Saturday, August 31, 2013

Burning Ground and the Condemned Hole

The Custom Building, "Condemned Hole,"
on the 1914 Ordnance Survey map
After around 1908 the space now occupied by the dismally monochrome 1960s block of flats called Custom House Reach, and the former Downtown nightclub, both on Odessa Street (SE16 7LX), was known locally as the "Condemned Hole." Before that, the site was known, with equal informality and amiable disrespect, as the "Burning Ground."

 The "Burning Ground" was so-named because contraband collected from smuggling operations along the Thames was usually destroyed at the site's incinerator, which consisted of a furnace and a tall chimney.  There were a number of such sites along the Thames, known collectively as the "Queen's Pipes."  The Customs Journal of December 1962 says that up until around 1908 "smuggled or condemned tobacco, illicit books, condemned food and clothing etc, were condemned by burning."  Smuggled tobacco was often burned here, and gave this particular chimney, the last of the contraband incinerators, the nickname "The King's Pipe."

"Burning Ground" soon became "Condemned Hole," the local name for the H.M Customs and Excise office based here.  Its wonderful name "magnetized" A.G. Linney when he wrote about it in Peepshow at the Port of London.  During much of the 18th century, the H.M. Customs and Excise property extended over much of the area between the red Scotch derrick (crane) and Odessa Wharf. H.M. Custom and Excise had a number of roles in the area.  Principal amongst these was to process items that were found floating in the river, known as flotsam.  Linney's description of approaching the Customs offices is unexpected:

"If you knew how to approach 'Condemned Hole' by land, you will presently bring up before an inconspicuous door in an inconspicuous and wholly dismal little street in Rotherhithe.  It is commonplace to remark that London is the City of Great Surprises; that door in the wall was one of htem, for I found myself looking at a cottage that might have been in Masham (Yorks), or Chipping Norton (Oxon), or Haverhill (Essex), or Brackley (Northants); in fact, in almost any small English country town between Cleveland and the Downs.  Creepers grew on its garden walls, there was a tiny grass plot and a garden filled with just the sort of blooms one expects in cottage gardens - the essential English cottage-iness of the place fairly took my breath away."

Linney believed that one of the buildings at 'Condemned Hole" was once used as a sail-loft when craft came to renew their sails.  The site included a number of sheds including one for painting and repairing boats owned by the H.M. Customs service and another for storage, that Linney says was made up of timbers from broken up ships.

Condemned Hole in 1937 and 2000 (the
black and white block marks the old site)
The items rescued from the river due to having been lost overboard or during collision were held at the site until they could be returned to their owners, where known, or sold off by tender (when the finder received a portion of the price).  On the Thames side of the yard the custodian, who had worked there for 25 years, showed Linney a platform where the rescued items were stored, which included an impressive list of diverse objects including planks, barrels, timber, tarpaulins, rolls of newsprint, wooden gratings, an immense number of barge poles and sweeps," and a curiously shaped gaily-painted boat" which turned out to be a Guernsey boat found derelict in the Channel.  The Customs Journal of December 1962 adds boats, rubber, cheese, a barrage balloon, and a live greyhound to the list! Timber was always desirable and according to a number of accounts gained a good price. 

There's a lovely description by Ernest G. Murray in Tales of a Lighterman, in which he describes picking up old rope to sell to "ropies," who were the same "boaties" who were also always in the market for the acquisition of "quality timber become salvage by falling - not always by accident - off the back of barges.  It went for auction at Condemned Hole, a percentage to the salvager who settled up with the bargee later in Charlie Lunn's Tea Romms [sic], the Ship and Whale or Dock and Duck."

The area that it occupied shrank so that by the 20th century it was confined to the site now occupied by the block of flats.  It is shown in the 1937 photographic record of the Thames shown in London's Changing Riverscape (Craig et al), but there's very little to see; it is included here because it is the only old photograph of the site that I have managed to find so far.  

The operation was closed in 1962, only a few years before the Surrey Commercial Docks themselves closed.  The Customs Journal gave it a rather nice send-off, and indicated that some of the remarkably unusual cottage personality described by Linney was maintained until at least this point in time:  
"It seems likely that we may be losing our Burning Ground from London Port.  This small area of Rotherhithe, comprising an official residence, a store and a garden complete with summer house and vines, is shown in the local maps as the Condemned Hole.  This was due to the old men-o'-war that were formerly broken up nearby."

One can understand why the developers of Custom House Reach chose to name the block of flats after the former Custom House, rather than its earlier more colloquial names, but what a lost opportunity! :-)

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