of Sir John Soane in London
Explore the fascinating art and antiquities collection of architect Sir John Soane within his very own home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Be Duchess for a day at Chatsworth House
Walk through the exquisite country house of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Dating back to the 16th century and you can also see one of Europe’s greatest art collections.

Step back into historic rural Wales at the Swtan Heritage Museum
Get a fascinating insight into the lives of rural Welsh cottagers on the west coast of the Isle of Anglesey. Swtan, built in the 17th century, has been carefully restored back to how it would have been in the early 1900s.

Escape into the luxurious world of Frederic, Lord Leighton
The uniquely designed former home of artist Lord Leighton, where ‘east meets west’, is an extraordinary house, with highlights including the ornate tiled Arab Hall and many of Lord Leighton’s works of art.

There are a great many other places across the country that give you an insight into the way our ancestors lived, with many amazing historic houses (large and small) open to the public, but I hope this list will offer something new or inspire you to delve a little further into the history of our houses.