Monday, April 21, 2014

New Book: May Days and Wash Days by Debra Gosling

A new book about Bermondsey in former days, by Debra Gosling who has produced other books about local history based on old photographs.  May Days and Wash Days:  The Spirit of Bermondsey is is in A4 format and 100 pages long.  I couldn't figure out from the above whether it included Rotherhithe, but there will doubtless be Rotherhithe residents who don't mind either way.  See the above page for more details.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Air Attacks on Britain During the Great War - Part 2. The Fighter Plane Blitz

(You can find Part 1 - Airships Raids, here:


If you have read Part 1, about the airship raids. you will have seen this introduction already and may want to skip ahead.
Royal Flying Corps cap badge
(Sourced from Wikipedia)
Rotherhithe is one of many areas of London (and indeed Britain as a whole) that suffered terribly in the Second World War, and the bomb damage is well recorded, but there are fewer details about Rotherhithe's fate in the First World War.  The Rotherhithe entry on Wikipedia, for example, has a paragraph about the Second World War, but makes no mention at all of the Great War. Nor is it mentioned on Southwark Council's Rotherhithe History page.  The Museum of London Docklands devotes almost no space to it.  So why not?  It is not that London wasn't targeted between 1914 and 1918, because it was.  In fact, aerial warfare was virtually invented during this period, with airships and then early warplanes being employed to drop bombs.

The answer seems to come into three parts.  The first is that although London had been identified as a legitimate target by Germany, the technology was too basic to inflict anything like the damage in the Second World War, and the weather created problems that the fragile aircraft could not overcome.  Second, the docks were not identified as a key strategic target in the First World War, whereas in the Second, all the docks were seen as key, and the damage inflicted was staggering, overshadowing anything inflicted between 1914 and 1918.  With particular reference to Rotherhithe, the third reason that we never hear about bomb damage locally from the First World War is that the few bombs that did fall on Rotherhithe and in neighbouring created minor damage, caused much less significant harm than other bombs that fell, by accident or design, during the same raids in other residential and commercial areas.

This post, together with part 1, is more about the aerial attacks on London than about Rotherhithe specifically, but wherever Rotherhithe was hit I have given details.  I wanted to provide something towards commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and it proved to be very difficult to find anything very useful about Rotherhithe's role, so I apologize that this is a bit generic.

The Fighter Plane Blitz:  Gothas and Riesenflugzeug.

The final days of the airships from service overlapped with a new way of attacking Britain from the air.  Aeroplanes were now being employed, with the specific aim of attacking London when possible, and other strategic targets when it was not possible to reach London.  Again, civilian areas were considered to be fair game.

A World War I Sopworth Camel
Sourced from Wikipedia
Whilst the airships bombed England, Britain and Germany were both developing their own heavier-than air craft.  The aeroplane had only been invented in 1903, and in 1914 was still a very basic piece of kit that to modern eyes looks impossibly small and fragile.  The two English air divisions, the RFC and the RNAS, having rejected airships for military purposes (the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers was disbanded in 1911), were experimenting with a number of different types of aeroplane, including the BE2c, the BE12, the FE2b, the DH4, the SE5a, the Sopwith Pup, the Sopwith Camel, the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, the Bristol Fighter (commonly referred to as a Brisfit), and the Armstrong-Whitworth FK8. Germany, however, was focusing her attentions on a much smaller range.  Early German G-type (Grosskampfflugzeug or large battle aeroplane, usually called Gotha) bombers made by the Zeppelin company had already been used in warfare, and were being used successfully on the mainland.  But the early G-type had a limited range, and was unable to fly directly from German-occupied Belgium to England. By the end of 1916, the new G-type G.IV was ready for use, and this did have the range to get to and return from England.  Accordingly the air service's new commander Ernst van Hoeppner formed a special unit, Kagohl 3, which would be tasked with bombing London during daylight hours.  This was the Englandgeschwader (England Squadron) plan.

By the beginning of 1917, Britain had begun to relax its air defences, believing that the airship threat was now largely over, and needing the equipment and the personnel at the Western Front.  In short, Britain had placed herself in a similar situation of ill-preparedness as she had been at the start of the airship raids.  . 

A Gotha G.IV. Sourced from Wikipedia.
The new Gotha G.IV biplanes were equipped with two 260hp engines and two machine guns and were capbable of flying at 80mph, reaching heights of 18,000ft and could carry a bomb load of up to 400g. They had the all-important range needed to both reach London and return home.  Each was manned by a commander, who was in charge of all the decisions regarding the deployment of the plane and its bombs, a pilot and a rear gunner.  The Gothas were organized into groups of 6 units known as "Kastas" (short for Kampfstaffeln).  The plan was to attack Britain during daylight hours, when she was least expecting it and when visibility was high.  The airships, raiding at night, had had the benefit of low visibility (which was vital considering their vast size) but rarely failed to hit specific military targets.

The first Gotha daylight raid on England, a date dictated largely by the weather, was originally destined for London on 24th May 1917, but was met with heavy fog and contented itself with inflicting as much damage as possible on the east coast, particularly Folkestone, leaving 95 dead and 195 injured.  From this point to the end of the war, Gotha raids became common, and the considerably reduced home defence arrangements were initially incapable of retaliating usefully.

Contemporary illustration, showing
Britain under fire
The first raid on London took place on 20th June, when 18 Gothas bombed various locations, including the City. Although 162 died in the raid, with 426 injured and with material damage estimated at £125,953, the Gothas came and went without serious challenge from either air or ground defences, both of which were very depleted. Decisions were delayed until a number of raids made it clear that home defence had to become, once again, a priority.  After the July 3rd raid, a committee was appointed to discuss improvements in home defence, which once again meant diverting resources from the Western Front.  Over a period of time, recommendations for improvements were implemented, leaving to new anti-aircraft measures being put into place, assisted by more observation posts and a public warning system.

The Gothas were by no means invulnerable.  Quite apart from any damage that English defences might have inflicted, they frequently experienced engine problems, and many were damaged or destroyed on landing, as without the ballast of bombs and fuel, landing them presented serious difficulties. The weather, in particular high winds that blew them off course, caused ongoing difficulties, and fog frequently prevented them reaching their targets.  Shortage of fuel could also be a problem.  On August 18th 1917 alone nine Gothas were lost after a failed attempt to reach England due to a variety of circumstances, including Dutch anti-aircraft fire, and on 22nd August of ten aircraft that reached the English coast, three were shot down.   The losses were considered unacceptable, and daylight raids were abandoned in favour of night-time offensives.

Actually from World War II, but
this illustration is a good
example of how balloon barrages
English home defence units were again taken by surprise by the change in German tactics when the Gothas were sent in under the cover of dark on the night of the 3rd of September.  Commercial, military and residential areas were hit, and the bombing was deemed by the German air command to be a success.  Gotha G.Vs were added to the campaign, and the vast R-type Riesenflugzeug ("Giant") aircraft became available to join the offensives against London.  By the time of the Harvest Moon Offensive (6 raids over 8 nights between 24th September and 1st October 1917, a new anti-aircraft barrage tactic was in operation, whereby the guns would be fired simultaneously to form a curtain of shells through which the Gothas would not be able to pass, and would have to divert around, making them easier prey for British planes.

On the first night of the Harvest Moon raids on 24th September, the raids were heavy and the defences again failed to make a dent in the damage inflicted.  In addition, falling shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns firing in continuous unison, added to the damage and injuries.  The R-type Giant was deployed over England for the first time on the 29th September, when its engines were so loud that those on the ground thought that they must be clusters of Gothas rather than single aircraft.  Three bombers reached London, inflicting considerable damage, and 276 anti-aircraft shells contributed to the chaos.  The clear skies over London, accompanied by moonlight, enabled the Gothas and a small number of Giants to carry out devestating raids, piling ever more pressure on the anti-aircraft guns, which were both reaching the end of their operational lives and were overheating with over-work.  By the end of Harvest Moon, 151 bombs had left 50 dead and 229 injured.  The estimated cost of the damage was £117,773, and munitions production at the Woolwich Arsenal had been slowed down significantly during the raids.

In October two balloon screens were erected in Essex.  The balloons had wires suspended from them, forming physical barrages that were intended to supplement the anti-aircraft gun barrages.  In addition, a new sound detection system was installed in Dover, for early detection of incoming bombers.  Improved air support had been arranged too.  Although raids continued towards December, they were disappointing for Germany.  English casualty figures were quite low, but aircraft losses, due to a combination of circumstances, were relatively high.  Even so, the first raid of 1918, on January 28th, resulted in the larges single loss of life from one bomb during the entire London blitz. A 300g bomb was dropped on the Oldham Printing Works in Covent Garden, an official air-raid shelter, killing 38 and injuring 85.

R-type "Giant" heavy bomber
From Wikipedia
For two months, between 8th March and 18th May, German resources were required at the Western Front, and England was spared the Gothas.  To consolidate Britain's air strategy, the naval and armed forces air divisions were replaced by the Royal Air Force, which came into being on April 1st 1918.  The Whitsun Raid of 19th May turned out to be the final offensive against England before the Second World War.  Of the three Giants and twenty eight Gothas that reached England, seven were destroyed.  Plans were in place for future raids, using a newly developed bomb, but it was widely accepted that the end of the war was near, and the planned raids were cancelled.

Compared with airships, more accurate bombing of identified targets mainly by the Gothas had meant that there were fewer accidental attacks on residential areas, but there were still a huge amount of civilian losses.  As with the airship raids, apart from Woolwich, which had military value, southeast London was not a specific target for raiders. However, a number of bombs were dropped over Rotherhithe and nearby areas, and these are as follows.

On 4th/5th September 5 bombs were dropped in Greenwich to the east of Maze Hill, between Foyle and Colefraine Roads,  whilst another plane dropped two bombs on Millwall Docks, just across the water from South Dock. On the first day of the Harvest Moon offensive one of three Gothas that managed to reach London on 24th September 1917 dropped explosive and incendiary bombs the East India Dock Road, the West India Docks, Rotherhithe and Deptford before it headed back east through Poplar.  Of these, three explosive bombs hit Rotherhithe just south of Evelyn Street just to the east of Plough Way, and another hit right at the apex of Rotherhithe peninsula apparently just west of the lock entrance into Lavander Pond, possibly in the vicinity of where the St Paul's sports ground is now located.  On the night of October 31st, under a full moon, a Gotha came up from a bombing raid in the Streatham and Tooting area, bombing Deptford, Surrey Docks, Millwall Docks and Plaistow before heading out to the coast.  This was supposed to be part of a firestorm offensive, in which incendiaries dropped all over London would create a blanket of fires.  Fortunately, the plan failed, and there were very few deaths that night.  On 18th December 1917, Bermondsey was the victim of an intensive explosive bomb attack, most of which fell at Spa road,  but one of which fell on the Rotherhithe approach of Jamaica Road, near the river, almost opposite the entrance to London Docks opposite.

The crashed Gotha G.V at Harrietsham.
It was brought down by a British bomber crew after dropping
bombs on Rotherhithe, the Old Kent Road and elsewhere.
Sourced from
Only one of the raids bit Rotherhithe in 1918, during the final Whitsun raid of 19th May.  It was one of several attacks by 18 aircraft observed by the Metropolitan Police and is recorded as falling at 1155, when bombs were also falling on the Old Kent Road and Kilburn. Sadly, I have been unable to find out whereabouts the Rotherhithe bomb fell.  The bomber was a Gotha G.V piloted by Vizefeldwebel  Albrecht Sachtler, and it was attacked on its return journey across England by Major F. Sowery, who had brought down a Zeppelin in 1916, now flying a SE5a. He fired on the Gotha, apparently injuring Sachtler, but an engine stall caused him to lose sight of the bomber as it departed.  Sachtle was unlucky that night, because he was spotted by Lieutenants Edward Turner (pilot) and Henry Barwise (observer) in a Bristol Fighter.  They fired on him, and although engine trouble forced Turner to give up the chase, the aircraft crasehd at 12,45am near Harrietsham, killing its pilot and commander.  Only the rear gunner survived.   Lieutenant Turner was given the machine guns from the plane as a trophy, and Lieutenant Barwise was given the propeller.  Both men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  A black cross retrieved from the plane was pinned up in the Biggin Hill squadron mess thereafter.  On the same night one explosive bomb also fell immediately opposite Lavender Pond on the north side of the Thames.

The final tally of the Gotha and Giant attacks on England were 837 dead (486 in London) and 1991 injured (1432 in London). 16 aircraft were also lost. As with the airship attacks, although British morale remained undented, resources had be be withdrawn from the Western Front to tackle the raids.  In addition, munitions production was disrupted.

The Germans lost 60 Gothas and 2 Giants during the raids.


The wreck of LZ.72, which is shown above
before she was brought down by an English
fighter plane.  Sourced from Wikipedia:
In the Second World War London's docklands were seen as a strategic target and were bombed relentlessly.  The Second World War bombs that hit the Downtown area, setting fire to timber yards, homes and Trinity Church, caused some of the worst fire damage in London.  But in the First World War, the docks were not a target for either airships or aeroplanes, and the damage inflicted on Rotherhithe was rather more incidental rather than intentional. Of the small number of bombs that fell in and around Rotherhithe, I have been unable to find any first hand or newspaper accounts, which is a shame.

The positive outcomes of both the airship and aeroplane raids were that the RAF was formed to manage air strategy in the future, a central communications hub was created in the September of 1918, the value of barrage balloons had been demonstrated, and were invaluable in World War II, and a considerable amount had been learned about both ground to air and air to air combat.  In the three years between the first airship raids in 1915 and the last airship and aeroplane raids in 1918, Britain went from being a country that had never seen an air rad before to one that had hard-earned expertise in how to deal with them.

As the above account describes, London suffered during the First World War, but this is often forgotten, overshadowed by the greater devastation of the Second World War.  

Further Reading

Parts 1 and 2 of this post were hugely dependent on two books written by Ian Castle (although any errors are, of course, my own).  For anyone interested in finding out more about the air raids on London, you need look no further:

Castle, I. 2008, London 1914-17. The Zeppelin Menace. Osprey
Castle, I. 2010, London 1917-18.The Bomber Blitz. Osprey

Books dealing more generally with the defence of Britain during the First World War are:
Cole, C. and Cheesman, E.F. 1984, The Air Defence of Great Britain 1914–1918. Putnam.
Charlton, L., 1938. The Air Defence of Britain. Penguin Books.
Fredette, R.H. 1976, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918. Harvest.

There are also some good photographs and helpful accompanying text about the Gotha that came down in Harrietsham in 1918, on the Aero Conservancy website:

Finally, there is an excellent television documentary about the Zeppelin attacks on Britain during the Great War featuring engineer Hugh Hunt and showing some stunning stills and footage.  Entitled Attack of the Zeppelins, it is well worth watching out for, as it is bound to be repeated.  My thanks to my father for recording it for me on his whizzy Panasonic does-everything box!  Here's the Channel 4 summary:
There's also an excellent overview of it on the University of Cambridge website:
And on the Telegraph:
Both reviews repeat much off the information from the programme, and are therefore quite useful as resources in their own right.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Air Attacks on Britain During the Great War - Part 1, Airship Raids

The Airship Raids - Introduction

RFC Recruitment poster 1913
Rotherhithe is one of many areas of London (and indeed Britain as a whole) that suffered terribly in the Second World War, and the bomb damage is well recorded, but there are fewer details about Rotherhithe's fate in the First World War.  The Rotherhithe entry on Wikipedia, for example, has a paragraph about the Second World War, but makes no mention at all of the Great War. Nor is it mentioned on Southwark Council's Rotherhithe History page.  The Museum of London Docklands devotes almost no space to it.  So why not?  It is not that London wasn't targeted between 1914 and 1918, because it was.  In fact, aerial warfare was virtually invented during this period, with airships and then early warplanes being employed to drop bombs.

The answer seems to come into three parts.  The first is that although London had been identified as a legitimate target by Germany, the technology was too basic to inflict anything like the damage in the Second World War, and the weather created problems that the fragile aircraft could not overcome.  Second, the docks were not identified as a key strategic target in the First World War, whereas in the Second, all the docks were seen as key, and the damage inflicted was staggering, overshadowing anything inflicted between 1914 and 1918.  With particular reference to Rotherhithe, the third reason that we never hear about bomb damage locally from the First World War is that the few bombs that did fall on Rotherhithe and in neighbouring created minor damage, caused much less significant harm than other bombs that fell, by accident or design, during the same raids in other residential and commercial areas.

This post, together with part 2, are more about the aerial attacks on London than about Rotherhithe specifically, but wherever Rotherhithe was hit I have given details.  I wanted to provide something towards commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and it proved to be very difficult to find anything very useful about Rotherhithe's role, so I apologize that this is a bit generic.

For conclusions and references see Part 2 - The Fighter Plane Blitz (forthcoming). 

The Airships:  Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz

LZ32 - an M-Class Zeppelin
Sourced from
The airship raids on London began in 1915.  They were not the precursor to an invasion force, but were intended instead to undermine British efficiency and popular morale.  To achieve both aims, targets were both military and civilian.  Whilst prime targets included military targets (military bases and barracks, fuel and ammunition stores and airfields and the Royal Arsenal and docks at Woolwich and the docks at Tilbury and Chatham) and commercial areas (the City of London's financial institutions),  the German airship and fighter plane commanders also had permission to attack residential areas, with the intention of demoralizing civilians in order to raise hostility to Britain's involvement in the war.  By destruction and demoralization, the aim was to persuade Britain to pull out of the war, and the same German strategists, who had been convinced that Britain would not enter the fray in the first place, were convinced that this would not take long.  British newspapers, outraged as civilians of all ages began to die, dubbed the Germans "baby killers."

The aluminum-framed airship (or dirigible) had been developed mainly for pleasure use in early 20th century Germany, by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's Zeppelin company in 1900, but the military potential of such vessels was soon evident and the German army was already investing so much in the development of an airship branch that by 1908 alarms began to ring in the British government.  Although their use for reconnaissance was considered to be a primary function, the use of hot air balloons in the American Civil War and during the 1870 Siege of Paris for bomb drops certainly indicated that air attacks were a possibility.  A second company, Schutte-Lanz, also began manufacturing airships in 1911 in competition with Zeppelin, with plywood frames, and this too began to supply the armed forces with its new weapons. The German armed forces soon had two airship divisions, one operated by the army, the other by the navy.

The British had reason to fear an air attack, because Germany had already used her airships to bomb Liege in Belgium at the beginning of World War 1 on 6th August 1914. Britain's own experiments with airships, resulted in the decision to invest in aeroplanes instead, with the army and the navy striking out in slightly different directions with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service respectively. 

First World War poster
German plans to bomb England at the start of the war, led by the Deputy Chief of the German Naval Staff, Konteradmiral Paul Behncke, were initially hampered by Kaiser Wilhelm II who, although the main architect of the war, was reluctant to attack the heart of Britain due to his connections with the British royalty. Under pressure from his advisers, however, the Kaiser caved in to their demands in stages.  In January 1915 he agreed that military and commercial targets outside London could be attacked.  A month later he agreed that London could be included in the raids, but insisted on the exclusion of royal palaces, national monuments and residential zones.  By July he had been convinced that the entire of London presented a legitimate target.

The earliest airships to be used over England were Zeppelin's "M" Class, with three engines.  Quiet and able to reach 8000ft these first airships were supplied with bombs, including incendiary and explosive bombs and grenades.  However, they were unable to penetrate any further than the east coast, where they inflicted substantial damage.  Newer, longer airships with more engines, the "P" class introduced later in 1915, was able to climb to 10,000ft and use her four engines to move faster, enabling them to evade Britain's initially rather lackluster anti aircraft measures, including searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and a squadron of small biplanes based along the coast.  With the P class, Germany was able to reach London and inflict considerable damage.  On her first raid, the new P-Class LZ38 passed into and out of London unchallenged, and caused over £18,000 of damage, killing seven civilians.

The Q-Class made small improvements in size on the P-class, and was introduced early in 1916.  Next, the 1916 R classes were built, known in Britain as "Super Zeppelins," which were longer and more powerful .  Finally, S-Class Zeppelins were introduced in 1917, airships that could cruise so high that her crews suffered from altitude sickness and frostbite and were known by the British as "Height Climbers".

LZ.32, the Zeppelin in which Zeppelin hero Commander Heinrich Mathy
perished during his assault on London in 1916, shot
down by Wulstan Tempest in his BE2c biplane
Sourced from
Defense against the airships was a problem, particularly as they grew in size (improving their ability to climb to ever higher altitudes) and were equipped with more engines for greater speeds..  Although small squadrons of aeroplanes were stationed along the east coast, these had difficulty locating the airships, took a considerable amount of time to reach a height where they could engage them directly, and had ammunition that proved to be ineffective when they were able to engage.  On the ground, search lights were intermittently successful in picking out the intruders, and ground-to-air guns often lacked the range to reach the high-flying airships. Blackouts in London had been introduced as early as October 1914, months before the raids began.

Improvements in all areas were made during the war, and although Britain was largely defenceless against airships in 1914, she was in a very strong position by the end of 1917.  The days of the airship for raiding England were numbered, as the anti-aircraft defenses improved and research into improved firepower and techniques for directing it at the airships equipped tiny British biplanes with the means to take a line beneath the vast hulls off the airships, evading their heavy machine-gun fire, to introduce a mixture of different devices into the outer covering of the ship, allowing oxygen to pass into the vast hydrogen-holding bags where incendiary devices exploded.  The combination of the oxygen, hydrogen and the sparking of the incendiary device was lethal, and began to bring down airships in such numbers that the decision was eventually taken to withdraw the airship from service.

Unexploded Zeppelin bomb 1916
Bombing raids over London mainly hit civilian targets.  This was partly by intention, but sometimes by accident.  A number of German log books indicate that their commanders thought that they had hit strategic targets, but were clearly either off course or had mis-read the geography below.  In addition, in order to increase speed and height, as airships left the target area, they dropped their remaining bombs over whatever land they were passing over to lighten the load.  This resulted in various areas being bombed more or less at random.  If civilian morale could be undermined, no bomb was a wasted bomb, and these random bomb drops were considered to valuable to Germany's ambitions.  Included in these raids were the non-strategic areas of Bermondsey, Deptford and Rotherhithe.

South London avoided bomb damage until the third raid, which took place on the night of the 7th/8th September 1915.  Having dropped bombs on the Isle of Dogs, airship SL2 passed over the Thames and dropped bombs on Deptford and Greenwich, whilst LZ74 dropped explosive bombs in Bermondsey (Keetons Road, half a mile from the Surrey Commercial Docks), south Rotherhithe (Ilderton Road) and New Cross.  The Ilderton Road bombs fell on a house, killing six and injuring five.  The raid of March 31st/1st April 1916 was not a success, but to ensure the Kaiser's ongoing support, the head of the airship division, Peter Strasser claimed that a number of explosions had been caused by his airships in London, including one at Surrey Commercial Docks, which simply never happened.  In the sixth London raid on the night of August 24th/25th, southeast London was again bombed following heavy bombing of the Isle of Dogs, with Deptford and Greenwich again targeted, and Blackheath as well. 

British propaganda postcard:
The End of the "Baby Killer"
Due to poor accuracy in bomb drops and navigational difficulties, German plans for the destruction of strategic targets never reached a point where the British would have to contemplate withdrawing from the war.  German hopes for undermining morale backfired, with the airship raids causing passionate anger against Germany, and calls for revenge bombings.  The defeat of the airships gave Britain a powerful PR weapon, and postcards were issued showing airships (generically referred to as "Zepps," irrespective of the manufacturer) going down in flames.

The cost to London was considerable, but the airship raids failed to succeed in their primary goal of forcing Britain to withdraw from the war.  The airship attacks did, however, divert much-needed equipment and human resources from the Western Front, and they did result in considerable loss of life, many injuries and a considerable financial cost from the damage to buildings and other infrastructure, so they can by no means be written off as a failure.

In total, the airships and their bombs killed 557 people (181 in London), injured a further 1358 (504 in London) and caused £1.5million of damage (£1million of it in London alone).

See Part 2 (forthcoming) for the next phase of German aerial attack, conclusions and references.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The last Royal Navy commissions in Rotherhithe: Hind and Jackdaw 1850s

Horseferry Yard
HMS Hind and HMS Jackdaw were built by John Jenkins Thompson of Horseferry yard, Rotherhithe, who has already been mentioned as the builder of the paddle steamers Ariel and Banshee for other clients.  They were commissioned in 1854 by the Royal Navy as gunboats for service in the Baltic during the Crimean War, and were launched in 1855.  

John Jenkins Thompson was born in the Bermondsey area in around 1794. He specialized mainly in the construction of yachts, small prestige vessels and lifeboats.  His Horseferry yard, near the Horseferry stairs, was established from around 1830, and by 1843 consisted of three large workshops, sheds, a slipway, sundry other buildings and a home and garden.  The dry dock was built diagonally across the yard.  As Rotherhithe Street ran parallel to the Thames, the space for establishing docks was confined to the strip between the road and the river.  The construction of a dock that ran diagonally across the shipyard gave the builder the ability to build much longer ships than neighbouring Globe and Lavender yards. From the above map it also looks as though Jenkins built out into the Thames to further extend his operations.  Sadly, there are no traces of it now, but it was located where Sovereign Crescent (the modern Barratt development) now stands. 

As traditional ship building yards closed all around him, Thompson seems to have seen the opportunities offered by steam and moved into larger projects. His successes with the construction of paddle steamers resulted in the two contracts for screw steamers.  Screw propelled ships were an innovation that changed the face of ship building forever, and Thompson was an early builder to be entrusted with the construction of the new technology. 

Both were of the Dapper class gunboats designed by W.H. Walker, who also designed the Gleaner and Albacore classes, two of around twenty Dapper class gunboats built for the Crimea.  They were 106ft long with a 22ft beam, weighing 232 tons, with a total carrying capacity of a crew of 36 men.  They were shallow drafted, for use in the shallow waters of the Baltic.  Both were fitted with four guns, a 69 pounder, a 32 pounder, and two 24 pounder howitzers.  Both were of single screw propulsion design, and were fitted with two-cylinder horizontal single-expansion direct-acting steam engines built by Maudslay, Sons and Field, with three boilers.  They could also run on sail when required. 

The Baltic Fleet leaving Spithead
Hind was ordered on the 18th October 1854 and launched on the 3rd May 1855.  The specification for the ship indicate that her keel should be built of oak or elm, with oak planking for sides and fir for decks. The fifteenth ship to hold the name Hind, she won the Battle Honour for her role in the Baltic and took part in the Royal Ship Review of 1856 to celebrate the end of the Crimea War.  She was broken up in October 1872 at Devonport.

Jackdaw was also ordered on the 18th October 1854 but was launched two weeks later than Hind on the 18th May 1855.  Her hull was specified to be either oak or elm.  She was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Joshua Berkeley in the Baltic (as tender to Duke of Wellington) from the 10th September 1855 and then, from  the 8th February 1856 she was commanded by Lieutenant commander William Swinburn.  Jackdaw was hulked as a cooking depot in 1868 and sold to C. Wort, presumably for breaking up, in November 1888

Sadly, after hundreds of years of naval commissions, Jackdaw was the last Royal Navy ship to be built on Rotherhithe.  Only 15 years later, in 1870, Lothair was the last big ship to be built on Rotherhithe, constructed for the tea trade.  Between them they mark the end of Rotherhithe's ship building industry.

Pop-Up Opera at Thames Tunnel Shaft

It is great to see the Thames Tunnel shaft being put to good cultural use again.   This time it's the Pop-up Opera’s Le Docteur Miracle, which will be performed on 26th and 27th April at 7.30pm. 

Pop-up are touring the country with this retelling of Bizet’s comic operetta.  Aged eighteen, Bizet won a competition organised by Offenbach to write an operetta. It was to be based on a libretto which was a French adaptation of Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day. The result was Le Doctor Miracle. This charming, lively, fizzing piece contains echoes of Rossini and gives us a foretaste of Bizet’s most famous opera Carmen, extracts of which will be served up as a delicious musical dessert, perfectly complimenting the French bistro feel.

It looks like a lot of fun.

See more details on the Brunel Museum website:

"The only way is up for London skyline"

Sorry that this story is over two weeks old, but for anyone who hasn't seen this or a related article, I thought that it might be of interest. Sam Jones in The Guardian on Thursday 13th March reported that almost 250 tall towers are "proposed, approved or already under construction" for London.  The New London Architecture thinktank has released a report saying that 236 of the new buildings will be more than 20 storeys high, with 33 of them between 40 and 49 storeys and 22 of them with 50 or more.  19 % are already under construction and 48% of them have already been approved.  77% will be in east and central London with Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Greenwich, Newham and Southwark being allocated 140 of the 236 towers.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Brunel Sculputre unveiling on 23rd March 2014 - everyone welcome

From Steve Cornish:

Copyright: Brunel Statue Group
The 'Brunel Statue Group' welcome all, for the unveiling of their (1st phase) 'BRUNEL' Letters Sculpture.
(see photos attached)

Website :

Date and time : Sunday 23rd March 2014 at mid-day.

Location: Brunel Road, left hand side of Rotherhithe Tunnel Approach, (Southwark, Thames Southside)

Funded by : Southwark Councils 'Cleaner Greener Safer' Fund.

The two metre high forged steel letters have been crafted by Local Blacksmith, Kevin Boys and his apprentices at their forge in Surrey Docks Farm.

Individual 'hot carved' plates have also been designed & created, by pupils from the local, Bacons School.
Their plates have been incorporated into the letters sculpture as part of their schools, science and engineering programme.

The 'Letters Signage' will be the first phase of our vision to erect a 15mtr Statue commemorating -
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the" Greatest British Engineer of all time" Just a stones throw away from the first tunnel ever to be built under a navigable river in the world ' The Thames Tunnel' and the Brunel Museum.

Please come along to witness the Brunel Gateway to Rotherhithe for yourself. Refreshment and entertainment will be provided.

Brunel Statue Group.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Help needed: update on nesting pontoons at Greenland Dock and Surrey Water

 From Steve Cornish:

Cygnet on nesting material provided by local
residents last year.
Hello All
Help needed!  The Friends of Russia Dock Woodland and Friends of Stave Hill Eco Park will be distributing much needed nesting material (last year's bullrushes and reeds) into Surrey Water and Greenland Dock tomorrow (Saturday 15th March at mid-day)

We do this every year, generally around mid April, but due to the very mild winter and recent hot weather, the waterfowl are nesting and even laying eggs in mid March.

We have plenty of reeds and bulrushes already cut and ready to be barrowed down to both docks. The nesting pontoons have recently been secured in Surrey Water and some also in Greenland Dock.

Now the swans, grebes, coots, moorhens, ducks & geese are in desperate need of nesting material.

We will be meeting at Stave Hill,  at the top of Dock Hill Avenue, at mid-day. We will walk over to Stave Hill Eco Park and collect the nesting material, then wheel-barrow several loads of reeds and bulrushes down to Greenland Dock and Surrey Water. The whole exercise should take no longer than 2 hours.

Steve Cornish
Friends of Russia Dock Woodland

Monday, March 10, 2014

New website re Harmsworth Quays developments

Thanks to @kmarkparker on Twitter for this link to a new website, currently under construction, which will contain information about the Harmsworth Quays site, the consultation process, plans for its future, and upcoming information exhibitions:  At the moment the site consists of a single page, but it does contain details of launch events at the end of March and during April.  Well worth keeping an eye on, if you're interested in how the site is going to be developed and what sort of impact this will have on local residents and our infrastructure.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A tour around the former Harmsworth Quays print works, Rotherhithe

Harmsworth Quays
Harmsworth Quays was closed down by its owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), when they moved their operations to Thurrock (Essex), but the building remained, a big green local landmark, something of a blot on the landscape, but one that predates most of the residential development in Rotherhithe.  When it opened it was a state of the art printing works.

Harmswoth Quays was built in 1989 and the site covers 12 acres.  Now bereft of personnel, furniture and most of its machinery, it has become a rather marvelous piece of industrial archaeology.  Its fate is, of course, inevitable.  The Daily Mail sold the leasehold on the land to British Land (Southwark Council own the freehold) and they are planning to develop it for more building projects, the precise nature of which has yet to be nailed down.  I will be talking more about the future of the site in later posts.

For anyone who has been reading my earlier posts about the development of the docks in Rotherhithe, Harmsworth Quays sits on what used to be Centre Pond, one of the timber ponds established by the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company when they established Albion Dock and a number of other timber ponds, all up and running by 1862.  For more information see my earlier post about the development of this area of Rotherhithe's docks and ponds.

British Land, who now own the property (and own Surrey Quays Shopping Centre), arranged for guided tours of the former works today, which was a really super opportunity for anyone interested in local history.  I was booked into the 2pm tour, and thundered back from Gloucester this morning along the M4 to be on time to get there, camera in hand, to pick up my name badge and read the information boards.  The boards were full of useful information (about which more in future posts) and there were a lot of people there reading them.  Representatives from the Southwark-based urban planning practice Allies and Morrison were there to chat to visitors, and did a good job of answering questions and explaining how various different local development projects fit together under Southwark Council's general planning umbrella.  

Paper racks
From there, we were taken in groups around the print works.  Utterly fascinating, and thanks to Larry our guide (who was an engineer there when it was all up and running) for taking us around.   You can click on any of the photographs to see the bigger version.

The walk through the building from the meeting room to the first area on the itinerary made me very glad for the recommendation in the joining instructions for sensible shoes - much of the elevated walkways were open metal grids, and flat shoes were a must.   We wended our way through various corridors and tall machine rooms until we reached a vast cavernous cathedral of metalwork soaring up and plunging down from where we stood.   This eerily silent extravaganza of industrial excellence and abstract art was the place where the paper was received in 1.6 ton rolls, 336 per day.   The crazy metal structure was a seemingly endless system of racks onto which the the paper was lifted by an automated mechanism.  Apparently a James Bond movie was filmed there, Tomorrow Never Dies.  It was so thoroughly magnificent that it was quite difficult to be dragged away, and a lot of people stood on the raised walkway staring out into the surrealistic chiaroscuro. 

Print room, with printers at the far end
From there we followed our guide to the printing machines themselves, again walking through long corridors which were once thundering away with machinery and personnel.  The printing presses are quite simply impossible to describe.  I have no idea what I thought they would be like, but I think I was imagining something the size of a small room, and not the vision before me, which consisted of machinery that  reaches up to the ceiling three storeys away.  Some of the printers were removed when the Daily Mail left, and others were purloined for their parts, but some remain complete and will have to be dismantled before the building is pulled down.  The scale of the thing was simply staggering. 

Next on the tour was the room in which all those infuriating inserts, advertising brochures, scratch cards, and promises of eternal happiness were added to the newspapers.  Now a vast void with huge red caterpillars running along the ceilings this was apparently once stuffed full of bodies hard at work in a windowless warehouse-sized room.  The red caterpillars were used for providing fresh air, and heaters were built into the ceiling.  Everywhere we went in Harmsworth Quays it was important to keep looking up because the network of pipes and cables, air vents and funnels were tremendous.  It becomes so obvious why the Pompidou Centre in Paris put their internal workings on the outside.

Set for Chasing Shadows
Before making our way to the final leg of the tour, we passed through part of the building that is being used as a television set for a new police series called Chasing Shadows.  It has been set up as a set of offices, both open plan and private, which acts as the operational base of a special unit dedicated to tracking down serial killers who prey on vulnerable people.  You can see a write up of it on the ITV website.  The photo on the left shows part of the set, with a police coat hanging on a hook and general chaos all around.  The sheer level of office chaos was actually quite impressive - I've never worked in one quite that bad!   Earlier on, where the printing machinery is located, another set consisting of some battered armchairs and a lot of graffiti (shown at the very end of this post) formed another part of the TV location, and it was so odd to see it all sitting there alongside the vast industrial hardware.

Loading bay
We made our way to another warehouse-sized room in which the newspapers, the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and Metro, were loaded onto lorries.  Like any distribution hub, one wall consisted of a series of shuttered exits to which the lorries backed up for loading.  The Evening Standard alone shipped 600,000 issues a day from that room.   There was a huge digital display, which was happily feeding completely random symbols into the room.  Heaven knows what information it once showed.

The building is extraordinary.  I spent a lot of time a decade or so ago visiting freight hubs, and these were always fairly relentless in terms of functionality taking priority over any alleviating flourishes, but Harmsworth Quays takes that to new levels, with acres of open-mesh metal walkway and staircases, tiny corridors between machines, and vast ceilings that are an incredible maze of heaven-knows-what.  The floor space, now clear, is simply endless, and the sense of emptiness and lifelessness quite extraordinary and somewhat eerie.  There is always a certain sort of desolation about an abandoned building, but this one was particularly strange because it was still full of light and so very clean! 

As I hammered down the M4 today I kept clock-watching and I am so glad that I got there on time.  Thanks again to the organizers.  I enjoyed it enormously.   

The following are a random set of other photographs that I took today.

Office door with a smiley face fingered into
the dust on the glass. It so made me smile.

Printer - a bit bigger than my Canon desktop job!


Paper racks

Print works room


Printing presses

Chasing Shadows set

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The establishment of Canada Dock by the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1875

Canada Dock under construction 1875-6
After the amalgamation of the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal System and the Commercial Dock Company, to make up the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, various additions were made to the system, but the only major new investments were the construction of Canada Dock in 1875, which was completed in 1876, and the extension of Greenland Dock in the last years of the 19th Century.

Canada Dock was established specifically to handle the larger iron vessels and their cargo.  Engineer James Adair McConnochie, who had been appointed Resident Engineer to the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1865, was chief engineer on the project.  McConnochie was a successful engineer who worked in a number of British docks and was also responsible for attractive dockside architecture like the Surrey Docks Office opposite Canada Water tube station.  The dock was established on the last segment of land at the base of the peninsula, and was right up against both existing buildings along Lower Road and the immovable presence of the East London Railway.  McConnochie's main challenge was to resolve problems caused by the close proximity of the East London Railway, which was semi-subterranean and could have been under threat from both subsidence and leakage from the dock, had measures not been taken to prevent it.   As a result, Canada Dock was equipped with vast concrete walls.  It also has a slightly curved shape, which reflects that its upper part had to be built along the line of the railway.

The Michael Rizzello sculpture on Stave Hill showing the
docks as they were in 1896 before the extension of Greenland Dock. 
On the far left is Canada Dock with the slight kink
in its shape, together with the remaining ponds. 
Canada Dock replaced Albion Pond and most of Canada Pond, but Quebec Pond and Centre Pond were retained to its east.  Canada Dock was connected to Albion Dock, and from there it was linked into the rest of the network.  The original cut from Albion Dock into Albion Pond was too small to be suitable for the new, larger ships that Canada Dock was built to handle, so this was closed at its southern end and converted into a small dry dock.  A new entrance, wider and longer, was established to its west.  Canada Dock was also connected to Canada Pond, which was in turn connected to Quebec Pond and from there to Centre Pond into Russia Dock and the Grand Surrey Canal. 

A contemporary account from 1878 was provided by Edward Walford (Rotherhithe. Old and New London; Volume 6, pages 134-142):  

"The Commercial Docks have an entrance from the Thames, between Randall's Rents and Dog and-Duck Stairs, nearly opposite the King's Arms Stairs in the Isle of Dogs. They are the property of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company. A considerable extension of their area has been made within the last few years, with a view to meeting the increased requirements of the timber trade in the port of London, by the addition of a new dock which has been named the Canada Dock. It is 1,500 feet in length, 500 feet in width, and has a water area of sixteen acres and a half. It communicates with the Albion Dock by an entrance fifty feet in width, and the quay space around is upwards of twenty-one acres in extent." 

Greenland Dock, which at that time was smaller than Canada Dock, had been the dominant of Rotherhithe's docks, but Canada Dock was much bigger and expanded the system's capacity for cargo handling and quickly began to equal Greenland Dock in importance for the Surrey Commercial Docks.  It mainly handled grain and other food products imported from Canada.

Canada Dock in 1876 and 1914

If you compare the 1876 and 1914 maps, you can see how the ponds were re-arranged to enable the extension of Greenland Dock and its connection to Canada Dock. If you are using the Firefox browser you can right click and opt to open the image in a new tab, which will give you a much better view than left clicking the image. After its extension, Greenland Dock was connected to Canada Dock at the point where the current underpass to from Greenland Dock to Surrey Quays Shopping Centre passes under the road and red bascule bridge. Quebec Dock had to be truncated quite substantially to make room for the extension.  This gave the most efficient linkage so far between the two systems that had formerly been separate and operated by competing companies.  

Canada Water was closed when the Surrey Commercial Docks finally failed and were shut down for good in 1970.  The Surrey Quays shopping centre car park takes up much of the land that this occupied, with a small section of the dock left behind to serve as a wildlife reserve. Amazingly, it was under threat from developers recently, but public reaction saved it from being destroyed.

Canada Water in 1996, the last patch that remains of Canada Dock, as
it was during the construction of the Jubilee Line station, also
called Canada Water.  Photo from the
London Docklands Past
and Present site (



Please ignore - this code is just to stop my blog being fed, lock stock and barrel, into someone else's site!  Here's a pretty picture by way of apology for the nonsense :-)

Russia Dock Woodland

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ducklings released from accidental chicken wire cage on local pond

Photograph by Steve Cornish
Thanks very much to Simon Forster for raising the alert that ducks had made up a nest on a pontoon that was surrounded by chicken wire on Mahogany Pond.  The wire was installed to protect young plants on the pontoon, but it had no large holes put into it, which meant that any water birds that flew or clambered in to start nesting would find their chicks trapped in the nest.  And this is exactly what happened.  The photograph below shows them as they were before they were released.

Steve went and had a look at the situation and says that matters have been resolved and that the ducklings were reunited with their parents, who immediately ushered them off into the dense undergrowth.

Steve says that they will be cutting away all the chicken wire on all the other pontoons within the next week or so. The chicks can get through the larger mesh protecting the plants.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Booth's Maps of London East and West Poverty 1889

In this pack two maps are included, representing west London and east London in 1889. Booth was a remarkable man who set out to assess how wealth was distributed across the main residential areas of London. His undertaking was staggering. Appalled by the poverty he witnessed in the dockland areas he set about colour coding every house in every street according to how well off the families who lived in them were. His lowest rank is "Lowest Class. Vicious, semi-criminal, going up to "Upper Middle and Upper Classes. Wealthy." Between the two he identified five classes to represent the "general condition of the inhabitants." The maps he created as a result of his research were used to tackle social problems derived from poverty, and to plan reforms.

The maps in this edition are presented in a card folder, each with its own envelope to protect it, connected by a spine. When you open the folder, the interior surfaces contain an introduction to Booth's maps, giving brief details of what London was like, what motivated Booth to create the maps and how they were used. It also expands on the keys shown on each map.

When you lie east and west side by side it is daunting to see how polarized they were in terms of poverty, with the east showing great areas at the blue (impoverished) end of the scale, whilst the yellow (the top end) are confined to the west (albeit with some blue patches crowded into nooks and crannies)

The maps are reproduced on good quality slightly shiny paper, with all-importantly good quality colour reproduction so that it is easy to make out which colours are which (Booth used incremental shades of blue and red, which could have been very difficult to distinguish from each other in an inferior quality edition). Road names are easy to pick out and a grid sits over the top (the space between the horizontal lines representing half a mile). This is a really excellent pair of maps and essential to anyone interested in late 1900s London.

Thanks very much to the anonymous person who posted a comment and reminded me that there is an online project run by the London School of Economics called "PhoneBooth" that enables you to view different parts of Booth's maps with a series of overlays of London, using the + and - signs to zoom in on areas of interest.  The application is in Beta testing at the moment, and is a bit clunky to use, but it is an excellent idea and with patience works really well.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Update re planning application to demolish the Ship York

The Ship York. Photograph by Stephen Harris
There have been a lot of rumours circulating over the last few days about whether or not the Ship York has been sold to developers and whether or not its planning application has been accepted.  As usual with Southwark Council's planning pages I am completely confused about what has and hasn't been agreed re the Ship York at 375 Rotherhithe Street.  On the one hand there is a planning application number 13/AP/2407 (, that, near the end of the page, says simply "Decision: Granted."  On the other hand, there is also a planning application number 13/AP/3839 ( that states "Decision: Application not yet decided."  I have no idea what all this means in planning terms, but I assume that the writing is on the wall for the pub!  If anyone has more experience at interpreting these various contradictory reports I would be most grateful for a little basic elucidation.

According to the original planning application back in 2010 the existing three-storey (plus basement) building will be replaced by a five-storey (plus basement) mixed-use development comprising of a public house at basement and ground floor level, and 8 x two-bedroom residential units above.  The application didn't go through in 2010 but the new application is presumably doing something to resolve objections in the original planning application - though I have no idea what.

The condition that the new development should have space for a public house at ground floor and basement area is presumably supposed to tackle the fact that the area is becoming short of pubs but doesn't address the matter of how many buildings of the 1930s/40s era remain on Rotherhithe. As The Clipper is almost certain to be demolished (it has been sold to developers) and most local people feel that it is only a matter of time before the Orange Bull (formerly The Fitchetts, before it later became The Aardvark) goes the same way, the only two pubs to surivive from the period will be The Ship, over the other side of Rotherhithe, and the former Three Compasses, which is now a pizza restaurant.  Southwark Council has gone apartment mad.    

I have always thought that The Ship York is of fairly limited benefit to the wider community under the current management - it has always been very cliquey and the welcome always distinctly luke-warm, but it could have been so much more.  The building is an attractive one, and is a really nice corner of 1930s Rotherhithe in an area that has suffered a lot of really third rate modern development.   It is a shame that its owners and Southwark Council are so ready to see it eliminated from the architectural diversity of the area.