Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rotherhithe heritage in trouble? A few examples

Yesterday was a good news day, with Ian's news that there's an exhibition of Whistler's Thames paintings at Dulwich, and that the City of Adelaide is residing for a few days at Greenwich on her way to Australia to be restored.   I was so pleased by both.  I'm sorry that today's post is less upbeat. 

A few weeks ago I created a new label, "Heritage in Trouble," to enable visitors to the site to find whatever I've posted about bits of local heritage that may be suffering due to neglect, development or other threats to their futures.

1821 Engine House brickwork in need of
re-pointing, St Marychurch Street
For those unfamiliar with the concept of labels on blogs, a label is a search device, where keywords (in this case at the bottom of the right hand column) will, when clicked on, display only the posts that correspond to the chosen topic. 

It is difficult to give a good job description for the "heritage in trouble" label as it is somewhat broad in its scope, but I thought that a few examples might help to define it, as well as highlighting some current local problems that need or may soon need addressing.

The list is below, but just to say - it is always worth keeping a weather eye on buildings and other structures of value that are near to you and, where necessary, reporting them to the council.  Threats can take the form of neglect (anything from flaking paintwork, colonization by vegetation and deterioration due to weathering, right up to intentional and sanctioned demolition by developers).

A recent loss is the Ebenezer Chapel and the adjacent building that housed the Dockland Settlement at Downtown.  The Russia Dock lock house was still standing when I first moved into the area 18 or so years ago, but was torn down to build a very dull apartment block. The deal porter shelter near the Dock Offices was supposed to be preserved for relocation when Canada Water tube station was built, but was magically lost.  The Lavender Pump House Museum of local history closed and I have no idea where the contents are now stored.  This is just a small sample of local losses, but when you add them up they begin to look rather concerning.  Once these pieces of the past are lost, they are lost for good.

If anyone has anything to add to the list, please let me know.  

Surrey Grand Canal Yard Office
1) The Grand Surrey Canal yard office on Rope Street
I have already posted about this on the blog, twice, and the windows and roof of the poor little building are still as dilapidated and unloved as they were then.  It is a tiny building, one of the few original structures left from time of the extension of Greenland Dock at the end of the 19th Century, and dates to 1902.  It is an electricity substation but according to Nicky Costin (Southwark Council's Road Network, Parking, Street Markets and Marina Business Manager), the electricity board don't know whether it is operational or not.  In my letter to Southwark Council I suggested that it should be restored because it looks like a perfect target for vandals at the moment, and there is graffiti on the back wall.  But although I received reassurances about my concerns and was told that I would be kept informed, I have heard nothing since.  It won't take a lot to take down down the wooden slats hiding the ugly brick filling of the former windows (at front and back of the building) and put something more suitable over them.   The roof is becoming colonized by moss, but this too would be easy to fix.  This is a lovely piece of heritage and someone at the Council needs to take responsibility for putting pressure on the relevant electricity board to use their vast financial resources to give it a much-needed makeover.

2) The Russia Dock Lock hydraulic machinery
The Friends of the Russia Dock Woodland first brought this to general attention.  The underpass that leads from the Moby Dick into the Russia Dock Woodland was once the lock that provided access from the Grand Surrey Canal into Greenland Dock.  If you look to the sides as you walk through it, you will see the lock features and depth measures engraved into the stone.  Up at road level, the original hydraulic machinery that operated the lock dates was preserved by the London Dockland Development Corporation, before they handed over responsibility to Southwark Council.  A fence and a locked gate were fitted many years ago.  Now, the gate's lock has been broken, the hydraulic equipment is horrendously overgrown, and there is rubbish everywhere.

3) The 1821 Engine House, St Marychurch Street
Although this is Grade II listed, and survives in the form of the original building's facade incorporated into a wall, some of the bricks of the 1821 Engine House have lost their pointing and will soon become very loose (the first photograph on this post).  There is also a tree branch overhanging it which makes it very difficult to see the details of the building, and this too needs to be addressed.  Trimming the branch will certainly not damage the tree itself.

4) The Greenland Dock tide house hydraulic machinery
Having seen the mess that the Russia Dock lock machinery was in, I went to have a look at the Greenland Dock tide house machinery.  A small temperate jungle is growing out of it - including buddleia trees, some of which have been trimmed down but none of which have been killed off to preserve the tide house machinery.  It is a real mess and needs to be sorted out before roots, branches and fallen leaves mess up the works entirely.  The hydraulics at Greenland Dock were in beautiful condition when the London Docklands Development Corporation handed it over to Southwark Council, and it has deteriorated progressively since then.  The rusting fence around it could do with a bit of paint to smarten it up because at the moment it looks such a mess.

5) Nelson Dock and Columbia Wharf
Now that the Hilton Hotel is up for sale, with the sales brochure positioning it as an ideal property for conversion into residential apartments, it will be necessary to keep an eye on any developers who purchase it.  In theory, the surviving Grade II listed features should be attractive to new residents and therefore not at risk, but not all developers see these things the same way.  The preserved Nelson Dock, the Bilbe patented slip, the Mills and Knight building (formerly the Bilbe slip's engine house) and Columbia Wharf itself are all valuable remnants of Rotherhithe's ship building past, and need to be preserved.  Fortunately the stunning Nelson House is now in private ownership, and the new owners have plans not merely to maintain the building but to improve its immediate environment.

6) The Clipper public house
The Clipper has recently been purchased by developers.  It might seem like an odd building to include under the term "heritage," but that is because 1930s architecture of this sort is never particularly attractive and therefore not always appreciated.  But it does have its own very real value as a building representative of a style and type that was widespread across London, which was particularly popular in the construction of pubs of the period.  The Clipper is not a thing of beauty but it is so typical of its period and, with its combination of typically 30s style brickwork, tiling and sash windows, it is the only building of its type along Rotherhithe Street.  A lot of local people have affection for it, and it will be a shame if it is sacrificed for yet more bland apartment blocks. 

7) The Scotch Derrick
It is no surprise that there are a lot of rumours locally about the fate of the piece of land at point where the northern part of Odessa Street bends abruptly to the left and, to the right, reconnects with the Thames Path.  This small corner of the area does have a slightly battered look, and the best thing about it is the wonderful Scotch Derrick that is preserved at the top of the basketball court at the edge of the river.  It is a terrific piece of heritage, about which I've written in the past, and a real Rotherhithe landmark.  At the moment there is an abandoned youth club hut and a basketball court, running up the side of the access to the former Downtown nightclub (currently occupied by squatters) and it is entirely probable that both developers and Southwark Council will feel that it would be ripe for development.  The Scotch Derrick should not be sacrificed during any of those plans. 

8) Greenland Dock
Prior to the London Olympics, temporary planning permission was applied for to establish a temporary marina over most of the area of Greenland Dock.  Although the permission applied for was for temporary facilities, the fittings required to achieve it would have been permanent.   The planning permission was contested on numerous grounds and was refused.  One of the biggest concerns at the time, which resulted in the establishment of a group of local residents who contested the project, was that this would be a thin end of the wedge, and that a temporary marina would segue into a permanent one covering the remaining area, eliminating one of the only areas of peaceful public open water available in south London. 

Greenland Dock lock gate, with foliage
9) The Greenland Lock Gates
The lock gates, with their walkways, are now degenerating fast.  The entire span of each bridge is now growing a small meadow these days, which doesn't bode well for its future structural integrity.  Roots eventually cause rot in wood, and they will eventually fall apart.  This needs to be addressed.

10) Bollards and capstans
Across Rotherhithe there are many of the original bollards and captstans from the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of which are getting heavily weathered.  They may not be at risk, but they are beginning to look tatty and need only a coat of paint to make them look very smart again.  What always worries me about buildings and features that begin to look neglected, even when they are structurally sound (like the yard office that started this post) they make everything around them look scruffy and unloved.

11) Lavender Pump House
Someone has brought it to my attention that the splendid Pump House building is not listed at the moment.  I couldn't believe that that was correct, but it does seem to be.  That makes the building, the remains of the Lavender pond and its surrounding land more vulnerable to development plans than it really ought to be.  It is a beautiful building with a unique history and it ought to be listed. 

I am making the assumption, I hope wisely, that the fact that 23 Paradise Street (William Gaitskell House) is up for sale, does not represent any threat to the building.  It is Grade II listed, and very fine indeed, the last of its sort in Rotherhithe.  I figure that if someone is willing to pay £2.5million (the asking price) for the property, they are probably going to look after their investment :-)

If you see any damage or deterioration in local buildings and other pieces of heritage it is always worth reporting them to Southwark Council because unless we report them they can't be fixed.

Anything to add? Please add a comment or email me. 


Ben said...

Brilliant article . I work on the river and run a website for everyone that does and is interested in the history the river has. I pass the crane near Greenland dock daily and have always wondered where it originated and what its history is.
All these items should be preserved

Alan said...

Sounds like Southwark Council are neglecting their duty of care for these wonderful pieces of Thames-side heritage. They surely must have some funds ring-fenced for heritage projects. Can pressure not be applied for money to prevent the items you have outlined falling into further decay and reaching a point where they have become a danger and have to be removed? Or maybe this is want the local authority are hoping for?