A Brief Intro to…the history of the South Bank
Updated: Feb 5
Night or day, rain or shine; the South Bank remains a constant hub of activity throughout the year.
The huge range of activities on offer, from watching a play at The National Theatre, getting a bite to eat at one of the numerous restaurants or taking in the view from The London Eye to spying on sharks at the aquarium, catching a film at the BFI IMAX or revisiting the past at the Imperial War museum, means the South Bank appeals to adults and children alike.
But it’s taken a great deal of time to build an area that is now referred to as ‘London’s Cultural Heart’.
Nestled along the River Thames may seem like prime position now, but for centuries, the riverside location isolated the area from the more affluent North Bank. In the following paragraphs, we take a look at the significant milestones that helped take the South Bank we know and love today from a boggy marshland to a vibrant cultural hotspot…
Pre-1800, the Lambeth area was pretty much deserted. With its marshy landscape difficult to develop, it was used as more of a rural retreat from the city.
But industrialisation in the 19th Century brought urbanisation and the arrival of an entertainment industry previously unseen. Multiple music halls and ‘Penny Gaffs’ (short theatrical skits, plays and comedies that could be staged wherever space permitted) sprung up across the neighbourhood. These performances were not subject to the usual censorship rules and whilst being feared as breeding grounds for the ill repute by the Victorian moral reformers (!) proved hugely popular amongst the lower classes. They also led the way for other larger theatres such as The Old Vic (initially known as the Royal Coburg Theatre) creating further interest in the area.
1848 saw the next component in Lambeth’s transformation. The opening of Waterloo Station marked the arrival of London’s busiest station to the once sleepy neighbourhood. Thick smog from over 700 trains a day slowly turned the area from a rural idyll to an oppressive, uninviting and uncomfortable place to be.
Despite this, the opening of the new Westminster Bridge (in 1862) and Blackfriars Bridge (in 1869) combined with cheap land and access to a fresh water supply, spurred Industrialisation on further. The need for cheap labour led to a population explosion as workers flocked to the area to take up positions in timber yards, printing houses and factories.
The devastating effects of WW1 and WW2, slowed progress as the city mourned. But 1922 offered some hope for Lambeth’s future with the opening of London County Hall, an incredible piece of architecture that initially became home to London County Council and now incorporates the Sea Life Aquarium, London Dungeon and 5 Star Marriott Hotel. Further signs of cultural development came in 1936 with the opening of the Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road.
But it was 1951 that marked the next significant phase of transformation. Organising the ‘Festival of Britain’ (a national exhibition visited by millions) on the South Bank was a stroke of genius by the government. Officially opened by King George on 3rd May, this exciting project celebrating Britain’s achievements was a perfect demonstration of the country’s recovery and provided a huge morale booster post WW2. Whilst the £12 million budget, was spent on events across the country, the vast majority was dedicated to the construction of numerous new buildings which make up the South Bank we know today as well as a huge programme of events that kept visitors entertained. The Royal Festival Hall was one of several buildings that remained as a permanent legacy of the event.
Development of the area continued into the 1960s with a focus on architecture’s newest trend; brutalism. Queen Elizabeth Hall opened in 1967 closely followed by The Haywood Gallery. Then in 1976, the National Theatre (previously based out of The Old Vic) moved into its new brutalist digs, next door to the gallery.
The 1970s brought further regeneration to the area under the lead of local community group, the Coin Street Community Builders. Perturbed by a developer’s plan to demolish the art deco Oxo Tower, the group (still on a high from their previous regeneration success at nearby Gabriel’s Wharf) created a co-operative of flats, galleries, bars and restaurants which went on to win the Building of the Year Award for Urban Regeneration.
The 1990s saw the debut of the biggest cinema screen in the UK. The BFI IMAX on Waterloo Road roundabout attracted film aficionados from across the globe in search of an immersive cinematic experience.
Nowadays probably considered the most iconic attraction on the South Bank, the arrival of The London Eye marked the celebration of a new millennium. Initially planned to be a temporary 5 year installation, its international popularity secured its long-term home on the waterfront where it will remain until at least 2025.
The monumental success of the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ had secured the construction of the National Film Theatre in 1957. But by the 70s, this leading cinema from which the London Film Festival was organised, was in need of a makeover. The subsequently named BFI Southbank incorporated extra cinemas and a world class TV and film archive, which once again solidified its reputation in the entertainment world and ensured continued success for South Bank.
The Queen’s Jubilee in 2012 was marked in the area by the transformation of a car park in front of The London Eye to a landscaped garden and playground.
Despite the incredible transformation of this once boggy marshland, the development of South Bank continues apace. From the redevelopment of the iconic Shell building and our very own transformation of the Leake Street Arches, the South Bank urban landscape is a small part of London with a huge amount to offer.