Follow the Freeborn Girls Heritage Trail through South London
The walk Elizabeth and Sarah Gardiner took in Freeborn Girls is still there, as are many of the landmarks that existed in their day.
Exit London Bridge underground station at St Thomas Street (the Shard), turn right and walk towards Borough High Street/ You will pass the medical complex of Kings College Hospital Medical Training centre and Guys Hospital and the Old Operating Theatre. Once this was the site of St Thomas' Hospital.
Here, where the sick dragged themselves to be treated, there now crowded men returned from the war, limbs missing, clothes bloodied, propped up on crutches or resting on dead or dying comrades.
(Freeborn Girls, chapter 10.)
The origins of the hospital are lost in time. Named after Thomas Beckett, it once stood in the precinct of what is now Southwark Cathedral. By Elizabeth’s time it had moved to St Thomas’ Street.
Two hundreds years later, Mr Thomas Guy endowed another hospital nearby—now Guys Hospital which occupies a tower block close to London Bridge station. In 1862 St Thomas’ moved to its present site in Westminster. The St Thomas Street site became the sprawling King's College London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Guy's, King's and St Thomas' Hospitals.
Some remnants of the old buildings can be found, including the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret at 9a St Thomas Street. More information about the museum is online at The Old Operating Theatre.
Next: Cross Borough High Street and follow in Elizabeth and Sarah’s footsteps through Borough Market. The sights and smells here are different from Elizabeth's day, but just as strong. Linger and sample the delights of this historic market.
“Milk below,” came a cry, and Elizabeth and Sarah stood aside to let a woman pass, a yoke across her shoulders from which hung two pails, overfull, spilling milk onto the already stinking path.
Behind her a man shouted, “Oysters, fresh oysters,” and pushed a squeaking wooden barrow covered with shells that glistened with water thrown over to make them look newly pulled from the Thames.
“Sparrow-grass, fresh sparrow-grass,” cried Elizabeth, and haggled over prices while Sarah handed over the green spears of asparagus and smiled to charm an extra penny from the buyer.
(Freeborn Girls, chapter 10)
Today Borough Market is a foodie paradise. It still sells oysters and asparagus. The market’s fortunes have waxed and waned, and during much of the 20th century it was a wholesale market, almost lost in a regeneration scheme.
A quick note on London Bridge, the unprepossessing bridge by the market. From the earliest times this was the first crossing place for the Thames, used by the Romans. The London Bridge of Elizabeth’s time, was a bustling commercial thoroughfare, crowded with shops and houses. These were repeatedly destroyed by fire and rebuilt until finally the entire structure was replaced with a modern bridge in 1831. Today London’s most iconic bridge, often thought to be “London Bridge,” is in fact Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894 and located further down the Thames.
Next: After savouring the delights of the market, walk towards the riverbank and the soaring tower of Southwark Cathedral. You can spend time inside, seeing the history of the cathedral and area, or enjoy a rest in the garden.
The great church of St Saviour, seat of learning, source of charity, upholder of order in the disordered Borough of Southwark.
(Freeborn Girls, chapter 2)
Officially The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, the cathedral is one of the country’s oldest places of Christian worship.
Like much else in Southwark, its exact origins are lost in history. Legend has it that there was a nunnery here from the seventh century. The Domesday book of 1086 refers to a minster. From 1106 to 1538 there was an Augustinian priory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After the dissolution of the monasteries, it became a parish church, of St Saviour and St Mary Overie – “overie” meaning over the river.
Most of the original building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 13th century. So Elizabeth and her sister would have walked past the soaring gothic building you see today. Inside are reminders of the cultural history of the area, including a stained glass window dedicated to William Shakespeare and a plaque to commemorate his brother Edmund. It only became a Cathedral when the diocese of Southwark was created in 1905. You can read more about the history of Southwark Cathedral here: Our History: Southwark Cathedral (anglican.org)
Next: From the Cathedral, the route Elizabeth and Sarah would have taken is now a historic South Bank Thames walk, crammed with London’s history. Next stop is a ship in a dry dock beside the Cathedral. Explore below deck to get an insight into the conditions in which Elizabeth sailed to Ameria.
This is a replica of the ship in which Sir Francis Drake sailed round the world in the 16th century. It’s much the same size as the fictional Speedwell in which Elizabeth Gardiner crossed the Atlantic in 1643. Wander the decks and imagine how it must have been for those aboard, sailors, merchants, families and unaccompanied children,
many of them indentured labourers, confined within its timbers for the perilous journey.
More about the Golden Hinde is here: The Golden Hinde - The Golden Hinde | The Golden Hinde | Explore Sir Francis Drake's world-famous ship
Next: Further along the walk are reminders of Southwark’s lawless past. Elizabeth witnessed a pickpocket in action along the riverfront. Perhaps the young man ended up in this prison.
The King’s writ did not run in medieval Southwark. The bishops of Winchester were responsible for applying the law and ran the Clink, probably the oldest and most notorious prison in the country. The word “clink” is slang for prison.
Only a wall of the bishop’s palace remains, with a rose window. Nearby in Clink Street is a blue plaque to commemorate the original prison on the wall of the modern Clink Museum. The website is here: Plan Your Visit | Clink Prison Museum.
Other famous prisons from Elizabeth’s time were Marshelsea Prison, in which Charles Dicken’s father was briefly imprisoned, and Kings Bench prison. Both were largely for debtors, and both were located at one time in Borough High Street.
Next: Past the Clink, Elizabeth and Sarah walked beside the river, along Bankside.
Later additions to the landmarks are French Cannon bollard, near to the theatre, and the Ferryman's Seat, embedded in the wall of The Real Greek restaurant.
"They worked their way along the river front, past the prison, past the bear garden until they reached the theatre, closed now by order of Parliament."
(Freeborn Girls, chapter 10.)
Thanks to the American film director, Sam Wanamaker, it’s possible to see Shakespeare’s plays in their original open-air setting in the Globe Theatre. He recreated Shakespeare’s most famous theatre on what was thought to be its historic site on the culturally important Bankside. Here the works of the great Elizabethan playwrights were performed in theatres that jostled among the bear pit and brothels and drinking dens.
The remains of another of Shakespeare’s theatres, The Rose, were found nearby. They’re now a scheduled monument, protected inside an office block in Rose Court. Meanwhile what are thought to be the remains of the real Globe were found in Anchor Terrace. For more about the Globe Theatre see here Welcome to Shakespeare's Globe | London (shakespearesglobe.com)
Next: Past the Globe theatre is the house where Christopher Wren lived during the rebuilding London. It isn’t mentioned in Elizabeth and Sarah’s walk. But it’s one of my personal favourite spots, and I’d like to think that the sisters would have stopped at this historic house to look across the river to the great tower of the original St Paul’s Cathedral on the north bank of the Thames.
The house at 49 Bankside dates from the 16th century.
It’s a tall narrow house that somehow managed to survive the vagaries of redevelopment of Bankside. After the Great Fire of 1666, it was the home of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, commissioned to rebuild the capital. Its crowning glory, St Paul’s Cathedral with its iconic dome, rose from the ashes of the former timber building—directly opposite 49 Bankside. I like to imagine him standing on his doorstep in the morning watching his great creation taking shape.
Next: Enjoy the view across to St Paul's Cathedral. Or walk across the Millennium Bridge. Or walk on along Bankside and enjoy a visit to Tate Modern. My favourite is to turn back and retrace Elizabeth and Sarah’s footsteps to Borough High Street and The George Inn.
Elizabeth and her father Will visited the George April 18th 1638, the day John Lilburne was flogged.
On the way home they turned into a courtyard close to St Saviour’s Church, surrounded on three sides by the galleried buildings of St George’s inn. Will opened a door and pushed Elizabeth in front of him, and they stood, father and daughter, breathing in choking tobacco smoke that stung their eyes, hearing a cacophony of laughter, fights, and the scraping of wooden stools on wooden floors.
(Freeborn Girls, chapter 4)
When Elizabeth and Sarah visited five years later, they were warned to flee the area before the witch hunters came for their disabled sister.
The original building, dating back to medieval times, burned down soon after, and was rebuilt in 1677. It’s the oldest surviving galleried pub in London, and a rabbit warren of timbered rooms inside. Of the other public houses that crowded the area, only the names remain – the Tabard, made famous by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and The White Hart, set in a courtyard of the same name which you can still see off Borough High Street.