Southwark got its first brothels when the invading Roman army arrived in 43AD. The Iron Age settlement once sited there had long since been abandoned, leaving nothing but a patch of swampy ground on the south bank of the Thames.
General Aulus Plautius marched his troops straight here from their landing point on the Kent coast, a distance of about 63 miles, meeting little or no resistance along the way. Forced to halt by the river, they camped opposite what is now Cheapside, where a network of tracks branched out towards every corner of the island. It was there, on the river’s north bank, that Britain’s defenders had chosen to make their stand. Plautius ordered his engineers to build a platoon bridge at the relatively narrow, shallow spot where Southwark Bridge now stands and this was quickly done. The Romans made short work of the British fighters waiting at Cheapside, replaced their original pontoon bridge with a permanent wooden structure and set about expanding their Southwark camp into something more like a small town.
“At the bridgehead, they established their commissariat and stores, because Southwark – and not London – would have been their resistance base if the campaign had gone wrong,” Ephraim Burford writes in his 1976 book The Bishop’s Brothels. “At least a cohort must have been stationed there and at that period a cohort comprised between 600 and 1,000 men, to which must be added the supporting establishment and the camp followers. There would have been at least 2,000 people in that settlement at any one time.” Those camp followers included a good number of Roman prostitutes, who set up shop in the new timber and thatch buildings provided just off the military highway. Any army camp of that size would have produced ample demand for the girls’ services and this grew further once the Romans had established landing docks nearby to disembark new soldiers and unload supplies. (1)
Within seven years of arrival, the Romans had already pushed their British frontier all the way to a diagonal line between the Humber and Severn estuaries – now marked by the old Fosse Way. It was also around this time that Roman merchants first built a town on the Thames’ north bank, surrounding it with defensive earthworks and christening the place Londinium. Tacitus, the Roman historian, tells us that the Londinium of 61AD was already “much frequented by merchants and trading vessels”.
By 75AD, Southwark had grown into a large suburb, snaking out a string of taverns along the access roads to its south. Throughout the Roman occupation, these were the busiest roads in the country, lined all the way to the coast with grog shops and inns, each one with a resident whore on 24-hour duty. As its population grew, Southwark shipped in slave girls from all over the Empire to keep its brothels staffed. Evidence of busy landing docks and slave markets from this period has been found all along the Thames’ north bank opposite Southwark at sites such as Queenhithe, the Tower and Billingsgate. (2)
A steady supply of new girls was essential to replace the many prostitutes who Southwark simply worked to death. “Once sold, these slaves had no rights whatsoever,” Burford says. “Each one would spend the rest of her life on her back, day and night, submitting to every sexual vagary forced upon her by exigent men, until she died. If she were not lucky enough to be bought by some admirer for his personal pleasures, she would die of exhaustion or disease by the age of 30.”
Disease was a problem for the Roman army too, if only because it didn’t want its men too clap-ridden to fight. In an age where condoms and penicillin were still centuries away, however, there was nothing much their commanders could do to combat venereal disease but order every soldier to give his genitals a good scrub every now and again. The only other precaution available was to ensure that any girl who was obviously diseased be banned from further whoring and that responsibility fell to a band of civic officials called the aediles.
Every Roman city had a team of these men, who were charged with keeping a register of all the town’s licensed prostitutes. They financed this operation by collecting a licence fee and taxes from every girl registered and from every licensed brothel-keeper too. Once she’d got a licence, the girl could choose a name to work under, tell the aedile what type of clients she planned to serve and then hang up a shingle outside displaying her prices. The licence gave her a measure of protection under Roman law, but in return she had to succumb to the aedile’s regular health inspections and agree never to dress in a way which concealed her profession. Although local pimps and procurers were free to become Roman citizens, that privilege was not extended to the girls themselves. (3)
Southwark’s busy brothels soon produced a satellite trade of rough-arse taverns, sleazy gambling joints and every other form of low-life entertainment. These, in turn, pulled petty thieves, gangsters, killers and conmen to the area, partly for the opportunities it offered them and partly because they felt safer there than in respectable Londinium itself. Runaway slaves and other fugitives flocked to Southwark too. “The very nature of the surrounding land – marshy, dank and uninhabited – made it a natural hiding place and refuge,” Burford writes. “It was regarded as part of the pomerium of London. This was a swathe of ‘no man’s land’ outside the walls of Roman cities, which was deliberately left clear so that approaching enemies could quickly be spotted and dealt with.”
In placing their brothels outside the city wall, with a river segregating them from more respectable neighbourhoods, the Romans were following a familiar pattern from home. Rome’s own red light district, the Trastavere, was sited just across the Tiber from the city itself and named to reflect precisely that fact: Trastavere translates as “on the other side of the Tiber”.
There were other amusements on offer in Southwark too – perhaps including an arena for the Roman games. Archaeologists have found evidence of a female gladiator’s funeral feast in what’s now Great Dover Street and the grave goods buried with this woman suggest she was a worshipper of Isis. Another team of archaeologists found a Roman jug inscribed “London, at the Temple of Isis” in the Thames river bed near what’s now Southwark Cathedral, which Burford believes was used in the regular “days of drinking” her worship required. Isis cults persisted in England until 350AD and these two finds suggest she was widely worshipped in Roman Southwark. (4)
And so, it seems, was her son Horus, who the Romans called Harpocrates. A small silver statue of this Egypto-Roman god, often depicted with a penis twice the height of his body, was fished out of the Thames near the Southwark end of London Bridge in 1825. Brothels throughout the Roman Empire displayed his picture as a means of spurring on the clients. Just as Isis worship encouraged regular bouts of heavy drinking, Harpocrates’ followers were expected to indulge in the wildest displays of sexual licence. All the relics I’ve mentioned here date from the first or second centuries AD, long before Christianity gained any foothold in Britain. The pantheistic Romans had many gods to choose from and Southwark’s selection of Isis and Harpocrates tells us the locals have always put drinking and sex very high on their own list of priorities. (5)
By 150AD, the Romans’ army base had moved to a new home in London’s northwest suburbs, leaving Southwark’s brothels to serve a civilian clientele instead. Burford describes their new customers as “freedmen, petty traders, travellers, lower officials, even slaves – and, of course, criminal elements using whorehouses for nefarious purposes.”
Rome’s soldiers had dominated Southwark for little more than a century, but even in that short time, they laid down the pattern of everything we’d see in the borough for the next two millennia: licensed brothels, frantic commerce, boozy travellers, disease, low-life entertainment and a dual status as both London’s sanctuary and its dumping ground. All these elements will surface again and again as we proceed through Southwark’s history, and all their seeds were planted by Roman hands.