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In Old Rotherhithe

June 19, 2023
by the gentle author

Let me show you this 18th century graffiti on St Paul’s Cathedral…join my walk through the City of London. There are only two left this summer – Sunday 2nd July and Sunday 6th August at 2pm

Enjoy a storytelling ramble across the Square Mile, from the steps of St Paul’s through the narrow alleys and lanes to the foot of old London Bridge, in search of the wonders and the wickedness of the City of London.

Click here to book your tickets

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. June 19, 2023

    What a wonderful record of this historic area. So many poignant observations, GA. It just goes to show that wherever man has trod he leaves a trace of his activities – will our digital work be as evocative to future generations? Nothing beats a good day-trip backed up by well-researched historical facts. Thank you so much for all your hard work.

  2. Andy permalink
    June 19, 2023

    It’s hard to explain to anyone how noisy the docks was.
    Not for the Paracetamols user.
    Nor migraine sufferers.
    People banging and ships coming along.
    Yet, when containerization came and then
    docks and the men lost work and Jack Dash and his dad before him fought all they could before they closed.
    Then the Yuppies came and now millions pound properties and people like me fled.
    Yet I won’t forget. I won’t forget.
    Andy x

  3. Bernie permalink
    June 19, 2023

    Nothing deep and novel to say, but very grateful for your research and associated images, and regretful that in my youth, in London, I never had the drive necessary to investigate this (and many other) areas and doubly regretful now that in my dotage I am too distant and too frail to do so.

  4. Milo permalink
    June 19, 2023

    That is an area of London i have yet to visit but on the evidence of your photos (the rather nice looking ‘Mayflower’ tipped the balance) i must hasten there with all speed.

  5. Lyndsey permalink
    June 19, 2023

    My family has much history in this area, being descendants of the Talbot bargebuilders on the banks of the Thames, next to the Mayflower pub, who were also church wardens at that beautiful church. I painted the pub some years ago. there is a copy up on the pub wall( I think it is the one next to the door out to the deck) and there is photographs of our gggg (I dont know how many) grandparents on the wall. I would love to share the painting with you
    from Lyndsey

  6. debra Sewell permalink
    June 19, 2023

    Black and white photos. so clear and sharp. THOSE photos much more beautiful to me than the color ones. Thank you for these many peeks into history and life in those days.

  7. John Cunningham permalink
    June 19, 2023

    Whenever I venture out of County Mayo, Ireland, where I live, to London, the Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe is always one of my go to places. If you haven’t been to this atmospheric pub please go. You won’t regret it. The ambience, beer and food are excellent. And the views up, down and across the Thames are stunning. Plus the remaining historic things to be found nearby, as outlined by the Gentle Author are worth a trip there in their own right.

  8. Sonia Murray permalink
    June 19, 2023

    Loved the picture of St Mary’s Rotherhithe, GA! Thank you! My ancestors Capt. Robert Forsyth and his wife Ann had a son baptized there in 1759. Robert would have walked past the Free School on the way to his ship, and maybe had a pint at the Angel. I’m going to visit the church and the Mayflower if I can get back to England this year.

  9. Sue permalink
    June 19, 2023

    Fascinating. I’ve only recently found out that my three times great grandfather Thomas Towersey was a police constable who lived in Princes Street, Rotherhithe in 1851. Apparently the name was changed to Mayflower Street in 1937 which is just across the gardens to the lone warehouse on the riverfront.

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