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In Old Bermondsey

July 7, 2017
by the gentle author

The horse’s head upon the fascia reveals that RW Autos was once a farrier

Twenty-five years ago I had reason to visit Bermondsey St frequently but I have hardly been there since, so I thought it was time to walk down across the river and take a look. Leaving the crowds teeming like ants upon the chaotic mound that is London Bridge Station in the midst of reconstruction, I ventured into Guy’s Hospital passing the statue of Thomas Guy, who founded it in 1721, to sit with John Keats in a stone alcove from old London Bridge now installed in a courtyard at the back.

From here, I turned east through the narrow streets into Snowsfields, passing the evocatively named Ship & Mermaid Row, and Arthur’s Mission of 1865 annotated with “Feed my Lambs” upon a plaque. An instruction that has evidently not been forgotten, as the building adjoins the Manna Day Centre which offers refuge and sustenance to more than two hundred homeless people each day.

At the end of Snowsfields is the crossroads where Bermondsey St meets the viaduct carrying the railway to and from London Bridge, and the sonorous intensity  of the traffic roaring through, combined with the vibration from the trains rattling overhead, can be quite overwhelming. Yet the long narrow street beckons you south, as it has done for more than a thousand years – serving as the path from the Thames to the precincts of Bermondsey Abbey, a mile away, since the eleventh century. When I first came here, I never ventured beyond Bermondsey Sq. Only when I learned of the remains of the medieval gatehouse in Grange Walk beyond, with the iron hinges still protruding from the wall today, did I understand that Bermondsey St was the approach to the precincts of the Abbey destroyed by Henry VIII in 1536.

There is an engaging drama to Bermondsey St with its narrow frontages of shops and tall old warehouses crowded upon either side, punctuated by overhanging yards and blind alleys. A quarter of a century ago, everything appeared closed down, apart from The Stage newspaper with its gaudy playbill sign, a couple of attractively gloomy pubs and some secondhand furniture warehouses. I was fascinated by the mysteries withheld and Bermondsey St lodged in my mind as a compelling vestige of another time. Nowadays it appears everything has been opened up in Bermondsey St, and the shabbiness that once prevailed has been dispelled by restoration and adaptation of the old buildings, and the addition of fancy new structures for the Fashion & Textile Museum and the White Cube Gallery.

Yet, in spite of the changes, I was pleased to discover RW Autos still in business in Morocco St with the horses’ heads upon the fascia, indicating the origin of the premises as a farrier. Nearby, the massive buildings of the former London Leather Exchange, now housing dozens of small businesses, stand as a reminder of the tanning industry which occupied Bermondsey for centuries, filling the air with foul smells and noxious fumes, and poisoning the water courses with filth.

The distinctive pattern of streets and survival of so many utilitarian nineteenth and eighteenth century structures ensure the working character of this part of Bermondsey persists, and you do not have to wander far to come upon blocks of nineteenth century housing and old terraces of brick cottages, interspersed by charity schools and former institutes of altruistic endeavour, which carry the attendant social history. Thus Bermondsey may still be appreciated as an urban landscape where the past is visibly manifest to the attentive visitor, who cares to spend a quiet afternoon exploring on foot.

John Keats at Guy’s Hospital

Arthur’s Mission in Snow’s Fields seen from Guinness Buildings 1897

In Bermondsey St

At the Woolpack

Old warehouses in Bermondsey St

St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey – the medieval tower is the last remnant of the Abbey founded in the eleventh century

In St Mary’s Bermondsey St

In St Mary Magdalen Graveyard

This plaque marks the site of the abbey church

Old houses in Grange Walk – the house on the right is claimed to be the Abbey gatehouse with hinges of the gates still visible

Bermondsey United Charity School for Girls in Grange Walk, 1830

In Grange Walk

Bermondsey Sq Antiques Market every Friday

A cottage garden in Bermondsey

The Victoria, a magnificent tiled nineteenth century pub with its original spittoon, in Pages Walk

London Leather, Hide & Wool Exchange built 1878 by George Elkington & Sons, next to the 1833 Leather Market, it remained active until 1912.

At the entrance to St Thomas’ Church

You may also like to take a look at

In Old Clerkenwell

In Old Rotherhithe

In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Terry Edwards permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Can you shed any light on The Grange? There’s a picture here of Grange Walk, and in the area there is a street called The Grange, and a pub of the same name. Was there a manor house here, a Grange? Thank you.

  2. Maria permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Thank you for accompanying us on this magical walk through Bermondsey, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself.

  3. BPL permalink
    July 7, 2017

    A lovely coincidence, I too found myself in Bermondsey for the first time in some ten years. I used to work in the shoe and leather trade in Bermondsey Street. For the first time in a long time, I happened to have business in the Leathermarket the past few weeks. I, too, wandered Snowfield and Morocco Street, very happy to see the scrappy auto repair whilst everything else seems so polished and sophisticated. I marvelled at how beautiful and preserved everything seemed–and that I didn’t nearly take enough of that in when I was younger. But perhaps it was all more rough around the edges then… Glad to see we were wandering the same streets. Your pictures echo my thoughts.

  4. July 7, 2017

    Great to see Bermondsey looking so spruced up these days. I last visited it in the 70s, and it was very depressing back then. Valerie

  5. July 7, 2017

    Thanks for this. I have spent a lot of time in this area as my ancestors came from here – skin dressers in the leather trade, sojourns in the workhouse that has now gone, general working class poverty in the nineteenth century – and it is fascinating to see it change. That there is an offshoot of White Cube at the top of Bermondsey Street is bizarre.
    Re the query above about the Grange and Grange Street – you can find out a lot about Bermondsey Abbey on line (also check Collage, the Guildhall archive for great images) but the street was laid out on the site of the Abbey grange or mill. It was a huge place and dominated this part of south London for centuries. The monks used the (now covered) Neckinger and their mills were around here. Happy hunting amongst the archives!

  6. Baden permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Probably a dumb question but is Bermondsey pronounced with emphasis on the first or second syllable?

  7. Malcolm permalink
    July 7, 2017

    When the demolition of old Bermondsey took place in the early 1980′s, much of this historic area was lost forever. What is left is but a few remnants of what was, until then, still very much a part of London that had retained its almost Medieval character. Certainly, some of it still looks a bit Dickensian but prior to the destruction of the river frontage and the old buildings that lined the narrow streets, much of Bermondsey – at least the parts that survived the blitz – was still as Dickens himself would have known it. The seemingly unstoppable demolition of old London continues unabated along the South of the river, every day a new glass carbuncle seems to burst out of the ancient soil, another steel and glass erection, towering over the old buildings, casting long shadows like black fingers grasping the light from the streets. What is left of old Bermondsey today is home to the ghosts of old London Town.
    Another great post GA. The pictures are excellent too.

  8. JenniB permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Makes me want to go for a walk – especially in this weather and with my camera fully charged and an empty card! Thank you for this post – just lovely photos and so atmospheric.

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for yet another stroll through a fascinating part of London which still retains much of its past according to your description. As a Yank who visits London often, I am always fascinated by the names of Tube stops including “Canada Water,” “Heron Quays,” “Beckham Rye,” and, of course, “Bermondsey.”

    Enjoyed the pics of Keats, the “cottage garden,” and the church. I would love to read those inscriptions on the walls.

    Thanks again…

  10. July 7, 2017

    Baden…
    BERmondsey

    There you go, guv!

  11. Ian permalink
    July 7, 2017

    My Dad, Denis Johnson and his family (4 kids and parents although his Mum died giving birth to his little sister) grew up in the Guinness building before moving to the Old Kent Road and then Peckham where I was born. His Dad worked at Woolwich Arsenal. We have a few photos of his big sister and his baby sister outside the building. He worked on the Isle of Dogs (started as a teaboy) for one of the haulage companies and went on to work for Beck and Pollitzer. This post has made me realise I need to take him back there for a look around, he is now 87 and lives in Burnham Market in North Norfolk, he’s done alright for himself but we are a London family and proud of our heritage….

  12. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Once more, GA, you shame my wasted London years. I worked at the south side of London Bridge between 1988 and 1991, and the only history that really registered during that time was that of Southwark Cathedral, the Bish. of Winchester’s Palace, and, of course, the George. A short, observant stroll would have shown me so much more – I was far too interested in taking photographs and not nearly enough in seeing. Thanks for putting me right.

  13. gkbowood permalink
    July 7, 2017

    What’s up with the large black skull artwork hanging (?) over the door to St Thomas Church? I googled the street view and unless it was AFTER June 2016 nothing like that image was present. I enjoyed googling your walk and seeing this area since I cannot be there in person. Thanks!

  14. pauline taylor permalink
    July 7, 2017

    Thank you GA for your walk south of the river and all the photos. It is very much an unknown world to me but I am particularly interested in Bermondsey as my great grandfather, Samuel Denton Russell, was born in Spa Road, Bermondsey Street in 1838 and spent part of his childhood in the Workhouse with his mother and a half brother and sister. He was baptized at St Mary Magdalene Bermondsey with a group of children from the Workhouse and must have been sent to school although I cannot discover where this might have been, but he surely must have been familiar with many of the buildings in your photos so they help to bring it all to life for me. Although he left Bermondsey before his first marriage in Hoxton he must have retained connections as he returned to St Mary Magdalene for his marriage to his second wife. I wish I knew more about it all as there is obviously so much history there.

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