6-8 Borough High Street SE1 9QQ
Nearest tube: London Bridge 300ft
Nearest attraction: Borough Market, 0.1 mile
Historical interest: 7/10
Cosiness quotient: 7/10
The Barrowboy and Banker isn’t the sort of pub you would necessarily notice straight off. Not because it’s delightfully tucked away down a cosy side street or lurking in an alley, sadly. No, the Barrowboy is one of those pubs that are hidden in plain sight, housed as it is in a dull but imposing building that could be anything from a suite of offices to a bank. Which is what it used to be in fact. In any case, the casual observer will be far too busy dodging the busy Borough High Street traffic to register the fact that this rather bland-looking corner building is actually a magnificent Victorian-style pub flanked by Borough Market to the left; London Bridge to the right and the ancient Southwark Cathedral to the rear. So, history in bucket-loads.
EST 1996. Monarch: Elizabeth II
Despite my preamble, the history of the Barrowboy and Banker itself is pretty unremarkable – until very recently. But more about that later. The building was reportedly London’s first ever branch of the National Westminster Bank (yawn) and like the Counting House in Cornhill, it boasts a cavernous interior overlooked by impressive galleries.
So the “Banker” part of the pub’s name is easily explained away. As for the “Barrowboy” element, this gives a nod to the costermongers who plied their trade at nearby Borough Market.
Southwark historians will have you believe that Borough Market – one of London’s most iconic food facilities – dates back to the 11thcentury. And technically they’re right, though today’s sophisticated set-up with its gourmet burgers, falafels, raclettes and paellas bears little resemblance to the raggle-taggle affair it once was.
The original “market” consisted of a bunch of farmers, bakers, brewers and fishermen who stood by the roadside and pestered passers-by to purchase their wares. And passers-by there were a-plenty: Borough High Street was an important thoroughfare for pilgrims flocking south to visit Thomas Becket’s Canterbury shrine.
The aforementioned pesky street hawkers were actually banned from plying their trade in the 13thcentury. But the “market” was reinstated by Henry IV in 1406, and several centuries and reincarnations later it is now a flourishing facility that draws tourists, locals and office workers alike in search of an exotic titbit.
While the market was waxing and waning, Southwark Cathedral (behind the pub, originally known as St Mary Overie Church) was quietly providing the backdrop to many a significant event. In 1424 it hosted the wedding of King James I of Scotland and his wife Joan. In 1607 the cathedral was the burial site of Shakespeare’s lesser-known younger brother Edmund. And in the same year it became the baptism venue of the infant John Harvard.
Despite being the bearer of a household name, John was an underwhelming character who emigrated to the US in 1637 and died of tuberculosis a year later aged just 30. But his name lives on because a) his Dad left him a bunch of money and b) being too young to have heirs of his own, he made a local Massachusetts college his beneficiary. He bequeathed that institution £780 in cash and 400 volumes of books, paving the way for Harvard to become one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Before dying of bubonic plague, Harvard’s dad used to run the Queen’s Head in Borough High Street. So in other words, America’s most prominent Ivy League establishment was founded on the proceeds of a London pub. Who knew?
Borough High Street itself was the site of a huge fair every September from 1462 until 1763. Like so many other London fairs (May Fair, St Bartholomew’s Fair) its original purpose was to trade foodstuffs. But it went the same way as the other events and evolved into a riotous bun-fest that attracted entertainers, freaks, pickpockets and prostitutes. Much more fun, probably.
Visitors to Southwark Fair could watch the antics of conjurors, pugilists, acrobats, weightlifters, a German giant and an Italian female rope-dancer (rope-dancing, gender or nationality – what was her chief draw?) Other attractions included monkeys that were capable of performing somersaults while holding lighted candles and a basket of eggs – without breaking the latter or extinguishing the former. Allegedly.
If all this history weren’t enough, immediately to the right of the pub is your actual London Bridge whose sale to an American in the 1960s became the topic of much debate (did the purchaser think he was buying Tower Bridge? Probably not.)
London Bridge was also the place where one of our most horrifying terrorist attacks of recent years took place. On the night of June 3 2017, a van was deliberately driven into the bridge next to the Barrowbow and Banker. Three knife-wielding men alighted and began randomly attacking people on the bridge and in nearby Borough Market. One victim, French chef Sebastien Belanger, had just left the pub after watching a football match there while another, 32-year-old James McMullan, had stepped out of the Barrowbow for a cigarette. Both were murdered along with six others.
I’ve agonised over the ethics of writing about such a recent event, but history is history and the victims should be remembered.
On a more cheery note, the Barrowboy and Banker is actually a very pleasant place to drink. I couldn’t precisely call it cosy with its hard floors, glossy wooden furniture and vast interior. But the art and photography on the walls give it a pubby feel while the galleries and staircases are all pretty awe-inspiring. And the staff are friendly to a fault.
The other stuff
Open: Monday-Friday 10am to 11pm, 9am-11pm Saturday, 9.30am-10.30pm Sunday
Food: Midday-9pm every day
The post-COVID menu was fairly limited but I chose the roasted vegetable salad which was surprisingly delicious and refreshingly colourful. The word “salad” today seems to cover anything green with a propensity to stick in your teeth. The Barrowboy’s version definitely delivered on that goal, but was a feast for the eyes and tastebuds with its plump red tomatoes and succulent yellow courgettes.
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