St George’s Circus, situated in the heart of SE1 in London, is a locale with a history as rich and complex as the city that surrounds it. While today it functions as an important traffic roundabout and junction point connecting key areas in Southwark, Lambeth and larger South London, its past tells a tale that traces back through decades of urban evolution, social change, and architectural development.

Looking east at St George's Circus, in Southwark, SE1 London
By Zefrog – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Origins of St George’s Circus

The establishment of St George’s Circus dates back to 1771, as part of an urban plan by architect George Dance the Younger. The Circus was designed to serve as a grand entranceway to Westminster Bridge, via Westminster Bridge Road, and Blackfriars Bridge, via Blackfriars Road. These bridges were among the very few means to cross the River Thames back in the late 18th century, making the Circus an essential part of London’s infrastructure. For example, the Circus played a role in facilitating the transport of goods from Southwark’s historic Borough Market to the north side of the Thames, aiding commerce and livelihoods.

An ornamental obelisk was erected at its center in the same year, 1771, specifically designed to include gas lamps at each of its corners. The gas lamps were not merely decorative but represented a significant advancement in public safety and urban life, as they illuminated the Circus at night, making it safer for carriages and pedestrians.

A painting of St George's Circus by T Hollis, in 1834

Architectural Evolution of the Circus

The architectural style of buildings surrounding St George’s Circus has morphed considerably over time. The Georgian terraces that originally adorned the area gave way to Victorian constructions and eventually to post-war, Brutalist, and modern edifices. For instance, the historic Bakerloo Theatre, which stood near the Circus in the Victorian era, was a reflection of its times but was eventually replaced by more modern structures.

The obelisk itself has had its own journey. It was temporarily moved to the garden of the Imperial War Museum during the 20th century. However, recognizing its historic importance and in response to public sentiment, it was returned to a location close to its original site in 1998.

Role in Transport and Infrastructure

The Circus has been a transport hub since its inception. Initially designed for horse-drawn carriages, it eventually became an important tram junction by the late 19th century. For example, the once famous Route 12 tram used St George’s Circus as a key point in its journey from Oxford Circus to Peckham, highlighting its importance in connecting different parts of London. Nowadays, it serves as a significant bus junction with routes like the 63, 12, and 45 making regular stops, ensuring connectivity to major areas like King’s Cross, Oxford Circus, and Deptford.

An artists rendering of St George's Circus showing its current iteration of traffic flow

Social and Cultural Impact

St George’s Circus has long served as a focal point for social and cultural activities in the area. One of the more prominent landmarks in its vicinity is London South Bank University, making the Circus an integral part of daily life for thousands of students. Additionally, the nearby Southbank Technopark contributes to a diverse, tech-savvy community.

The Circus also boasts a rich theatrical history, most notably through its proximity to the Surrey Theatre. Originally built in 1782, the Surrey Theatre was a cornerstone of London’s entertainment scene, known for its melodramas and pantomimes. Its presence near St George’s Circus contributed significantly to the area’s cultural vibrancy, drawing in crowds and making the Circus not just a transit hub but also a destination for evening entertainment.

Moreover, the Circus has been the site of various political and social events, such as the Suffragette rallies of the early 20th century. This has made it a recurring focal point for social activism, demonstrating its broader significance beyond being a mere traffic junction. In this way, St George’s Circus is intricately woven into the social and cultural tapestry of London.

Modern Times and Future Prospects

In recent years, St George’s Circus has undergone significant urban planning initiatives. For instance, the “Streetspace for London” plan has recently targeted the area for pedestrian-friendly upgrades, including wider sidewalks and safer crosswalks. Planned commercial developments are set to include a range of amenities from boutique cafes to tech start-ups, designed to complement the existing student and residential community.

Connecting Roads

The roads leading to St George’s Circus are vital arteries in the network of South London, each with its own unique history and significance.

Blackfriars Road

Blackfriars Road is one of the major roads that connect St George’s Circus to the north, leading straight up to Blackfriars Bridge and providing an essential crossing over the Thames. The road itself is named after the Dominican Friary that was located in the area until the 16th century. Blackfriars Road is known for its mix of modern and historic architecture, including the famous Southbank University. It serves not only as a key commuting route but also as an avenue rich in culture and history. The road is crucial for providing South Londoners direct access to key areas of Central London, such as the City and Fleet Street.

London Road

London Road serves as an important southeastern route, connecting the Circus to Elephant and Castle. This road is famous for its eclectic array of shops, food markets, and the proximity to key institutions like the London College of Communication. Like many other parts of South London, London Road has seen significant redevelopment and regeneration, becoming a hub for local commerce and community activities. It’s a crucial roadway for students, professionals, and locals traveling through one of London’s busiest districts.

Borough Road

Leading towards the Borough area and ultimately connecting to Great Dover Street, Borough Road is an important thoroughfare known for its educational institutions. Among these is London South Bank University, which attracts thousands of students and adds to the vibrancy of the area. Borough Road plays an important role in linking St George’s Circus to other learning centers and communities, making it essential for academic life in South London.

Waterloo Road

Waterloo Road serves as another significant northward artery, leading to Waterloo Station, one of London’s main rail and Underground hubs. The road is famous for the Old Vic Theatre, one of the most important venues for live performances in London. The connectivity to Waterloo Station makes this road crucial for daily commuters, as well as visitors who come to enjoy the various theatrical performances, restaurants, and bars that line the way.

Lambeth Road

Heading southwest from the Circus, Lambeth Road provides a direct route to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence. It’s an area steeped in religious and political history, and the road serves as a key link between these significant landmarks and the rest of the city. Lambeth Road is essential for its role in connecting St George’s Circus to significant religious and historical sites, as well as to the broader community of Lambeth.