The early history of St John’s Churchyard,  long before it was known as such, is that of many pieces of open land in the area, and goes hand in hand with the evolution of Bermondsey and London from medieval rural and market economy to naval trading power and later industrial powerhouse of Europe.

The earliest records show how the freehold of Horsleydown, having become vested solely in Hugh Eglisfeild as the surviving joint-tenant, passed to his son Christopher Eglisfeild, of Gray’s Inn, gentleman. Christopher Eglisfeild, by deed dated 29th December, 1581, conveyed Horsleydown to the governors of St. Olave’s Grammar School.

Horsleydown is an area of Bermondsey that centres around the foot of the south approach to Tower Bridge and dates back to at least medieval times.  It is a name little used today and fast slipping from memory, only remembered by ancient stairs leading down to the river by Tower Bridge,by Horsleydown New Stairs next to St Saviour’s Dock and by a thoroughfare called Horsleydown Lane.  The area stretched  from close to where Potters Fields Park is today, along the river to St Saviour’s Dock and extended south roughly to where the viaduct carries the railway into London Bridge Station.

Horsleydown derives its name from ‘Horse Lie-Down’  where horses were pastured, feeding on grass made lush in waterlogged fields.  In the middle of the 16th century there were a few buildings, and there were gardens leading down to the river.  A fair was held and it is thought this is how Fair Street derived its name. The engraving below shows the Fair, with the Tower of London shown on the left hand side on the other side of the river helping to establish the location.  

Horsleydown dated 1590

It is not known whether Southwark Fair was ever actually held on “Horsleydown;” but it is worth noting that when the down came to be built over, in the seventeenth century, the principal street across it, from west to east, was and is to the present day, called Fair Street.

The old Artillery Hall of the Southwark “Trainbands” stood on the site of the present workhouse in Parish Street, a little to the west of St John’s Church. It was erected in the year 1639, when the governors of the school granted a lease to Cornelius Cooke and others, a piece of ground forming part of Horsleydown, and enclosed it with a brick wall. The land was to be used as a Martial Yard, in which the Artillery Hall was built.

Horsleydown dated 1745 © Crown copyright

In 1665 the governors granted the churchwardens a lease of part of the Martial Yard for 500 years for a burial ground. However they reserved all the ground where the Artillery House stood, all the herbage of the ground, liberty for the militia or trained bands of the borough of Southwark, and his Majesty’s military forces, to muster and exercise arms upon the ground.

In the year 1725 the Artillery Hall was converted by the governors into a workhouse for the parish, and in 1736 the parish church of St John’s, (Horsleydown) as stated above, was built on part of the martial ground. This part of Bermondsey is as remarkable for its appearance as for its importance, in past times at least, seeing that it was connected with the manufactures of Bermondsey. The historical maps show how more and more plots are turned from industrial and warehousing into residential properties. The fields and yards become densely built until the whole area is permanently shaped by the intrusion of the rail corridor in the mid 19th century.


Engraving of St John Horsleydown by John Buckler dated 1800

St John Horsleydown was the Anglican parish church of Horsleydown in Bermondsey, South London. Built to the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James in 1726-33, it was noted for its distinctive spire in the form of a tapering column.

The church was built between June 1727 and 1733 in Fair Street (beside the road now known as Tower Bridge Road, just south of the junction with Tooley Street), as one of the last churches built for a ‘Commission for Building Fifty New Churches’. The new parish was created from part of that of Southwark St Olave.

The design was by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James, the two surveyors to the Commission. In May 1727 they had been asked to draw up plans for a church costing, including its enclosure and parsonage, no more than £10,000, much less than Hawksmoor’s previous churches.

Like St Luke in Old Street, the other collaboration between the two men, which was built at the same time, the main body of the church was simple in plan, with an aisled nave. The most distinctive feature of the church was its unusual spire, which was in the form of a tapering column, and was topped by a weather vane depicting a comet. The “silly but lovable spire” was considered a landmark of south London by Nikolaus Pevsner. He described the church as “a stately building, all stone faced, the W front severely bare, without a portico, the N side symmetrical with two outer slightly projecting bays and a central big Venetian window.” The church had a peal of ten bells cast in 1783/4.

Horsleydown dated 1875 © Crown copyright

In 1886 construction started for the new and eastern most crossing of the river, as the increase in economic activity in the Tower Bridge area made it necessary to create a new bridge.  This gave the whole area a new impulse, with the urban fabric altered to connect the bridge with the rest of the city, when Bermondsey was still an active industrial area.

Perhaps this is what made it subject to severe bombing during the War. Bomb damage was the last influential force that shaped St John’s. The church was destroyed and lay in ruins for years until the 1970s when the London City Mission purchased the site and established its headquarters on the plinth of the old church.

© City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

St Johns Churchyard was extensively redeveloped in 2004 by Southwark Council to improve the playground, planting and path routes.