Dancing in the streets – royal events in Southwark through the ages

By Patricia Dark, Archivist

This year is the Platinum Jubilee, marking the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II taking the throne. Some people will be planning a street party, a picnic or viewing the platinum pageant – if so, you’re following in the footsteps of Southwark residents of a century and more ago.

Having the monarch live in a set place is a relatively young idea. In the Middle Ages, when many payments were made in kind rather than money, the royal court moved around the country, visiting royal estates. The royal court would have been familiar with Southwark, since London Bridge was the only Thames crossing near the royal palace at Westminster – visiting cities to the south of London, like Winchester, or royal holdings in France, would require travelling down Borough High Street to the Elephant.

Moving forward in time to Queen Victoria’s reign, we would definitely recognise the pomp
and circumstance surrounding her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Tuesday 22 June 1897 (two days after the actual anniversary) was a special Bank Holiday; there was a procession featuring 50,000 troops and officials from all over the Empire – the entire route, starting and ending at Buckingham Palace, was highly decorated and packed with people. The route crossed the Thames at London Bridge, continuing down Borough High Street and Borough Road to St George’s Circus before re-crossing the Thames at Westminster Bridge. To mark the occasion, the obelisk at St George’s Circus was replaced with a clock tower – later demolished in the interwar period before the obelisk was replaced there in 1998.

1897 Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee procession royal coach passing Boswell and Sons Borough Road (P_2641)

Edward VII and George V had similar coronation processions – in 1902, the procession stopped outside the St George the Martyr vestry hall in Borough Road to allow the mayors of the metropolitan boroughs of south London to give good wishes and pledge their loyalty to the new monarch.

Edward VII’s coronation festivities also included the King’s Dinner. Schools, settlements, and
mission halls all over modern Southwark hosted festive meals and entertainment for poor local residents (likely to be older people) – rather charmingly, many of the invitations ask attendees to bring their own cutlery.

1902 King’s Dinner for his poorer subjects ticket, 61 Southwark Street, 5 Jul (PC_394_43)

By the time of King George’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, celebrations were locally organised; by the individual metropolitan boroughs or individual streets or estates. However, Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough – a poor area hard-hit by the Great Depression – didn’t allocate any money to marking the jubilee, citing lack of funds. This led Mayor SR Weightman to turn down an invitation to meet the new king because, as he pointed out, his mayoral funds were earmarked for sending local disabled children on a holiday and he couldn’t personally afford the £80 to £100 outlay (up to £7,500 in today’s money). This principled stance wasn’t universally popular. In fact, newspapers reported that he was burnt in effigy outside Bermondsey Town Hall on 6 May by a crowd protesting his supposed lack of patriotism. Bermondsey locals organised over 200 neighbourhood street parties, funded by donations from residents – providing a treat for some 5,000 children. Most of them, luckily, had a budget surplus: the Cadbury Road committee used theirs for
a children’s cinema outing, while organisers in Leonard Street saved theirs for a summer outing.

1935 Silver Jubilee King George V, Tea Party, Alscot Road, 6 May (PB_1761)

Two years later, celebrations for George VI’s coronations were much the same: organised and paid for locally. On 12 May, neighbourhoods all over modern Southwark threw street parties for local children, paid for by local residents clubbing together. Children attending usually got gifts, for instance a souvenir mug and box of sweeties, to take home. The Dog Kennel Hill estate’s party turned into a riot, as adult gate-crashers tried to make off with the children’s treats. Moreover, it rained on the day: local newspaper coverage suggests that some parties were spoiled entirely.

The festivities continued through the month. The metropolitan borough of Camberwell organised a party on 20 May for more than 20,000 schoolchildren at Crystal Palace, featuring concerts, sports, dancing, a Punch and Judy show, and a display of Maxim flying boats.

For Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, Bermondsey didn’t have to worry about balancing its books, since a wealthy American, Margaret Biddle, footed the bill. Although she was living in Monte Carlo, she’d spent time in Bermondsey during the Second World War, including a stint as a volunteer PR officer for the borough’ council. Bermondsey took the voyage of the Mayflower as the theme of its coronation festivities (quite probably to say thank you): MGM even loaned the borough a model of the ship!

The metropolitan borough of Camberwell kicked off its festivities by lighting a beacon on One Tree Hill. Camberwell also cleverly avoided the dilemma facing Bermondsey some 20 years earlier, by making the annual children’s holiday to Bexhill an official part of its celebrations. As in earlier years, there were lots of street parties. One in Vicarage Grove was recorded by the BBC and broadcast in Australia: as local newspapers reported, one listener was so moved by the loyal speech given at Vicarage Grove that he sent the speaker a care package!

1977 Silver Jubilee Elizabeth II and crowds outside Millpond Estate, Rotherhithe, 9 June, (c) Derek Rowe (Photos) Ltd. (P_11639)

The Silver Jubilee of 1977 saw a recreation of the historic Southwark Fair on the South Bank near the Globe theatre, with a parade of “living history“ – locals dressed in costumes ranging from the Elizabethan to the futuristic. As well as street parties, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe hosted the Queen during her Royal Progress down the Thames on 9 June – this river trip echoes the journeys made by Elizabeth I, and featured in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations as well. While in Southwark, the Queen unveiled a commemorative engraved stone and received a book containing old prints of Southwark, created by students at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication).