Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thomas Bilbe's "Coonatto," built at Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe, 1863

Coonatto by Thomas Goldsworth Sutton
National Maritime Museum PY8564

Coonatto was a three-masted  clipper commissioned from the partnership of Thomas Bilbe and William Perry in 1863 by Anderson, Thompson and Co. (later Anderson, Anderson and Co.) for the Orient Line for the transport on their London to Adelaide route of cargo, mainly wool, and passengers.

The relationship between Thomas Bilbe and Anderson, Thomson and Co. began when Bilbe built a ship named Celestial for James Thomson, using a patented system of wooden hull framing.  The ship was a great success and led to the contracts with Anderson, Thompson and Co., the founders of the Orient Line, for the London to Adelaide (Australia) route.  Other ships built by Bilbe for the Orient Line included Orient, Borealis, Yatala, and Argonaut (click on the links to see my previous posts about these ships).  The Orient Line.  A lovely description of the Orient Line ships survives from an 1898 article by John Arthur Barry:

As a good instance of how the sailing lines changed into steam, there existed in the sixties a fine fleet of small clippers trading to Adelaide for wool. The largest of them all was the Orient, of some 1200 tons or so. Then came the Murray, Goolwa, Yatala, Coonatto, Derra, etc., fast, fine-lined, London-built vessels of from 800 to 1000 tons, speedy but wet. Indeed, it was said of them that they took a dive on leaving the Channel, came up at the Cape for breath, and did not reappear until Kangaroo Island was in sight. This was perhaps an exaggeration, but their skippers drove them for all they were worth, and carried their main-top-gallant sails when other vessels had their upper topsails off; also imagined the world was coming to an end, or that Australia had disappeared, if they couldn't find Cape Borda in anything under eighty days. 

Coonatto in Adelaide.  From the Trove website, PRG 1373/2/6
The Orient Line became the Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company, which eventually became re-branded as the very familiar P+O.  By the time that Coonatto was built, Bilbe had moved on to a new and innovative method of hull construction: composites.  He  patented and trialled composite ship construction with the clipper  Red Riding Hood in 1857, and all ships after this one built by Thomas Bilbe were composites.  Composite ships were built with a mixture of wood and iron.  The iron frame and ribs reinforced the hull and meant that the structure could be more open, providing additional room for cargo. 

Coonatto was the first ship that Bilbe built for the Orient Line.  She was a composite clipper, a method of construction that Coonatto was 160ft 2in long with a 29ft beam.  Coonatto's entry in the 1874-75 Lloyds register provides basic information about the ship's build but also mentions an interesting addition to the ship's equipment when, in 1874, she was provided with felt and ‘yellow metal’ cladding.   The Citizan website says that traces of the cladding still remains attached to some of the exposed timber.  It sounds as though this was similar to the copper hull cladding that protected ships against the effects of wood-consuming species and improved the speed of ships through the water.  A similar modification can be seen on the restored tea clipper Cutty Sark in Greenwich, which has had the so-called Muntz alloy fastened to the entire hull. 

Orient Line passages, March 1870
She was known as a fast ship, described by Basil Lubbock as "an out and out clipper with very fine lines."   Lubbock says that she was "very wet," which means that she took a lot of water on board when under sail, but he thought that this might be due "to the hard-driving of her skipper, Begg, a Highlander, who never spared her and made some very smart passages out and home."  Coonatto's fastest times were 66 days to the Semaphore Lightship and a 70-day run, even after losing both her helmsman and the wheel overboard after broaching-to (falling foul of the wind) off St Paul's Island!

Clippers were mainly cargo carriers, although the Orient Line also carried passengers.  The clippers on the Australian run were transporting a mixture of products to London, but primarily wool in exchange for a variety of British products.  Basil Lubbock describes the shipping trade from Adelaide, which was the focus of only two or three firms, as follows:  "During the sixties and seventies, when Sydney and Melbourne were filling their harbours with the finest ships in the British Mercantile Marine, Adelaide, in a smaller way, was carrying on an ever increasing trade of her own, in which some very smart little clippers were making very good money and putting up sailing records which could well bear comparison with those made by the more powerful clippers sailing to Hobson's Bay and Port Jackson."  He goes on a little later:  "Their captains, however, were always keen in rivalry and put a high value on their reputations as desperate sail carriers.  They made little of weather that would have scared men who commanded shops of three times that tonnage of the little Adelaide clippers, and they were not afraid of a little water on deck."

The Trove website has a rather wonderful advert for Orient Line passenger places on clipper ships heading to various destinations in March 1870.  Coonatto was one of the ships heading for Adelaide under the command of Captain J.N. Smart.  Two other ships listed on the advert, Orient and Yatala, were also built by Bilbe for the Orient Line (see my post about her here).   White Eagle, another ship on the list, was also owned for a time by Bilbe and his business partner William Perry, which was actually built in Aberdeen in 1855.

The South Australian Advertiser 8th October 1870. Shipping News (with thanks to the Trove website) provides this rather nice description of Coonatto leaving Australia for London:
COONATTO, for London via Port Augusta.
"The Orient liner Coonatto has once more taken departure from the port by towing over the bars on Thursday evening. It was Captain Smart's intention to have immediately sailed for Port Augusta, where she is to complete her wool landing;  but during the night there was little or no wind; therefore the ship remained at anchor awaiting a favorable change. . . . The Coonatto weighed anchor in the roads on Friday afternoon, and presented a very handsome appearance as she beat away on a sea breeze. Towards nightfall the wind hauled more off the land and enabled her to lay a course clear of Troubridge."

The remains of Coonatto today
Copyright MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)
In 1876, carrying a cargo of copper, copper ore and wool to England from Australia, she became beached in the English Channel at Crowlink, near Beachy Head, and could not be re-floated.  At the age of 13 she was wrecked.  The wreck is thought to remain at the foot of the white cliffs.   The Citizan website provides a good description of the find: 
Situated in the Seven Sisters and Birling Gap park lies the wreck of what is believed to be the Coonatto, a London registered bark-rigged clipper (a type of three-masted ship) that sources suggest ran aground in 1876. The wreck lies on the very edge of the intertidal zone, below the cliffs at Crowlink. The keel and starboard side of the ship are still clearly visible where they came to rest. The remains include large and small timbers, some still clad in a zinc alloy, whilst the total length of the wreck is roughly 43m bow to stern.  The site is subject to the erosive forces of the waves and tides. Interestingly records describe the salvaged cargo being craned onto Crowlink Cliffs but given the present location of the cliffs and the type of cargo to be craned this suggests considerable erosion since the wrecking. The CITiZAN team hope that more research will establish the extent of the cliff that has disappeared and further understanding of the vessel.  To date we have worked with partners and volunteers in the National Trust and Eastbourne Heritage Services as well as training the first 15 CITiZAN volunteers in England to work on this site. A plan of the site has now been produced with future focus on more detailed drawings of the diagnostic elements of the ship that survive as well as an attempt to generate a 3D model of the site to provide those who cannot make the journey to the site with the chance to learn more about this fascinating wreck.

There is apparently a painting in the Seaford Museum in East Sussex that is thought to show Coonatto foundering at Crowlink, but I have been unable to find an image of it.

John Arthur Barry, writing in 1898, watched the demise of sail in favour of steam:

In the great mail steamers of that same Orient line that now lie alongside Circular Quay you may at any moment see the evolution of canvas to steam in its widest and most complete and final aspect.  Other fleets, as the White Star one, for instance, have not quite yet arrived at the termination of the process, and still own a few sailers out of the fine array of once famous Aberdeen liners—-the Damascus, Patriarch, Thermopylae, and others, such as the Centurion, Abergeldie, Maid of Judah, Windsor Castle, Nineveh, etc., whose names, as well as those of the Duthie's and Thompson's, are indissolubly bound up with the early maritime history of the colony. Now and again, perhaps, in one of the harbor bays, you may see a shapely old craft whose aspect seems in some way friendly and familiar, only that she flies a foreign flag, and has a foreign name upon the stern. Dirty, weather-beaten, forlorn as she is, with rusty rigging and paintless spars, nothing can disguise the old ocean aristocrat who a score of years ago was the pride of her captain, the crack clipper of her fleet and whose comings and goings were matters of moment, both on this side of the world and the other one.

The 6ft (1.83m) figurehead from
Coonatto now in the Jervis Bay
Maritime Museum
(Photo from the Jervis Bay
Maritime Museum website)
As far as I know, Thomas Bilbe did not make the transition to constructing steam ships, which seems odd as he was certainly an accomplished engineer. He certainly didn't do so in Rotherhithe.  It would be interesting to know what he did next, because he was clearly a very colourful character and it would be good to know more about him.  If you have any details about his life, please do get in touch.

Sources for this post:

John Arthur Barry  1898. How the Wool Went Home Long Ago. Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney, NSW.  Saturday, December 17, 1898 

Basil Lubbock 1975. The Colonial Clippers. Brown, Son and Ferguson Ltd.

Charles F. Morris 1980. Origins Orient and Oriana. Teredo Books

Stuart Rankin 1996. Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dock.


Jervis Bay Maritime Museum

The website:

The MOLA Facebook page

The 1875 Albion Dry Dock at the former Decathlon site

I have updated this post since I first wrote it on 9th April 2016, with information provided most generously by the Museum of London Archaeology's Magnus Copps, who came to the site on the 27th April 2016 to explain the site, its past and its future.  He provided some excellent new information about the brick work, the use of concrete and the structure that sat over the dry dock from at least 1914.  Thanks too to Kate Mensforth for organizing the sessions.

The dry dock shown to the left has become quite a local celebrity in the last month, but for those who are new to this topic, a warehouse-type structure that was formerly a Decathlon sports store was taken down as part of plans for a new development that will sit along the edges of the former Canada Dock (now Canada Water) and the former Albion Dock (now Albion Channel).  During the work to establish foundations an old dry dock was rediscovered, and is really well preserved.  Thanks to the developers for the new viewing platform outside the entrance to the remaining Decathlon.  Climb up a short flight of stairs and you have a perfect view of the site, with the remains of the late 19th Century dry dock clearly visible at the far side of the site.  It is really quite huge!  Wonderful to have the opportunity to see something so splendid emerging so unexpectedly from the ground, and in relatively good condition.

Click on any of the photographs to see a bigger version.

The parallel development of the two dock systems.
Davies map 1843
The dry dock is essentially part of the story of the amalgamation of two dock companies, the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company and the Surrey Commercial Dock Company.  The first commercial dock to be built in London was the Howland Great Wet Dock, which was begun in 1699 and opened in 1700.  Greenland Dock sits over the area that was once occupied by the much smaller Howland Great Wet Dock.  The dock passed through different owners until it was eventually purchased in 1807 by the specially-formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and new docks and timber ponds were built in a line to the west, each flowing into the next.  At the same time, the Grand Surrey Canal Canal company had been formed in 1801 to build a canal that eventually reached Croydon and Peckham.  It opened in 1804 but was by no means the commercial success that its investors had hoped for, and the success of the nearby docks encouraged the Grand Surrey Canal Company to ask for permission to start building docks.  This being granted in 1811 the company and immediately started using the canal infrastructure to create a dock system of its  own which, running east to west, was more or less parallel to that of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, with whom they were now in serious competition.  Accordingly, the Grand Surrey Canal Company eventually changed its name to become the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company.  Price wars followed, undermining both companies, and the decision was taken to amalgamate them into one large company, which became the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1864.  The situation at this time is reflected in the 1868 Ordnance Survey Map.  [This history is the short and simple version, but you can read more about the full and rather complicated story on my previous posts, which I have listed at the bottom of this one.]

The old cut from Main Dock (renamed Albion
Dock) into the old Albion Pond.
Godfrey Ordnance Survey Map of 1868

Click to expand.
Following the amalgamation of the two companies, various decisions needed to be made about the future of the docks.  One of the first things to change was the name of individual docks and timber ponds, with Main Dock being renamed Albion Dock.  Links were made between the formerly separate dock systems, with new cuts and locks between the two, but more ambitious plans were being rolled out.  The dry dock is not shown on the 1868 map, but it is on the 1894 map, and this is because it appeared as the result of major engineering works to expand the dock system.  The second even more considerable difference between the two maps was the addition of Canada Dock, connected to the older Albion Dock of 1860.  The course of Albion Dock is today marked by Albion Channel, the small canal that links Surrey Water (formerly Surrey Basin) and Canada Water.  In 1875 Canada Dock was created, a vast, strangely shaped and ambitious piece of engineering that carried the dock over the area now covered by the shopping centre and car park, established specifically to handle the vast new iron vessels and their high-volume cargoes.  It became the biggest dock in the system at this time.  This area had been in use as timber ponds.   

As shown on the map to the left, a cut connected Main Dock and Albion Pond.  A bridge passed over the cut, but there are no archaeological traces remaining of that bridge to show what it looked like, and there are no known photographs of it surviving.  

The dry dock showing the new Canada Dock
together with the place where the old cut was,
replaced by the dry dock, in red, and the
new cut between Albion Dock and Canada
Dock in green.
In the new scheme, Canada Dock replaced Albion Pond and most of Canada Pond, but Quebec Pond and Centre Pond were retained to its east.  Canada Dock had to be connected to Albion Dock, just as Main Dock had been connected to Albion Pond, in order to link it into the rest of the network.  

The original cut from Main Dock into Albion Pond shown in the red circle on the map above was far too small to be suitable for the new, larger ships that Canada Dock was built to handle.  So the old cut  was closed at its southern end and converted into the dry dock that we see on the Decathlon site, making excellent use of the former link between Main Dock and Albion Pond.   This is shown on the map to the right in red.  A new entrance, much wider and longer, was established to its west to link Albion Dock and Canada Dock, and is also clearly visible on the 1894 map, marked in green on the map to the right

So we know that the dry dock dates to roughly 1875, which is why it is not on the 1868 map but is so clearly shown on the 1894 and 1914 maps as a dock in the bottom edge of Albion Dock.   It was around 4.5m deep.  I would guess  that it was used for repairing barges and lighters that were essential to the loading and unloading of cargo from the ships that used the docks.  Full automation never took over in the Surrey Commercial Docks, and in spite of large cranes along many of the wharves barges and lighters were part of the permanent dockland landscape of Rotherhithe, an essential but often battered component of cargo handling. The dry dock probably remained in use until quite late in the history of the docks prior to their closure in 1970.  It was still above ground during the construction of Canada Water tube station, which took its name from the surviving square corner of Canada Dock, and was captured in a photograph in 1996 (see the photo at the end of this post).  The dock must have been filled in and buried shortly after that.

Given that the Albion Dock dry dock has been buried for around 20 years (or more probably because of it), it is in remarkably good state of preservation.  The photos on this page show that it was made of at least two types of brick.  The pale beige stock brick along the sides belongs to the original cut between Main Dock and Albion Pond.  When it was converted to a dry dock black engineering brick was added at the lock end, a type of brick that was in common use around the docks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The black engineering brick was often used on corner pieces of docks and locks, and particular properties that made it valuable for this purpose.  Where the modern rectangular block of grey cement now stands were a pair of lock gates.  At the opposite end cement was used to block and reinforce the former cut to create a dry dock.  Cement was a new material at this time, and most uses of it had been somewhat experimental up until around 1870.  At the dry dock it was poured into an armature of wooden planks (a technique called "shuttering") until it was set, leaving unmistakeable marks of the planking along the sides of the concrete, clearly visible in one of the photographs below.  Given that it has survived for over 140 years, this early use at Albion dry dock can be said to be a firm success!  On the 1914 Ordnance Survey map an additional black line surrounds the dock, and this shows the outline of an open-sided structure that was built over the top of the dry dock.  A photograph of it (or a newer version of it) survives from 1975. 

The dock has been professionally surveyed and recorded by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who have a watching brief to monitor the site.  

As to the future, we were told different things at the 6pm and 6.30pm talks by the representatives of the development.  At the 6pm talk the woman told us that the dry dock will be preserved in the basement of the new development, but although it will not be visible it is possible that guided tours will be available.  At the 6.30pm talk a man, this time, said that it would be sealed beneath concrete and would not be available to visit.  So who knows?  I daresay we'll find out after the building has been built.  At least MOLA has been given access to survey it.

The photographs below were taken during April 2016.

And from the London Docklands blog, here's this wonderful photograph from 1996, showing the water-filled dry dock at far left, roughly half way down the photo in the green area during the construction of the Canada Water tube station.

With thanks, as usual, to Stuart Rankin's booklets about the history of the area, and to Magnus Copps from the Museum of London Archaeology for coming to talk to local residents about the site on 27th May 2016.


To find out more see some of my earlier posts:

The development of the Surrey Commercial Dock system 1609 - 1909
A history of the Commercial Dock Company: A history of Norway Dock and the timber ponds 1811 - 2014
The development of Albion Dock and the timber ponds of the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company

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

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A super visit to Stave Hill Ecological Park

I went to have a look at the Albion Dock dry dock currently available to see via a viewing platform at the former Decathlon site (about which I have posted here), and at the last minute decided to cut back home via Albion Channel and Stave Hill Ecological Park.  It was threatening rain but apart from spitting at me occasionally, it obliging held off.  The snake's head fritilleries are particular favourites, and were the main reason that I was tramping around in an unplanned and muddy visit in suede three-inch heals, and there was plenty to see including a jay (lousy photo so I've buried it at the end), flowers of all sorts, and the new floating duck houses on Globe Pond.  I ran into Steve Cornish (better known to some Twitter users as @slooshbag5), wet to the knees from installing the duck houses in spite of having borrowed the Ecological Park's best waders!  None of the photos are particularly special, but I've posted them as a true appreciation of having all this on my doorstep.  You can click on any of them to see the bigger version.  Now where did I put that suede brush? 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ada's Garden and the Ada Salter statue: Celebration of the pioneering work of Ada Salter

Ada Salter
I am currently writing a post about Alfred and Ada Salter.  Although they achieved a considerable amount independently, the Salters were  very much a partnership but here I want to look very briefly at Ada and how she has been recognized and celebrated locally in recent  years. The Salters were social activists in Bermondsey in the first half of the 20th Century, when the Rotherhithe docks were still thriving and many of the dock workers were working class people who struggled financially in often very insalubrious conditions.  Unlike Michael Caine, Jessica Mitford and Princess Margaret, whose names are often bandied around when Rotherhithe is mentioned in connection with famous residents, Alfred and Ada Salter actually contributed to Rotherhithe and its people.  They helped its residents to combat the effects of poverty by both working to improve conditions on the ground, and helping to innovate social care in British politics.

Alfred Salter is probably the best known of the duo, but recently there has been much more recognition for the work of Ada Salter in her own right.  Salter Road, which connects Lower Road to Rotherhithe Street and Redriff Road, was named for them when it was constructed in the mid 1980s, a Rotherhithe primary school was named after Alfred Salter, and a foot bridge in Southwark Park was also named for him.  A trio of statues by the Angel public house on the Thames Path included Alfred, Joyce and the family's pet cat, but excluded Ada.

Ada's Garden naming ceremony.
Photograph by Steve Cornish
Recently, however, an awareness of Ada's contributions has emerged.  The statues of Alfred, Joyce and the cat, which were stolen several years ago, were replaced after a massive fund-raising campaign, and Ada was a very welcome addition to the group.  A new book has recently been published:   "Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism" by Graham Taylor, which recognizes her importance in early 20th century political and social reform.  And only this month, an undisturbed wildlife zone full of mature trees that sits between houses on Lower Road and the Tesco car park was given an official name:  Ada's Garden. The sign replaces one that was removed over a year ago by British Land, the developer of the shopping centre, which had explained how the wildlife area helped “support and safeguard the diversity of plant and animal life.”   Ada was an early environmentalist, a  follower of Ruskin and believed strongly in the value of nature to people and the importance of urban gardens.  She would have been delighted to be associated with this small corner of greenery that is sandwiched between buildings, roads and a railway.  It epitomizes her ideas of nature and urban life being more integrated for the benefit of all, completely consistent with the programme of beautification that she introduced when she became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1920, planting over 7000 trees throughout the borough, many in her newly established playgrounds.  Ada's Garden, home to a wide variety of insect and bird life, including dunnocks, blue tits, wrens, robins, wood pigeons and blackbirds, is a tiny oasis for wildlife on the edge of the urban chaos of the busy shopping centre.

Statue of Ada Salter, next to the
Angel public house.
Ada Brown (1866 - 1942) was born to a well-to-do family in Raunds in Northamptonshire. Her parents were Wesleyan Methodists, so she was brought up with principles of serving and only seeking leadership roles in order to serve the greater good.  Importantly, they also believed in free will and the ability to influence the future, requiring profound moral integrity in order to influence that future.  In 1896 Ada left Raunds with the intention of doing social work in London, joining the West London Mission to work with people of the slums of Soho and St Pancras.  Her main achievement was to establish social clubs for impoverished girls in those areas, places.  A year later she moved to Bermondsey to work at the Bermondsey Settlement.   The Bermondsey Settlement was run by a well known Methodist minister and Liberal politician, the Reverend John Scott Lidgett.  The Bermondsey Settlement location acted as a base for dedicated Methodists in  a very deprived area. They and other like-minded philanthropists created various societies and medical missions in the area, and Ada continued to establish the social clubs that had been so successful in north London.   Ada met Alfred Salter in Bermondsey.

Ada planting a tree in a newly
established playground
Alfred Salter (1873 - 1945)  was born in South Street, Greenwich.  Although he himself grew up to be agnostic his parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, so from early childhood Alfred was surrounded with ideals of charitable activities and the support of the poor.  Like Ada, his childhood experiences had a lot to do with his later directions and achievements.  Although he began his career in medical research, he began to work in Bermondsey to provide medical expertise to the impoverished.  Epidemic diseases were very poorly understood at the time, and were rife.  In the days before the NHS here was no state operated free medical support it fell to philanthropists and social reformers to attempt to provide support for those who were most vulnerable to disease and least capable of coping.  Conditions in Bermondsey were particularly bad. 

It was at the Bermondsey Settlement that Ada and Alfred met. Although up until meeting Ada, Alfred had had no particular religious affiliation, in 1900 he became a Quaker, and he and Ada were married in the same year.  In 1902 their only child Joyce was born.  Adhering to Quaker principles, they decided to live in the areas in which they worked on behalf of the poor, and when Joyce became old enough she attended the local school on Keeting Road.

It soon became evident to the Salters that their own work would only touch the tip of the iceberg, and that to really help the poor political change would be necessary.  Alfred joined the Liberal Party in 1903 and was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council in 1906.   Two years later he became a member of the London County Council. In 1907 women won the right to stand in elections, and Ada was elected as the first female Councillor in Bermondsey.  She and Alfred were founders of the first branch of the young Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bermondsey. In 1906 she co-founded the  Women's Labour League with Margaret MacDonald.  In 1909 Ada stood as their sole candidate in the elections for the borough council.  She was successful and became the first woman elected to a borough council in London.   In 1911 the whole working population of Bermondsey went on strike for better employment conditions.  Ada organized free meals for the women and children.  She did this again in the General Strike of 1926.  A Quaker and a pacifist, she was deeply disturbed by the First World War and campaigned extensively for peace, establishing the Wonen's International League for Peace and Freedom.  Ada became London’s first female Lord Mayor in 1920 but refused to wear the robes and chain of office, the symbols of status and power that were irrelevant to her work and contrary to hear beliefs. 

Ada Salter
The Salters experienced the impacts of poverty and disease personally.  Their only child Joyce died from scarlet in 1910.  Living in the heart of Bermondsey, the Salters were as vulnerable to disease as the people whom they were there to help. 

This brief summary misses out many important details about Ada's life, but the full post about both of the Salters will expand upon this small introduction to a remarkable person, environmentalist, social reformer and political activist.  It is wonderful to see her being recognized by history and by local residents.  I wonder what she would have thought about Southwark Councillor Mark Williams and his idea of "regeneration" as the replacement of playgrounds and mature nature areas with the sterile blocks and towering monoliths of the Canada Water Masterplan. Ada's Garden, for example, is under imminent threat from the Council who want to eliminate it to put a leisure centre where the wildlife area is located, in spite of 46 acres of land already ear-marked for development where it could easily be incorporated.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Peter Hills Charity School statues now restored

It was great to have the opportunity to have a look at the Peter Hills Charity School statues now that they are fully restored before they go back up on the building. 

70 St Marychurch Street, the former Peter Hills School in Rotherhithe village is one of the few 18th Century buildings left standing in Rotherhithe.  Now converted for use as offices, it was established in 1742 as a charity school, having moved here from another building in the immediate area.  The school itself was established in 1614 and was founded by benefactors Peter Hills and Robert Bell.  Peter Hills was a seafarer, Master Mariner and Brother of Trinity House.  When he died in 1614, he left a sum of money to enable the establishment and ongoing maintenance of a school.

The two statues, showing a boy and a girl representing students at the school, have long been favourites in the Rotherhithe community and are always a key destination on guided tours of the area.  In the last few years they have become very run down, with paint peeling, giving them a very sorry appearance so it was great news that arrangements were being made to have them restored.  Thanks to Deputy Mayor Kath Wittham for securing the grant to enable this to go ahead.  It was such a good idea, too, to make the statues available at London Bubble for visitors to see them at first hand before and after the restoration work.

The statues before restoration, on display at the London Bubble
Copyright WORG, with my sincere thanks.
I was not able to attend the day when the statues were available in their pre-restored state so HUGE thanks to the lovely Secretary of the What's On In Rotherhithe Group (WORG) for permitting me to use one of the photographs that she took on the day.  The "after" shots are mine from earlier today.

The restoration was carried out by Hall Conservation, who are based near the Thames Barrier and have worked on some very impressive projects (see their website at

As Astrid Hall from Hall Conservation explained, as part of the restoration work they carried out an analysis of the previous treatment of the statues and cleared all the top layers down to the original surface so that they could determine the original colour scheme and replicate it.  The microscopic analysis of the paint shows that there were 26 layers of paint in total.  Astrid showed me on a photograph of the boy statue before its restoration, and the build up of the layers had smoothed out the surface, completely disguising the features of the face.  Now that the statues have been restored, the features are wonderfully clear.  They also found that each of the statues was made out of a single piece of limestone.

The paintwork has been restored to its original colours.  They are very bright and full of life.  At first glance it seems almost too bright, but that's only because they are right there in front of you.  When they are up on their plinths on the facade of the charity school they will far less dramatic and of course they will weather slightly.  I think that they look splendid, and I look forward to seeing them when they are returned to their original position on Tuesday 22nd March.

At the moment that building is looking very down in the mouth with its windows boarded up thanks to vandalism and theft, but that too is being worked on.  As a grade 2 listed building, planning permission is more difficult to obtain but the plan is that Hall Conservation will make a sympathetic grille that will protect the windows and offer it the security that it needs.

The statues before they were removed from
70 Marychurch Street. Photo by Chris Lordan.