Skip to content

In Old Rotherhithe

August 6, 2020
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. August 6, 2020

    Thanks for your fascinating tour, Gentle Author – from the top of the church steeple to the depths of Brunel’s tunnel. I live locally and thought I knew Rotherhithe pretty well, yet you have illuminated surprising details that spur me to return soon. Super photographs, too!

  2. August 6, 2020

    My family ancestors were the TALBOT family, barge builders on the foreshore between the Mayflower pub and the gasworks pier. They were churchwardens at the church too. Their name appears on the gate post. I wonder if one of the Talbot family is responsible for that graffiti!

    There is quite a lot of history online for “Lucy Talbot & Sons” online, with photographs, by my distant cousin Liz Lloyd.

    I love the area. I painted the pub, and my painting is up on the wall there. they also have photographs on the wall of the pub including our barge builders.

  3. August 6, 2020

    Thank you so much for this. My Fenton ancestors were Lightermen on the Thames, and lived in Rotherhithe, I think for many generations up to around the 1920’s. I would really like to visit there myself but it is a long way from Wales aside from the current Covid limitations. So special thanks for making the trip! I enjoy your blog, reading it most days.

  4. August 6, 2020

    If possible, can you tell us more about Sands Films costume warehouse? Years ago, I found an article about it in World of Interiors magazine — and I would be thrilled to know/see more.
    For History of Costume addicts, it looks like the Ultimate Destination.

    Many thanks for always shining a light.
    Stay safe, all.

  5. August 6, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank for the interesting excursion through the neighborhood of old Rotherhithe and the story of Marc Brunel and his genius. Image – “the growth of the docks brought thousands of tall ships to the Thames and the traffic made river crossing by water almost impossible.” Farewell to the watermen at that point I guess.

    Great pics. Hey, that Mayflower pub looks mighty inviting too.

  6. Marnie permalink
    August 6, 2020

    The foreshore of Rotherhithe is now the haunt of intrepid mudlarkers. That’s all I knew about the area.
    Thank you so much, GA, for the wonderful photos and your unique, descriptive text: the image of the ‘diabolical’ water swirling into Brunel’s underground chamber caused the hair on my arms to tingle!
    And so thoughtful of you to place in the foreground the proud thistles standing sentinel near Brunel’s tower. We marvel at your eye.
    The Mayflower and hundreds of tall ships and the facade of the early school with the two ‘students’ watching for the lucky ones coming to school. As an American of British and Palatine German heritage, I love that information.
    I will return often to this wonderful piece on Rotherhithe.

  7. August 6, 2020

    The nice people in the costume store below Sands films have a great collection of photos of Rotherhithe which they will let you browse if you have a family connection.

  8. Bill permalink
    August 7, 2020

    Somewhere, sometime I read of an encounter at a party between Dr. Johnson and some young fellow. Dr. Johnson took it upon himself to urge this young man to venture out over the seas to unknown lands, to immerse himself as few Englishmen had ever done in the great unknown, with the purpose of coming back to England to enlarge the knowledge of his fellow countrymen while bringing renown upon his children and his children’s children, for surely such adventure would resound down generations.

    “I am quite serious, Sir,” said Dr. Johnson to the young man.

    If this young fellow was moved by the elder man’s exhortation, it wasn’t movement enough to get him on a ship, at least as far as we know.

    And then we have the marvelous example of Prince Lee Boo, who, I have no doubt, was a magnificent young man, full of verve and adventure, a man who, I think, would well have become a commanding and interesting figure, a young man on the cusp of a full life of fun and worth, who, yet, was destined not to live. Which is very sad.

    Even though he died hundreds of years ago, his story is affecting, and incites speculation. Yet all we can do is consider his grave.

    Thank you for placing Prince Lee Boo in our perspective. Someday, I, from overseas, may visit his resting place. Those of you who can now, why not do so, leaving boughs and flowers of remembrance?

  9. August 7, 2020

    Thank You So Much for these Pictures. They are Sad, Amazing and in the Past, but we must Remember Them.??????

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS