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In Old Rotherhithe

July 5, 2017
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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. July 5, 2017

    Rotherhithe oozes history seek it out. Have laid off here in the Thames barge Reminder before going up river to St Katherine’s dock. Never went ashore this blog tells me all. This was a convenient place for ships with small pox on board to lay off and discharge victims. Poet John

  2. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 5, 2017

    Lovely post. Two gripes though – 1. surely it’s time to change the name of the ‘Mayflower’ (no doubt an American-pleasing gesture at the time) back to the historically-appropriate Spread-Eagle?, and 2. Why can’t the ‘street-art’ (ugh!) that defiles public buildings – actually, any vertical surface – in our present age be nearly as elegant as graffiti was in previous centuries?

    Old man rant over. Thank you.

  3. Sue permalink
    July 5, 2017

    What a fascinating tour. I love the old school building.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    July 5, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for yet another shard in the kaleidoscope that is London. The school looks very well preserved …

  5. Gary Arber permalink
    July 5, 2017

    The method used by Brunel to sink his shaft into the ground is the method used from ancient times to sink wells. The brickwork is built on the surface and undermined so that it sinks into the ground with brickwork being added on top as it sinks allowing wells to descend to great depths.

  6. Malcolm permalink
    July 5, 2017

    A part of London that still looks like old London, if you know where to look…some of us do.
    The Mayflower had a special licence to sell postage stamps, it was the only place not owned by the Post Office to have such a privilege and it still sells stamps today, the only pub in the country to do so.
    Before the Surrey docks closed Rotherhithe was a dark and gloomy area, full of mysterious alleys and narrow streets, there were gas lamps until well into the 70’s. I used to ride my bike through Blackwall Tunnel to Greenwich, through Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey to London Bridge and then back through Rotherhithe tunnel to the Isle of Dogs back in the late 60’s. I wish I had a camera back then.
    Sadly, almost all of the old streets I used to navigate have gone now, replaced by ever more blocks of flats that look as if they were designed by someone who hates people.
    Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis…

  7. July 5, 2017

    Lovely! – I once saw a fascinating article (with photos) about Sands Film Company in World of Interiors magazine and was instantly captivated. What a repository of incredible finery — and now I’ve seen the surrounding neighborhood. I may need to pull up stakes and move there. You’ve given me something to daydream about today.
    Many thanks!

  8. T. O. Clark permalink
    July 5, 2017

    You have been able to flesh out the few remaining sites of old Rotherhithe and make it seem alive today. It will be easy to trace your steps – thank you. Fascinating about the tunnel! Hope to make it back to your great city.

  9. Wendy Lowe permalink
    July 5, 2017

    I love this area. I hope you managed to visit Sands – it is such an amazing company with amazing costumes and costume library etc. I hope one day you are able to interview them.

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