Monday, January 26, 2015

St Helena's Tea Garden and Tavern, Corbett's Lane, Rotherhithe

The St Helena tea gardens and tavern in 1843
St Helena's tea garden and tavern shared a site to the south of Lower Road.  they are marked on the 1843 map to the right as a small pink block.  According to Edward Walford, writing in 1897 (in Old and New London. A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places - The Southern Suburbs, Volume VI), the tea gardens were opened in 1770 and closed in 1881 and, by the time he was writing, the site had been built over.  There is no indication of why the gardens and tavern were name St Helena.  They were established before Napoleon had been exiled to the island of the same name, and none of the saints of that names seem to be obvious candidates.

At one time the tea gardens and tavern sat on the rural edges of Rotherhithe and were, as a result, a major attraction.  In their heyday they were visited by such fashionable people as the Prince Regent (the future King George IV, 1762-1830) so it must have been quite a significant rural attraction.  Walford  says that a newspaper advert in May 1776 "announces that there are tea, coffee and rolls every day, with music and dancing in the evening."  There were also the gardens, which were supposed to be very pretty, including pleasure lawns, a number of ornamental ponds, trees, two Chinese pavilions and some statues.  It was surrounded by hay fields, unimaginable today.

However, as the docklands grew more successful and the area in which the gardens were located became less rural, it became more of an attraction for local people.  Walford emphasises that the tea gardens were "chiefly supported by the lower classes of the neighbourhood, the families of men who worked in the docks.  In the summer there were brass bands and dancing platforms, singing, tumbling and fireworks, for the selection of the merry souls of 'Redriff;' but the place never attained more than a local celebrity or affected to be a rival of Ranelagh or Vauxhall" (page 138) thereby putting it firmly in its place, just in case it had any remaining delusions of social grandeur.  According to another source, the Gardens also had sports displays, tight-rope walkers and similar circus-type events, and a remarkable-sounding centrifugal railway, about which I would love to know much more! 

The St Helena Tavern and Tea Gardens in 1839.
From the Ideal Homes website at
According to Warwick Wroth (The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century, 1896) in 1832 "the gardens occupied about five acres and a half, and in this year the performers advertised included Mr. G. R. Chapman 'from the Adelphi and Astley's' as organist and musical director, Mrs. Venning, 'from the Nobility's Concerts,' Miss Wood, 'the Infant Prodigy, only six years of age,' and Miss Taylor who performed 'many difficult airs on that delightful instrument, the Musical Glasses'."

Both the tavern and the tea gardens stood on Corbett's Lane, which no longer survives but ran parallel to today's Rotherhithe New Road.  It is now St Helena Road. The 1843 map at the top of the page shows its original location (shaded in pink and marked as the St Helena Tea Gardens) just south of today's one-way system, where Plough Way crosses Lower Road and begins to extend towards the Old Kent Road. 

The St Helena Tavern in 1870 by J.T. Wilson
© The Southwark Art Collection
The watercolour on the right shows St Helena's Tavern as it looked in 1870. It is significantly different from the 1839 version above, and suggests that the tavern may have been rebuilt or at least significantly modified at some point between the two dates. been rebuilt.  The painter of the 1870 watercolour , J.T. Wilson, was a water colour painter who specialized in landscapes and who was well respected.  He exhibited at a number of galleries, including the Royal Academy of Arts, and his interest in this as a subject matter is an indication of the reputation that the tavern and tea gardens had in the late 1800s.  Bizarrely, in this picture it looks as though it has a satellite dish on its roof!  I haven't found a photograph with good enough resolution to see what it actually represents - but my best guess is a clock.

The 1868 Ordnance Survey map of North Deptford shows the St Helena Tea Rooms as quite a substantial property surrounded by trees.  Further along Corbett's Lane, to the east, is the St Helena Tavern.  They are both shown on the scan of the 1868 map below, highlighted in pink (click image to expand). At the top of the map, to give an easy point of reference, Surrey Docks station is highlighted at the apex of today's one-way system in green.  Lower Road is the large diagonal road marked as Deptford Lower Road.  Both the tea rooms and the tavern are clearly shown lying to the south and west of dense areas of residential terraces and railway lines and it is obvious, looking at the map, that they would soon become subsumed into the advancing urbanization of the area.

The 1868 Ordnance Survey map of North Deptford
Wroth says that the concerts, dancing and other amusements continued until about 1869 but that at that time the gardens appear to have been closed for a while before passing, in 1874, into the hands of Messrs. W. H. and J. R. Carter "who erected an orchestra and a dancing platform, and provided music and fireworks for an admission of sixpence. The gardens had fallen into a neglected state, but the walks were once more well laid out, and the old chestnut trees, the elms and planes were still standing." 

Although it was almost inevitable that the tea rooms would become a casualty of urban expansion, many pubs were incorporated into new communities and survived quite happily.  However the St Helena Tavern was apparently closed in 1881 along with the tea rooms.  Both were presumably sold to developers. 

By 1889 the area in which the tea garden had been located was shown on Charles Booth's 1889 Descriptive map of London Poverty.  It is a densely residential area, full of rows of terraces, of which Corbett's Lane was one.  The area, on Booth's map, was a mixture of poor and mixed (some comfortable and some poor) housing, and the idea that this was once an admired and valued rural area seems so unlikely.

In the 1916 Ordnance Survey map of North Deptford, Corbett's Lane had undergone a name change and was now, appropriately, St Helena Road.  The scene was very different, a mass of residential streets, row upon row of them. Again I have highlighted Surrey Docks station to give a point of reference, and the area under pink is more or less where the St Helena tea gardens and tavern used to be located (click to expand the image).

The area in 1916, on the Ordnance Survey
map of North Deptford

The terraces were also demolished and replaced by blocks of flats.  I find this sad, as the few vestiges of the terraces that survive show that they were really attractive buildings. Today the area in which the tea rooms and tavern were located is one of Rotherhithe's most congested residential areas and it is now covered by the block of flats at 23 St Helena Road, part of the Silwood Estate (there is a photograph of the present building on the Geolocation website). 

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