One of the best known landmarks in the immediate vicinity of Nelson Square was Surrey Chapel, later The Ring. The building opened in June 1783, and was run as an independent Methodist and Congregational church by the Rev. Rowland Hill. This is also who the first block to be built after the war in Nelson Square, Rowland Hill House (1956), was named after, and not the founder of the Penny Post.
The building was a distinctive round shape, allegedly preventing “the devil from hiding in any corners”. It was originally surrounded by only fields, but with the opening of The (New) Cut in 1818 and Blackfriars Bridge and Blackfriars Road transformed the surrounding area into a busy commercial area with a regular market in what is today The Cut.
The building stopped being used as a church in 1881, and it was refitted to commercial use. Some sources say it was used as a chapel until 1890, then to become a engineering firm and then a furniture warehouse. The building was also the home for one of the first cinemas in London between 1907 and 1909.
Some sources also claim The Ring to be the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent 1927 film The Ring.
There was also another chapel of the same name in Blackfriars Road (see South London Press article on the left), which survived the war, but was demolished before the current residential blocks were built.
The congregation however moved on to Christ Church in Lambeth.
In 1910 it opened as The Ring, a boxing arena. It became world famous, and its heritage is celebrated by the Ring pub opposite the original site in 1 The Cut. The Ring Boxing Club has now been resurrected and is in operation (as CityBoxer) in nearby Ewer Street.
The story of boxing at The Ring is much about Bella Burge, or Bella of Blackfriars, who started the club with her husband Dick Burge in 1910. She was the first female boxing promoter in a time when women were banned from watching boxing. She had a background in the music halls and counted Marie Lloyd amongst her personal friends. Bella ran the venue on her own after the death of Dick, but was struggling to make ends meet. Just before the war she was offered a new lease on the building, but it never got signed and she also lost any compensation for the loss of her business when The Ring was destroyed in the Blitz. The biography of Bella, called Bella of Blackfriars is available to read in Southwark Local History library.
Click to read a blog post on the esteemed history of The Ring as the home of boxing. The venue also doubled up as a soup kitchen during the day as well as a music hall.
The building was destroyed in World War II bombings and the site was cleared.
Later the site was occupied by Orbit House , built between 1960 and 1962, a modern office block that in later years hosted the Oriental Collection of the British Library, and also the secret printing office for the Ministry of Defence!
With the opening of Southwark underground station and Tate Modern, the site became a target for redevelopment.
The new building, massively bigger than and surrounding buildings in the area so far, became called Palestra. The name alludes to the boxing history on the site (Palestra: an ancient Greek wrestling school.) It was planned by Will Alsop. It was built between 2004 and 2006.
A mixed use for the building was suggested in the original plans, but eventually it became 100% offices, now housing for example Transport for London departments. A hotel was later built in the remaining empty plot next to Palestra along Union Street.
Residents in Nelson Square and especially in Rowland Hill House were worried about the loss of natural light and a new community hall was eventually built as compensation.
Palestra changed the character of the area overnight. It looms over the “skyscrapers” of Nelson Square, and has also changed the character of the park. Its height and mass has been since used to justify more new buildings in the area.
Palestra heralded the start of aggressive commercial development in the Blackfriars Road are with Southwark Council and developers paying no attention to local heritage at all.
To balance the loss of local heritage, local residents erected a replica of an old shop sign opposite the site of the Ring, The Dog and Pot Statue.