This is an alley in Bankside that’s charmingly cobbled, but has a bloody history.
As an alley, its path can be traced back to Tudor times, when the riverside was lined with pubs and wharves, and there was an alley leading from The Barge inn to Park Street behind.
Although unnamed initially, by 1799, it’s showing up on maps as Bear Garden, and that’s not because of a fragrant garden, but a brutal form of entertainment that took place on the southern corner of the alley, the Bear Garden. This was a large round theatre that was used for the blood sports of bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and other “animal sports” in the London area during the 16th and 17th centuries
It wasn’t a modest affair either, showing up in early drawings as a large three-storey building, although some early drawings may have been of an earlier building that was later moved to where Bear Garden alley is today. It’s likely that if it moved, then it would have done so in the same way that William Shakespeare’s company dismantled the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch and rebuilt it as The Globe, in that the Bear baiting building would have been taken down and rebuilt in the new location.
The bear-baiting was a major attraction, and even a bit of a tourist attraction.
In 1578, William Fleetwood, Recorder of London, described it as a place where foreign ambassadors met their spies and agents; at night it was so dark and obscured by trees that a man needed “cat’s eyes” to see. Ambassadors and travellers were often shown the Beargarden.
In January 1583, eight people were killed when part of the arena collapsed, which the increasingly puritan lobby attributed to God’s displeasure — not because torturing animals is ungodly, but because the humans were having too much fun.
In 1604, the theatre owner, Philip Henslowe and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn purchased the royal warrant for running bear-baiting, but in 1613, they decided to tear down the arena, replacing it with the Hope Theatre. This wasn’t to be a release for the animals though, as the theatre was a mix of plays and baiting. And over time, the public thirst for bear-baiting meant that it largely reverted to being exclusively blood sports.
In his diary, Samuel Pepys describes a visit he and his wife paid to the Hope/Beargarden on August 14, 1666 – and called the spectacle “a rude and nasty pleasure.”
The date that the Bear Garden closed is unclear, but the last record of an event there was in April 1682, for the “amusement of the Moroccan ambassador”.
Later the area developed with industry and cargo wharves taking over the area, until no trace of the bear pit remained to be seen, save the alley, which was known as Bear Gardens. Although nothing is seen at the ground level today, there are timber remains of the arena underneath the modern buildings, and they are now a scheduled monument.
In the 1970s, one of the industrial firms in the alley was the unfortunately named Porn and Dunwoody, a lift manufacturer. They caused things to rise up. Later, they sensibly changed their name to PDERS.
Today, the alley is a charming cobbled (setts) pathway leading to the riverside walk, and is lined with a mix of buildings, mostly ranging from 1920s to 1980s.
Somewhat annoyingly, a modern wood clad building has replaced a striking white modernist office block that used to be on the site about a decade ago. A row of very clean looking residential flats is a former warehouse conversion that took place in 2015 and is actually serviced apartments.
Next to the cleaned-up warehouse is a recessed building, a Georgian warehouse, that was once The Bear Gardens Museum of the Shakespearean Stage (pdf), which illustrated the history of the area’s playhouses and theatres between 1972 and 1994. The museum is important locally, as it’s also where Sam Wanamaker’s project to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe was run from.
Apart from the alley, there’s also another legacy of the Bear Garden, as Edward Alleyn used his profits to buy the manor of Dulwich in 1605, and set up a charitable school “for 12 poor children of the parish of Camberwell”, which became The College of God’s Gift at Dulwich, and through its successors is still a very rich organisation, being the Dulwich Estate, Dulwich College, Alleyn’s School, and various other organisations, including the creation of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.