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A History of London's South Bank: from Penny Gaffs to Giant Wheels

January 26th, 2017 | by Stefano Leone

A History of London's South Bank: from Penny Gaffs to Giant Wheels

South Bank is an area of incredible history, architecture, culture and regeneration. Originally isolated and defined by the Thames, for centuries this riverside location developed in a very different way from the affluent north bank.

A marshy expanse of slum housing and country estates; a rural haven of green fields and pleasure gardens; a dynamic hub of industry and manufacturing; a nucleus of nineteenth-century theatre and entertainment venues; a host to the largest railway terminus in the country; and a byword for post-war cultural restoration.

South Bank is now home to great national centres for art and culture, a vibrant and growing community and some of London’s finest achievements in architecture, such as the London Eye. Throughout its history, the South Bank has endured fire, flood, slum clearance, railway demolition, devastating bombing, and the ebb and flow of investment and industry.

But why were these buildings built here, and how did the area become what it is today? Check out our timeline below for to learn the origins and heritage of London's cultural and creative heart, then enjoy them for yourself. 

If you'd like to trace the footsteps of South Bank's history and heritage, we've also produced this handy Walk this Way itineray guide, chock-full of curiosities and lesser-known facts about the area's most significant landmarks. 

  • Pre 1800s: Lambhythe and its Marshes

    In the pre and early 1800s the South Bank of London was practically deserted. Cut off from the river by the great expanses of the River Thames, it was only accessible to ferrymen shuffling back and forth across the current. 

    The Anglo-Saxon origin of Lambeth: ‘Lambhythe’, implies that a muddy harbour or marsh had been present from the earliest days of London. As the city grew, the Marsh, a prime location but difficult to develop, remained largely untouched, a green oasis of agriculture and public gardens where urbanites could find refreshment in a rural surrounding.

  • 1810s: Royal Coburg and The Penny Gaffs

    In the nineteenth century,  the area of Lambeth urbanised and the entertainment world burgeoned. Taverns converted to music halls and fringe ‘Penny Gaffs’ were ubiquitous. Without artistic restrictions or censorship (unlike the north bank), the theatres of the Marsh were quite permissive and, before modern film and radio put the theatres out of business, many were closed down for being ‘disorderly houses’. One of London’s best and most popular theatres was also opened in this period. The Old Vic was established in 1818 and was known under a couple of different names such as the Royal Coburg Theatre and the Royal Victoria Theatre. The theatre was badly damaged in the Second World War but in 1951 it got Grade II listed status. Whilst under the management of Laurence Olivier it became the National Theatre until the NT moved to its current location on the riverside.

  • 1830s: Industry

    It was in the eighteenth century that industry also began to develop in the area: some needed the Marsh’s fresh water supply (for brewing or cloth bleaching); others exploited the cheap land and river access to move or store their bulk goods (limestone, scrap iron and wood). Improved access from the new Westminster and Blackfriars bridges, combined with the need for large amounts of industrial labour led to a population explosion in the once-quiet village as thousands flocked to the South Bank to work on the coal wharves, timber yards, potteries, dye works, lime kilns, blacking factories and printing houses. The growth of industry was one of the key components in Lambeth’s transformation from rural haven into a centre of industry, the other was the railway.

  • 1850s: Waterloo or Whore-terloo?

    With the peak of the industrial revolution came the arrival of the railways and for South Bank this meant London’s busiest station was built on their doorstep, Waterloo. From its arrival in 1848 the Railway has dominated the area, dividing it from the river with a bastion of brickwork and isolating the waterfront. With powers of compulsory purchase, the railway company was free to demolish anything to increase its railway lines and terminus (one such casualty in 1900 was the insalubrious ‘Whore-terloo’ neighbourhood.) The vast number of steam trains running from the Station (as many as 700 a day by the end of the nineteenth century) polluted the local air, already choked by two centuries of industry, with thick smog. Back in the 19th century the railways were noisy and dirty making the South Bank an oppressive and unpleasant place to be. Soot from the engines would rise into the air from Waterloo and fall onto the streets below. 



  • 1922: London County Hall Opens its Doors

    The first half of the 1900's was a tumultuous time with two World Wars wreaking devastation on the capital. Understandably, people lost their way and it was difficult to feel confident in a united identity as the face of the city was continuously changing. A new building that appeared on the river front was County Hall. Built between 1911 and 1933 County Hall had lots of different functions but most famously served as the seat of the London County Council and later the Greater London Council, which was famously disbanded by Margaret Thatcher. The building then faced a questionable future. At one point it was suggested that the London School of Economics would relocate there. Nowadays, it still serves multiple functions and houses many of our attractions including the 5* Marriott Hotel, the Sea Life London Aquarium and, most recently, the London Dungeon.

  • 1936: A New Museum is Born!

    Although the Imperial War Museum has been around since 1917, the museum on Lambeth Road has only been there since 1936. The Imperial War Museum (or IWM London, as it's named today) site was the former home of Bethlem Royal Hospital. Founded in 1247 it was the first institution in the UK to specialise in the care of the mentally ill. By 1815 ‘Bedlam’ had moved to its new building in Lambeth. The hospital’s design, a giant portico with six Ionic columns, was flanked by two three-storey wings and augmented by a tall copper dome. After the hospital moved out in 1930, permission was obtained from London County Council to use it for Imperial War Museums, which opened on the site in 1936. 

    With both large-scale hardware (including the two gargantuan naval guns before the entrance) and exhibitions on the social effects of war, the Museum now covers all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces had been involved since 1914 to present day. The museum underwent a major internal redesign and refurbishment and reopened in 2014 in time for the First World War Centenary commemorations. Where the great hospital wings once stood is now the expansive Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, named after the mother of Viscount Rothermere.

  • 1951: The Festival of Britain Opens in South Bank

    Ironically, it was the Second World War, which had done so much damage to the area, that was responsible for much of its regeneration. Intending to create a ‘tonic’ for the war-scarred nation, the South Bank was chosen as the site for the Festival of Britain. The bombed-out riverside was cleared and built upon, becoming the site, in 1951, of a national celebration. The Royal Festival Hall remained as a permanent legacy, to be followed in subsequent decades by other arts venues, such as the Hayward Gallery and Royal National Theatre, adding a new chapter to the history of the South Bank.

  • 1960's: Brutalist Beauty

    The ‘60s and ‘70s saw the arrival of some more drastic architecture on South Bank, built in a style known as Brutalism. The first of two projects was the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which opened in 1967, followed by the Hayward Gallery. With its war bunker-like blocks it was voted the ugliest building in Britain by Daily Mail readers of the day. However, it is now lauded as an example of post-modern architecture and is often seen as the forerunner to other big European projects such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris – hailing the idea of bringing the inside out.  In 1976, after more than a century of planning and fourteen years in the Old Vic, the National Theatre company moved into the three theatres of their new building, next to the Hayward Gallery: Lyttelton, Olivier, and Cottesloe (now replaced by the Dorfman). Lasdun’s Brutalist design of reinforced concrete and horizontal lines, with a skyline augmented by the massive Olivier and Lyttelton fly-towers, has become a landmark of the South Bank.

  • 1970's: Oxo Tower Wharf, A Beacon of Regeneration

    Originally a power station for the Post Office, the Wharf was acquired in the 1920s by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, makers of the OXO beef cube. In the 1930s, the company added the art deco tower to advertise their most famous product. Designed to circumvent strict laws about exterior advertising, the letters that spelt out ‘OXO’ were in fact glass windows. With the closure of the docks, industry faded and by the 1970s the wharf was derelict. When a developer proposed to demolish it to build a hotel and offices, the local community formed an action group and rallied in protest. The social enterprise Coin Street Community Builders was formed by local residents to regenerate the area. After their success at Gabriel’s Wharf they tackled the more ambitious refurbishment of Oxo Tower Wharf, giving it 78 co-operative flats, design-led shopping, galleries as well as restaurants, cafes and bars. In 1997 Oxo Tower Wharf won Building of the Year Award for Urban Regeneration. Behind the OXO Tower is Bargehouse, part of the same development but left as an untouched, raw, industrial space used for exhibitions and events.

  • 1990's: IMAX makes a debut

    Out of Waterloo Road’s sunken ‘bullring’ roundabout rises the giant glass drum of the BFI IMAX, which is the home to the biggest cinema screen in the UK, featuring a 20m by 26m screen and a sound system of over 12,000 watts. This imposing cinema was originally designed by Bryan Avery and completed in 1999. The venue has won a number of prestigious awards at the time of opening, including a Design Council Millennium Product Award in 1999 and a Civic Trust Award in 2000. BFI IMAX is owned by the British Film Institute and since July 2012 it has been operated by ODEON Cinemas. Although the venue has an underground line just four metres below, it is totally sound and vibration-proof, with the entire upper structure sitting on anti-vibration bearings. Film lovers travel from across Europe for the immersive experience of the latest blockbuster or classic re-release.

  • 2000: A New Dawn for South Bank

    The new millennium saw the arrival of possibly South Bank’s most iconic attraction, The London Eye. The giant ferris wheel designed by Marks Barfield Architects was built of celebrate the new millennium and, like its cousin the Millennium Dome, was only supposed to be there temporarily – until 2005. However, it proved so popular with Londoners and tourists alike that it has remained on the riverfront ever since and will stay until at least 2025. Designed as a huge, latticed bicycle wheel structure The London Eye is cantilevered and uses enormous ‘A’ frame legs supported by giant foundations and is tied back by more cables anchored underneath Jubilee Gardens. Built in less than 16 months, the London Eye is an international structure, involving the teamwork of various European engineers, and British designers Marks Barfield Architects. The sections of this 2,100 tonne construction were transported down the Thames and raised a massive 135 metres high, and the Structure breaks many technology, design and size records. From inside the glass observation capsules, views of up to 25 miles over the city and beyond can be seen.

  • 2007: So Long, National Film Theatre. Long Live BFI Southbank!

    The National Film Theatre owed it origins to the 1951 Festival of Britain and the ‘Télekinema’, a purpose-built cinema designed to celebrate British film-making and technology. Never intended to be a permanent exhibition, the Télekinema’s popularity led to the National Film Theatre opening in 1957, tucked underneath Waterloo Bridge’s southern arches. Initially containing only one cinema, the Theatre was given a second in 1970 and became one of the world’s leading cinematheques, organising the London Film Festival. In 2007 the National Film Theatre was relaunched as BFI Southbank in much enlarged premises. Today there are three cinemas and studio space as well as the Mediatheque, a world class television and film archive, spanning everything from early documentaries to modern soap operas and comedy programmes. It is free to log on to a viewing station and watch any of the films and programmes in the archive. 

  • 2012: A Garden Fit for a Queen

    During the Festival of Britain in 1951, the patch of grass sitting next to County Hall (today opposite the London Eye) was home to the Dome of Discovery and Skylon, the 300ft cigar-shaped vertical monument that is remembered nearby with a flagpole and plaque laid into the ground. After the Festival these temporary structures were removed and the land was used as a car park until 1977, when the area was transformed into a park for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. In 2011-12, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the gardens were completely re-landscaped with new flower beds, pathways and seating, 97 trees and a new playground, and responsibility for their management passed to a local charity, the Jubilee Gardens Trust. The Queen inaugurated the new Jubilee Gardens in October 2012. At the same time a new public toilet was opened, nicknamed the Jubiloo. Its boat-like structure recalls a Roman galley that was excavated close by in 1911. The roof of the structure gathers rain water to help flush the toilets.

  • Today: Skaters & Skyscrapers

    You would have thought they’d be tired of construction work but Southbank Centre are already planning their next projects – an Arts Incubator Hub under Waterloo Bridge and and Urban Arts Space by Hungerford Bridge. 

    In 2015, National Theatre's major development programme NT Future was completed. On the riverfront, this saw the redevelopment and renaming of the Cottesloe as the new Dorfman Theatre, as well as a remodelled foyer, new cafe and bars, a new bookshop and the creation of the Clore Learning Centre. Behind the NT, a new home for the Rambert contemporary dance company was opened by The Queen in 2014, which quickly gained a RIBA national award as one of the best new buildings of the year.  House of Vans and The Vaults opened in the atmospheric, subterranean spaces laid out over five previously disused train tunnels beneath Waterloo Station.

    At the same time, a plethora of exciting new developments are transforming the South Bank skyline, from the 1920's transatlantic inspired lines of Mondrian London at Sea Containers, to the Scandinavian glass vessel that will be the new 52-storey One Blackfriars, via the redevelopment of the on the iconic 5.25-acre Shell Centre site which is soon to be known as Southbank Place

    Past and future, glass and concrete, urban arts and world-class cultural institutions. All of this in an area whose geography represents the 0.4% of the whole of London, but within which a whole world is contained. Stay tuned!

  • Eager for More? Then Walk this Way...

    Throughout its history, South Bank has endured fire, flood, slum clearance, railway demolition, devastating bombing, and the ebb and flow of investment and industry. Consequently, the area is peppered with unique examples of architecture and hidden mementoes from the past that are waiting to be explored. Walk This Way is your walking guide to South Bank, which will guide you through this journey of discovery, into the heart and the history of this incredible area.

    At a comfortable pace, the Walk This Way - South Bank route  will take around 1.5 hours although it is recommended that you allow more time to stop and sight-see  at various points along the route (map pages 16–17).

    Download your Walk this Way guide here.