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In Old Rotherhithe

July 22, 2014
by the gentle author

St Mary Rotherhithe Free School founded 1613

To be candid, there is not a lot left of old Rotherhithe – yet what remains is still powerfully evocative of the centuries of thriving maritime industry that once defined the identity of this place. Most visitors today arrive by train – as I did – through the Brunel tunnel built between 1825 and 1843, constructed when the growth of the docks brought thousands of tall ships to the Thames and the traffic made river crossing by water almost impossible.

Just fifty yards from Rotherhithe Station is a narrow door through which you can descend into the 1825 shaft via a makeshift staircase. You find yourself inside a huge round cavern, smoke-blackened as if the former lair of a fiery dragon. Incredibly, Marc Brunel built this cylinder of brick at ground level – fifty feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter – and waited while it sank into the damp earth, digging out the mud from the core as it descended, to create the shaft which then became the access point for excavating the tunnel beneath the river.

It was the world’s first underwater tunnel. At a moment of optimism in 1826, a banquet for a thousand investors was held at the bottom of the shaft and then, at a moment of cataclysm in 1828, the Thames surged up from beneath filling it with water – and Marc’s twenty-two-year-old son Isambard was fished out, unconscious, from the swirling torrent. Envisaging this diabolic calamity, I was happy to leave the subterranean depths of the Brunels’ fierce imaginative ambition – still murky with soot from the steam trains that once ran through – and return to the sunlight of the riverside.

Leaning out precariously upon the Thames’ bank is an ancient tavern known as The Spread Eagle until 1957, when it was rechristened The Mayflower – in reference to the Pilgrims who sailed from Rotherhithe to Southampton in 1620, on the first leg of their journey to New England. Facing it across the other side of Rotherhithe St towers John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716 where an attractive monument of 1625 to Captain Anthony Wood, retrieved from the previous church, sports a fine galleon in full sail that some would like to believe is The Mayflower itself – whose skipper, Captain Christopher Jones, is buried in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard, sits the handsome tomb of Prince Lee Boo. A native of the Pacific Islands, he befriended Captain Wilson of Rotherhithe and his two sons who were shipwrecked upon the shores of Ulong in 1783. Abba Thule, the ruler of the Islands, was so delighted when the Europeans used their firearms to subdue his enemies and impressed with their joinery skills in constructing a new vessel, that he asked them to take his second son, Lee Boo, with them to London to become an Englishman.

Arriving in Portsmouth in July 1784, Lee Boo travelled with Captain Wilson to Rotherhithe where he lived as one of the family, until December when it was discovered he had smallpox – the disease which claimed the lives of more Londoners than any other at that time. At just twenty years old, Lee Boo was buried inside the Wilson family vault in Rotherhithe churchyard, but - before he died – he sent a plaintive message home to tell his father “that the Captain and Mother very kind.”

Across the churchyard from The Mayflower is Rotherhithe Free School, founded by two Peter Hills and Robert Bell in 1613 to educate the sons of seafarers. Still displaying a pair of weathered figures of schoolchildren, the attractive schoolhouse of 1797 was vacated in 1939 yet the school may still be found close by in Salter Rd. Thus, the pub, the church and the schoolhouse define the centre of the former village of Rotherhithe with a line of converted old warehouses extending upon the river frontage for a just couple of hundred yards in either direction beyond this enclave.

Take a short walk to the west and you will discover The Angel overlooking the ruins of King Edward III’s manor house but – if you are a hardy walker and choose to set out eastward along the river – you will need to exercise the full extent of your imagination to envisage the vast vanished complex of wharfs, quays and stores that once filled this entire peninsular.

At the entrance to the Rotherhithe road tunnel stands the Norwegian Church with its ship weather vane

Chimney of the Brunel Engine House seen from the garden on top of the tunnel’s access shaft

Isambard Kingdom Brunel presides upon his audacious work

Visitors gawp in the diabolic cavern of Brunel’s smoke-blackened shaft descending to the Thames tunnel

John James’ St Mary’s Rotherhithe of 1716

The tomb of Prince Lee Boo, a native of the Pelew or Pallas Islands ( the Republic of Belau), who died in Rotherhithe of smallpox in  1784 aged twenty

Graffiti upon the church tower

Monument in St Mary’s, retrieved from the earlier church


Charles Hay & Sons Ltd, Barge Builders since 1789

Peeking through the window into the costume store of Sands Films

Inside The Mayflower

A lone survivor of the warehouses that once lined the river bank

Looking east towards Rotherhithe from The Angel

The Angel

The ruins of King Edward III’s manor house

Bascule bridge

Nelson House

Metropolitan Asylum Board china from the Smallpox Hospital Ships once moored here

Looking across towards the Isle of Dogs from Surrey Docks Farm

Take a look at

Adam Dant’s Map of Stories from the History of Rotherhithe

and you may also like to read

In Old Clerkenwell

In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

15 Responses leave one →
  1. July 22, 2014

    Rotherhithe has changed a lot since the days of my youth, but it does look cleaner and more cared for, too. Valerie

  2. July 22, 2014

    Fascinating post – I am going to visit!

  3. Victoria permalink
    July 22, 2014

    One of my favourite places to go for a walk by the Thames.

  4. July 22, 2014

    Fascinating history, as always!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. July 22, 2014

    http://russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/the-talbot-family-19th-century-barge.html

    I wonder if the graffiti in the church has anything to do with my Talbot ancestors that were bargebuilders and church wardens there!

  6. July 22, 2014

    Evocative piece. I once worked in Hope Sufferance Wharf warehouses, in my first job in journalism at the Southwark and Bermondsey News. I loved walking along the river there, eating my sandwiches in the church yard and drinking in the Mayflower (where we made up lots of stories for American tourists).

  7. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    July 22, 2014

    As an EAST London man born and bread I have to “confess” I do have a fondness for this part of SOUTH London, GA is correct, much of the Rotherhithe of the past no longer exist’s but in spite of all the redevelopment that has taken place, particularly in recent year’s when a lot of the new development has, in my opinion, been very uninspiring, it’s by no means all negative, for an inner London area, much of Rotherhithe can be a surprisingly pleasant place, I am pleased to see that GA has managed to identify so many of the historical feature’s from the area’s past that I know so well and thankfully have managed to survive the wind’s of change, I visit this area at least two or three time’s a week and if you are someone who has been inspired by this article to visit this area yourself then I can thoroughly recommend that you do so, I guaranty that you will be pleasantly surprised.

  8. Jane B permalink
    July 22, 2014

    GA, thank you :-) …me too — a favourite riverside walk — back from Greenwich or on to the woodlands, ‘masterpiece cemeteries’ and boutique streets settled on the slopes and summits of south London’s high hills…

    A story-reminder prompting me to revisit — not just this once, but often, taking whoever I can find with me… As Rotherhithe, where it reaches the river, reveals some of the most life-affirming views of our city. Standing in or somewhere near King’s Stairs Garden, London town with Tower Bridge at its centre is laid out before you in panorama (thanks to that sweeping bend in the Thames) — after dark the river an inky-black foreground with big and uncluttered sky above.

    And that beautiful neo-classical(-ish) facade across the water — is that really Wapping’s Marine Police Unit ?? :-)

    Back on St. Marychurch Street — as if any of us are ready to leave already! — a near neighbour of the wonderful ‘magic kingdom’ that is Christine Edzard’s Sands Films, is the 19th-century ‘settlement’ organisation Time & Talents, in the Old Mortuary (c.1860) …

    “Originated in 1887 in the drawing rooms of Victorian society, a group of committed Christian women deplored the waste and futility of the protected lives of the majority of young girls who were only expected to be decorative and obedient. Their ambition was to help girls of leisure and education use their ‘Time and Talents’ in the service of others.

    After a peripatetic early existence Time and Talents settled at 187 Bermondsey Street in 1899 where it was to remain until 1962 with a clubroom for “healthy recreation” singing, basketwork, knitting and sewing. In 1913 a hostel had been established to house factory girls who were experiencing severe overcrowding at home — for many this was their first opportunity to experience a room of their own.

    During the Second World War the “West End Ladies” at Time and Talents showed themselves to be tough and courageous providing shelter for those people bombed out of their homes, and continuing to run the clubs and recreational groups.

    After the war the introduction of the welfare state meant that many settlements such as Time and Talents had to change the emphasis of their charitable work and gradually the older settlement buildings were relinquished. So, in 1980 Time and Talents moved to the Old Mortuary and now this historic building houses a lively and bustling community centre.”

    It’s in fact where the honorary East-enders of South London gather!

  9. Heather Fenton permalink
    July 22, 2014

    Indeed fascinating! My paternal ancestors were from Rotherhithe; my great grandfather William Fenton was a Lighterman there in the 1850s and for many years and I think there were a number of other Fentons there too. As far as I know my family moved from there sometime after the first world war and my grandfather lived in Brockley and then in Bromley (Kent).
    I trained as a typographer and am particulatly into drawn lettering so maybe my ancesters were responsible for the graffiti- and maybe some of the other examples of lettering which appear in these pictures, but I shall never know!

  10. Wendy Lowe permalink
    July 22, 2014

    Your posts are a daily delight and Rotherhithe one of my favorite places but PLEASE do go back and visit Sands Films – it is the most delightful company run by the most wonderful couple – Olivier and Christine. It’s a fabulous place with a fabulous story waiting for you to write about it.

  11. July 22, 2014

    Thank you for visiting The Brunel Museum. When the chamber first opened in 1843 there were fifty thousand visitors on the first day! Now the chamber is open again, and in partnership with London Walks we organise descents of the underground cavern (with soot encrusted walls) five days a week. Visitors meet Embankment tube for the boat ride or Bermondsey tube for a river walk. On Saturday evenings in the summer, meet in the Museum’s potager roof garden for cocktails with The Midnight Apothecary, then make your descent into the Eighth Wonder of the World! We also have concerts down there. For details see http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk

  12. Fiona Lukas permalink
    July 22, 2014

    In 2012 athletes from Palou competed in the Olympics. Whilst here they paid a visit to the tomb of Lee Boo.

  13. July 27, 2014

    Superb photographs as always from you, G.A. I note the man in the window, presumably staring at his computer screen, between the figures on the façade of the school. The Norwegian church served the crews of ships carrying timber to Surrey Docks; there is also a Swedish church round the corner in Lower Road. Yes, not much of old Rotherhithe remains, but the enclave is distinctive and atmospheric – best enjoyed on a walk downriver from Tower Bridge to Greenwich.

  14. Alan BF permalink
    October 21, 2014

    A few months ago I persuaded the organiser of a group of friends and acquaintances to include a visit to Sands Films in St.Marys Church Street in their trip to Deptford and then Rotherhithe. We were made very welcome , were highly impressed with the visit and with what we saw and also with our guide there with his wonderful anecdotes. The general view was that the trip organised by the above mentioned friend was the best they had ever been on.

  15. September 12, 2016

    Wendy rightly mentioned Sands Films – they also run the Sands Cinema Club each week at which you can watch rarely viewed classics. I will make it down there one day!

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