The House by the Thames, by Gillian Tindall

An address on the far side of history
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The Independent Culture

The City of London and the Borough of Southwark have glowered at each other across the Thames for centuries, warily preserving separate identities. Even with the web of bridges between them, they maintain a distance. I remember from the Sixties the sense of adventure aroused by driving south across Blackfriars Bridge and turning through the maze of narrow streets, lined with eerily disused factories and warehouses, for dinner at the Anchor, the inn stranded in what was then a desert of dereliction.

Today the Anchor is on the crowded footway between London Bridge station and two of the capital's most recent tourist attractions, Tate Modern and the reconstructed Globe Theatre; but the spirit of Southwark remains mysteriously alien to its sleeker neighbour. Walking south across the pencil-slim Millennium Bridge from St Paul's Cathedral provokes mild trepidation, not entirely due to fear of being pitched into the water.

That alienation is at the heart of Gillian Tindall's engaging book. She tells the story of Southwark by focusing on a house that has stood on Bankside, almost opposite the cathedral, for nearly 300 years. That nothing of much note happened at 49 Bankside does not faze her. Readers of her earlier forays into popular history will know how she relishes weaving an engrossing tale from sparse material.

Throughout its life, the house has stood on the sidelines of history. It used to advertise itself as the place from which Wren watched the construction of St Paul's; Tindall shows that if the architect did stay on Bankside, it was at a house further west. Just as implausible is the legend that Catherine of Aragon slept in the house's predecessor, the Cardinal's Cap Inn. The inn was probably a brothel, one of a clutch that fronted the river, gaudy signs beamed at lustful citizens on the other side.

The Elizabethan impresario Philip Henslowe owned property hereabouts, but a few doors east. As for Shakespeare, he certainly frequented Bankside, the home of the Globe and Rose; but if he ever lodged or caroused in the area it was in the larger and more famous Falcon Inn.

Brothels, playhouses and louche taverns were merely the first of the unwholesome trades that found their way to Southwark. Later the borough became the capital's noxious industrial hinterland; a centre for tanning, brewing and making vinegar. Number 49 doubled as office and residence of a family of coal merchants.

By the early 20th century Bankside had become a slum, but the house was given a new lease of life in the 1930s by a film producer, Robert Stevenson. He lived there with his wife, actress Anna Lee, whose closest brush with stardom came when she once played opposite Boris Karloff. In the Second World War, the house was lucky to escape serious bomb damage. One postwar tenant was an ambitious young journalist named Peregrine Worsthorne, but he was forced out by rats. Today, thousands pass the house, but few give it a second glance. They stand with their backs to it, focusing their cameras for the perfect snapshot of St Paul's. As always, 49 Bankside plays a bit part in London's pageant.

Michael Leapman's biography of Inigo Jones is published by Review