Thursday, October 29, 2015

Unveiled on 23rd October: Albert McKenzie Memorial Statue made by Rotherhithe blacksmith

Nice to see that Kevin Boys, the blacksmith and sculptor based at the Surrey Docks Farm has had another piece of work installed at a prominent location.  Please see the below link to a short film that was made about the making of the Albert McKenzie Memorial Statue which is now open to the public after its unveiling at Tower Bridge Road last Friday 23rd October 2015.  With thanks to Steve Cornish for sending it to me:

Albert McKenzie was a sailor in the First World War and the first London sailor to receive the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the famous Zeebrugge raid of St George's Day 1918.  He was one of the few to survive the engagement.There is more about Bermondsey-born Albert McKenzie on the website and the I Live in SE16 website. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Strikes and the HMS Ajax scandal - the beginning of the end for Thames shipbuilding 1786-1813

1811 map showing the locations of the
Nelson Dock shipyard (at the top, still in
grounds of the Hilton Hotel today)
and the Greenland Dock South shipyard.
As usual with ship building stories, I am indebted to Stuart Rankin for introducing me to this sequence of interwoven events that contributed significantly to the slow but inevitable demise of ship building along the Thames.  Other very helpful references are listed at the end.

The full story involves two closely related Rotherhithe companies and their two shipyards.   John Randall Esq. had been based at Nelson Dock since 1755 (the year he was awarded the contract for HMS Tartar)  and at Greenland Dock as well since 1767.  In 1770 he went into business with John Brent and John Grey at the Nelson Dock.  Later John Grey left the business, but the relationship between John Randall, father and son and John Brent and Brent's sons Daniel and Samuel, both survived for a long time.  John Randall senior retired in 1775.  Randall and Brent was apparently a partnership between the younger John Randall and his father's business partner John Brent.  John Brent retired in the 1790s but both his sons, Daniel and Samuel followed him into the business in Rotherhithe.  All of the various partnerships were very successful businesses, building ships for the Royal Navy and the Honourable East India Company under private contract.

In June 1795 the Navy Board ordered a 74-gun third rate ship of the line from Randall and Brent.  This was a major and valuable contract for Randall and Brent, the largest type of ship that would ever be entrusted to a private ship builder.  The keel for HMS Ajax was laid in September 1795 at the Greenland Dock South shipyard.  Greenland Dock South lay downriver from the lock entrance to the dock, just behind the site of the 1904 lock-office that survives today, and where the Prince's Court development now lies.  There had been a shipyard here since the late 1600s, recorded on Kip's engraving of the Howland Great Wet Dock. 

HMS Ajax was launched on 3rd March 1798 at the cost of £57,000 (in today's money £1,833,690 according to the National Archives Currency Converter).  She was the first of her type, an Ajax-class design based on the design of  the 1747 HMS Invincible, but lengthened by 11ft before launch, and provided with a different type of stern, near to vertical and uninterrupted by galleries with very few carvings. The new stern design became the standard for future naval ships. 

Ship's knees on HMS Victory
However, this was just the start of the story.  Ajax had not long been in naval service when she was sent home for repairs, first in December of the same year with serious internal damage due to build defects, and then in April 1802, for more repairs.  The most basic and unforgivable of errors had been made.  Wooden ships of the period were equipped with "knees," bracket-shaped timbers that held the hull together and were responsible for the ship's structural integrity. The knees on Ajax had been cut with the grain, instead of across it, with the result that they began to break, undermining the entire structure of the ship.  It was an inconceivable error, inexplicable.  Even had the fundamental error not been noticed by one of the shipwrights, and even had it passed all internal shipyard inspections, the ship should have been surveyed independently by a Royal Dockyard official, who should have picked up on defective knees and failed the ship.  This step was a basic part of the handover of the ship from shipyard to Navy Board. The three errors - the initial build flaws, the failure of internal checks to pick up on them and the failure of the Royal Docks officer to report the problems - resulted in the ship going into service in a sub-standard condition.   The repairs cost a staggering £44,000 (£1,415,480 today) of public money.   The matter became a national scandal, picked up by the newspapers and debated at the highest political levels. 

Earl St Vincent. By John Hoppner.
National Maritime Museum
It is a shame that there is not more available about the legal aspects of the case, because it must have hit a very murky legal area.  The ship had been built (with a change of length requested during the build), someone at the Royal Dockyard must have rubber-stamped the hand-over from ship builder to Royal Navy, payment had been made, and the ship was taken in to service.  In theory, the shipyard's responsibility for the ship should have ended with the Royal Dockyard's approval, but this is not what happened.  Although the original bad workmanship certainly lay with Randall and Brent, the fact that the ship passed into the Royal Navy without challenge puts a certain amount of blame on whichever official accepted Ajax into service. It is all the more surprising as Ajax was the first of her class, with the 11ft added to her length part way through the build, and a new stern design, and it would be expected that the Royal Dockyard officials would have taken particular interest in her progress and in the quality of the final product.

The Admiralty was unsurprisingly disgusted and, in the outraged form of First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St Vincent, Admiral John Jervis,  took steps to prosecute Randall and Brent.  Earl St Vincent was notorious for his attempts to identify and fight corruption within the dockyards and naval administration, believing that huge amounts of public money were being haemorrhaged due to theft, "waste, malversation and pure carelessness."   He particularly mistrusted private shipyards and the underhand practice of over-ordering and syphoning off raw materials for personal use.  It must have been a real blow to Earl St Vincent's sense of professionalism, honour and an insult to his ongoing fight against this very type of bad practice to be presented with such faulty goods.  HMS Ajax was the absolute poster-child for all the issues he detected in the management of naval shipbuilding as a whole.

I wonder what John Randall was thinking throughout the scandal.  He and his father had produced beautiful and reliable ships for the Royal Navy, some of them very well known.  The Randall name carried with it a promise of quality, of longevity, and it must have been a horror story for him when his reputation was put on the line by the disastrous build quality of Ajax.  I would love to know what went wrong at the shipyard during her build.

HMS Ajax.  Artist Unknown. National Maritime Museum.
By the summer of 1802, when Ajax was repaired for the second time due to the build defects, John Randall had already had a thoroughly bad year.  But matters were to deteriorate further.  In the summer of 1802 a series of other problems also came to a head.  The hiatus between the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars that followed immediately afterwards (1803-1815) had caused a significant drop-off in naval as well as commercial orders.  The result was that throughout Thames shipyards wages were cut to peacetime rates by nearly two shillings a day.  Shipyard workers reacted badly, responding with strikes and by placing embargoes on stocks of English timber.  The strikes and timber embargoes meant that the ships that were sitting in private yards awaiting completion were becoming more and more delayed.  The East Indiamen depended on the trade winds to carry them safely to their destinations.  Missing the trade winds would mean the loss of an entire season's trade.  With pressure mounting on the government from the East India Company, which had a number of orders waiting to be completed for trade journeys that year, the government responded by assigning Royal Dockyard shipwrights to private yards to complete the outstanding contracts.  Needless to say, the intruders were denied access by most of the strikers and a naval warship was assigned to deter further violence.  Writing a century later in 1907, Canon Edward Josselyn Beck, writing in his book about his Rotherhithe parish (Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe) tells how John Randall went in person to try to reason with his workers at the Greenland Dock shipyard on 22nd August 1802, a confrontation that resulted in his death:
In his time, the shipwrights mutinied, and not only refused to work themselves, but laid violent hands on those who were sent to work in their place.  This worthy man entreated them to desist and return to their duties, but in vain.  And being himself struck by one of his workmen he retired from the scene and was so greatly distressed at the events he had witnessed that he throw himself out of his window and was killed by the fall." 

The Ajax affair, however, continued even after Randall's death. Public money had been wasted on Ajax, and as a faulty ship she continued to need ongoing repair work.  She became a bone of contention, a political football.  The debates about the correct course of action in response to the shoddy workmanship were raised not only in the Admiralty but in the press, including The Times.  Under normal circumstances the case would have been brought before a jury, but for political reasons it was determined that a jury would be incapable of judging al the intricacies of such a case.  On 23rd February 1804 the matter was adjourned until someone could be appointed to investigate and produce a report into the case.  This caused considerable upset at all levels and the newspapers were quick to suspect a cover-up.  In spite of all the scandal, it seems as though the report was never written or, if it was, the records have never been published.

Admiral Charles Middleton, Lord Barham.
By Isaac Pocock. National Maritime Museum.
In spite of the fact that the company of Randall and Brent were apparently never sued as Earl St Vincent had wanted, the impact on private contracts with the Navy Board was immediate.  Understandably concerned about the future repercussions of faults identified in, or claimed to exist in ships accepted into service by the Royal Navy, private contractors on the Thames insisted that once final payment was made they should be indemnified from any future action.  The onus would then be placed squarely on the Royal Navy to ensure that ships were built to specification and to their required standards, and if they accepted ships that later proved to be flawed this would not come back to haunt the ship builder.  This made Earl St Vincent, still smarting from the recent strikes and the difficulties of acquiring suitable wood to complete ship construction projects, even more determined to cut private shipyards out of the loop.  He rejected this attempt of shipbuilders to, as he saw it, indemnify themselves from the results of their own inferior workmanship.  His solution was to reorganize the Royal Dockyards so that private contracts could be avoided for all of the larger and most important and expensive ships of the line.  Only smaller ships were trusted to private shipyards, and only when necessary.  But things did not go quite as Earl St Vincent planned.  Although his reforms paved the way for future improvements, his successors in the Admiralty found that the nation was short of ships and it was forced to make new contracts with private yards, on their terms, at very inflated prices. St Vincent was replaced first by Lord Melville in 1804 and then by Lord Barham in 1805

Unfortunately for the private yards, their insistence on new binding contracts, their imposition of high prices and the impacts of the 1802 strike and timber embargo all led the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, to conclude that the Royal Navy was excessively dependent on private shipbuilders.  Like St Vincent he believed that the solution was the reorganization of the Royal Dockyards, but unlike St Vincent he was successful and succeeded in doubling their output between 1805 and 1813, significantly reducing the number of contracts given to private yards.

East India House in Leadenhall Street after its 1801
reconstruction. By Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1817
Adding to the agony of the Thames shipbuilders at this time, the Honourable East India Company had been torn in two by a dispute about freight charge during the late 1780s, and Thames shipbuilders took sides, refusing to build ships for one or other of the two factions.  John Randall himself had agreed to build a ship for one ship owner but then changed his mind because the contract would have broken faith with the older ship owners that Randall and Brent supported, a breach of verbal contract that did his reputation no good at all.  The eventual outcome of the ship builders involving themselves in the freight rate dispute was that commercial ship owners began to move their ship building activities away from the Thames, eventually transferring most of their ship building activities elsewhere, most notably to India where they established their own shipyards.  This was another blow for the Thames ship builders.

The eventual outcome of the Honourable East India Company's freight rate dispute, the Ajax scandal, and the 1802 strikes was the decline of ship building on the Thames.  There was a brief rise in demand when ships were needed in a hurry for the Crimean War, but the last to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe were the steam-powered Hind and Jackdaw in 1855.  Serious ship building in Rotherhithe only survived until 1870, when the gorgeous tea clipper Lothair, the last big sailing ship built in Rotherhithe, was launched.

In spite of all the repairs, HMS Ajax herself went on to have a reasonably successful but short career, itself ending in tragedy. She won awards at the Battle of Cape Finisterre and the Battle of Trafalgar, and saw service in a number of naval engagements, but on 14 February 1807 she burned and exploded, not in the line of duty, but due to a fire started in the bread room.  250 lives were lost.  There is a well referenced account of her vital statistics and her full history on Wikipedia

Sources used in this post:

Main source: Stuart Rankin.  Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - Greenland Dock and Barnard's Wharf.  Rotherhithe Local History Paper No. 3. 1997

Reverend Edward Beck. Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe 1907
James Earle. Commodore Squib:  The Life, Times and Secretive Wars of England's First Rocket Man, Sir William Congreve, 1772-1828. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2010
Brian Lavery. The Ship of the Line. Volume II:  Design, construction and fittings. Conway. 1984
Philip MacDougall. London and the Georgian Navy. The History Press 2013
Roger Morris. The Royal Dockyards during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Leicester University Press. 1983
Stuart Rankin. Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dock. Rotherhithe Local History Paper No. 2. 1996 
Rif Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817. Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing. 2005

Plan of HMS Ajax

Floating swimming pool in Greenland Dock - countdown to end of consultation period

Hi All

Just a reminder that the consultation period for the ill thought-out planning application 15/AP/1752 for a permanent floating heated and chlorinated swimming pool, measuring 40m x 20m (125 ft x 65 feet), at Surrey Docks Watersports Centre in Greenland Dock.  The operating hours of the pool are expected to be from 6am to 10pm.  This will place it immediately in the vicinity of the Rope Street apartments and opposite Tavistock Tower and the dock-facing houses and apartments of Russia Court East.

Depending on which of Southwark Council's information sources you consult, it's the 3rd, 4th or 7th of November so I'd recommend that if you wish to submit objections, you do so by the 3rd on the Southwark Council planning page for this application.  It is very important that if you have objections you make them now by leaving your comments on the Comments page at:

If allowed to go ahead it would be incredibly noisy with the sound of screaming kids carrying over the water.  Given the Dock's acoustics, the noise from the pool (and there will be a lot of noise) will be amplified and bounced around all houses surrounding the dock.  It is going to be terribly ugly too, an artificial appendage with ugly shower blocks completely out of keeping with the residential tranquillity of Greenland Dock and its heritage.  There are also potential problems with traffic and parking to add to those that will be caused by the new developments behind the watersports centre and the one planned for South Dock that will have blocks of 20, 15, 8 and 3 storeys.  There are much wider considerations too, some of which are described in a recent comment copied below:

This development conflicts with Policy 3.26 of the Southwark Plan (Borough Open Land):
(i)    The proposal is not ancillary to the use of the open space-it is a new use for the open space that would conflict with existing uses by closing off a section of water to all other users, as well as to wildlife.
(ii)    The proposal is not small in scale. A 40m x 20m development plus surrounds would have a major impact on the dock, on water users and visitors as well as residents.
(iii)    It will detract from the site's open nature and character. The design is unsympathetic to the Dock's current construction and will not "blend in".
(iv)    It is not required to enhance activities associated with Greenland Dock. In fact the development will if anything conflict with existing activities. There is no substantive information provided on the demand for this facility in the local area.
(v)    It does not positively contribute of the setting and quality of the open space. The application does not have sufficient detail to allow an informed view, but the pictures supplied suggest that the development will be visually intrusive.
The development is in our view also contrary to the following Southwark Plan

The development will add significantly to the noise impact on other users and local residents and for significantly longer periods in the day than the noise arising from current uses, contrary to Policy 3.2. There is no substantive information on proposed hours of use. Outdoor swimming pools are inevitably noisy. The surrounds of this development, being largely water and solid surfaces will amplify the noise levels unacceptably.

The development provides no assurance for the removal of the facility should it prove to be uneconomic to operate or become damaged beyond repair.  Ratepayers would then have to pay for its removal. The Council may find it very difficult to make a claim under the manufacturer's warranty unless it is fully involved in the development. The application has no information on pricing, volume estimates, capital and running costs to allow an informed assessment of the likely economics and consequent risk of closure.

It is also not possible from the information in the application to assess what the transport impacts might be and whether they would conflict with Policy 5.2.

The potential environmental impacts are significant should there be a leak of water- over the life of a facility of this type the risk of a leak must be substantial. The application has no environmental impact assessment to assess the risks systematically and to set out risk mitigations which could be the subject of planning conditions and associated enforcement measures.

There is no information on the need to store and use hazardous substances e.g. chlorine for water purification, contrary to Policy 3.10. The Dock's existing pontoons need to be scrubbed daily for bird droppings. There is no information on how the swimming pool would handle bird droppings.

There is no information on security arrangements to prevent unauthorised access to the pool when it is closed, contrary to Policy 3.14. The pool is likely to be a magnet for illicit users during the summer, with significant noise and nuisance for local residents. The current Watersports Centre security arrangements are unlikely to be sufficient.

There is no information on the energy consumption and grey water management of the development and how the methods chosen to heat the facility and recycle the water will minimise the environmental impact, contrary to Policies 3.4 and 3.9. Given the existence of a local indoor pool, there is no justification for any significant additional emissions or waste, directly or indirectly, from this development.

The development will not enhance the character or appearance of Greenland Dock, which is a historic environment, contrary to Policy 3.15

The planning details are:  15/AP/1752 -  Installation of a 40m by 20m floating, self supporting swimming pool in Greenland Dock. Greenland Dock, Watersports Centre, Rope Street, London, SE16 7SX.  The Case Officer is Dipesh Patel. Full documentation and other details are on Southwark Council's website at:

The documents for the case are at:

More on the future location of Canada Water’s leisure centre

A very timely email the excellent team at
Last week the vexed question of where a new leisure centre to replace Seven Islands should be located was the topic of a further lengthy session at Southwark’s overview & scrutiny committee.

Cllr Mark Williams (cabinet member for regeneration and new homes) and Jon Abbott (head of regeneration north) gave a presentation on the various options, including refurbishment or rebuilding on the Seven Islands site.

Watch it in full here in the website:

I have to admit to having been more than a little confused about the proposed location, so I'm going to grab a coffee and sit and watch it in all its glory. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

John Randall's 1797 HMS Acasta built at Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe

Model of HMS Acasta 1795. Photograph taken
in the Museum of London Docklands.
HMS Acasta was built in 1797 by John Randall at Nelson Dock in Rotherhithe (265 Rotherhithe St, London SE16 5HW).  Nelson Dock (at the time known as Cuckold's Point) is unique in being the sole surviving ship-builders' dry dock in Rotherhithe, preserved in the grounds of the Hilton Hotel. Randall was by no means the first tenant of the dock, which had been occupied since at least 1687.

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th Century Rotherhithe's river front was dotted with these small ship-shaped docks and their yards.  Some were used exclusively for private contracts, but the main form of income came from the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  Although first and second rate ships of the line were built in the Royal docks, third rate ships and below were farmed out to private ship builders to Royal Navy designs, sometimes under they eye of a Royal Navy surveyor.  The hull and its interior fittings were the job of the sub-contractor and ships were usually taken elsewhere to be fitted with masts and rigging and, at another location, with armaments.  Rotherhithe had a busy ship building industry and produced vessels of all sizes from the 17th Century onwards.  The first ship that I know of to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe was the fourth rate 1654 HMS Taunton.  The last ships to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe were the steam-powered gunboats HMS and HMS Jackdaw, both launched just over two centuries after Taunton in 1855.

John Randall was a big name in Thames ship-building, building almost exclusively for the Royal Navy.   Randall was based at Nelson Dock in different sections and in different partnerships between 1755 and 1803.  This long period of time is accounted for by the fact that there were two John Randalls, father and son, with the father retiring sometime around 1775.  John Randall Senior was trusted with many high profile ship builds, including a number of prototype designs.  John Randall, father and/or son, had yards at both Nelson Dock and Greenland Dock.  Although most ship building, like later dock work, was supplied by casual labour, the bigger ship builders would sometimes provide tied housing for their more important employees, and at some point the Randalls provided housing of this sort along the passageway now known as Randalls Rents. 

A view of Cuckold's Point, where Nelson Dock was
located.  By Samuel Scott, c. 1750-60
Business partnerships into which the Randalls entered included Randall, Grey and Brent and later Randall and Brent,  but at the time of Acasta's build the lease of Nelson Dock is listed simply under John Randall Esq, probably John Randall Senior's son.  Given that John Randall Senior is thought to have retired in around 1775, the Acasta contract must have been made with John Randall Junior.

In 1802, only five years after Acasta's launch, the Peace of Amiens provided a pause in the wars with France, and new ships were no longer required, causing shipyards to drop wages and shed employees.  This resulted in strikes and escalating violence.  Writing in 1907, Canon Edward Josselyn Beck tells a really tragic story of the younger John Randall, writing in his excellent book Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe (1907):
In his time, the shipwrights mutinied, and not only refused to work themselves, but laid violent hands on those who were sent to work in their place.  This worthy man entreated them to desist and return to their duties, but in vain.  And being himself struck by one of his workmen he retired from the scene and was so greatly distressed at the events he had witnessed that he throw himself out of his window and was killed by the fall." 
Randall had already had a thoroughly bad year by this time (the summer of 1802), his business being the centre of a scandal surrounding the build of HMS Ajax, which found Randall and Brent being taken to court (and which I'll cover on a future post).  It is certainly clear from the records provided by Stuart Rankin, taken from the Rotherhithe Poor and Parish Rate records, that Randall and Brent Esq and Company was ended in 1803, and Messrs Brent were now listed at Nelson Dock instead.

HMS Acasta was built for service in the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and later saw action in the Napoleonic Wars that followed immediately afterwards (1803-1815).  According to Rif Winfield, she was a 5th rate frigate fitted with 40 guns on two decks, built to the design of Sir William Rule.  She was the first frigate to have 30 main guns (18 pounders) on her upper deck.  She was launched on the 14th March 1797, having been fitted out in Deptford.  Her first captain was Richard Lane and her first long distance voyage was to Jamaica in 1798, where she immediately took several privateers.

Frigates had been in use in the Royal Navy since the mid 1600s.  The term was applied to a variety of designs but the role of the frigate was always the same - to move at speed, with sufficient fire-power to defend herself and cause problems for others, but not as well armed as much slower but larger warships.  They were classed as fifth or sixth rate ships, depending on the number of guns they carried.  Frigates were used as scouts for the main fleet, and in battle they would assist disabled ships and take command of captured ships.  She could also take on ships of comparative size and fire-power.  Independently, they were sent to foreign seas to capture pirates and foreign privateers in order to protect British commerce.  The 28-gun ships were phased out during the early 19th century - in 1794 there were 22 of them but by 1814 there were none remaining in service. 

HMS Acasta is in the foreground in this painting of the 1806
Battle of San Domingo. By Thomas Whitcombe, 1817,
National Maritime Museum.
Rather than going through the fine details of Acasta's past, I thought I would pull out some of the more interesting features of her career.  There is very little point providing a blow by blow history of the ship here here because she has been so thoroughly covered on the HMS Acasta page on Wikipedia, with plenty of references to The London Gazette, so readers are referred to that article for the details.  Details of Acasta's ship's crew are also available, together with her vital statistics and a year by year chronology of her activities and naval engagements on the HMS Acasta website:  However, there are some features of her career that merit further inspection.    

First, it is worth noting a recurring success story in her career that says a lot about maritime preoccupations during 18th Century naval wars.  Anyone who has read any of the Jack Aubrey books by Patrick O'Brian will be familiar with the concept of prize money.  It's a bit like banking bonuses today - ships' captains were encouraged to capture opposition ships so that the could be reprocessed, either used for parts (particularly their guns) or renamed and re-employed in the Royal Navy.  Privateers were a favourite target of Royal Navy ships. Privateers were ships authorized by governments to target naval vessels whilst not being naval ships themselves.  They were never employed in naval engagements but were highly effective as adjuncts to naval activities because their main role was to cause disruption.   Many naval and privateer ships carried valuable cargo, and this too featured in the reward system of prizes.  Prizes were split unequally between the crew members, and it was a significant motivation to sailors, many of whom had been pressed into service, to safely secure opposition ships rather than destroy them. Rewards could make crew members very wealthy.  Acasta is remarkable for the number of prizes that she won, described on the above Wiki page.  Well worth a read.

It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that she underwent surprisingly few refits.  All ships of the line that were engaged in active service went through a hard live.  Made of wood, powered by sail, and held together by rope rigging, they were highly vulnerable not only to fire-power but also to the weather and natural decay, as well as the effects of wood-consuming organisms in the sea itself.   However, in her 24 year career Acasta was apparently brought in for one major refit in Portsmouth, in 1802, which probably had more to do with the temporary peace afforded by the Peace of Amiens, which provided a brief pause in hostilities.  War broke out again in 1803.  HMS Acasta was then paid off in both 1811 and then 1815, and at both times her crew would have been paid, free to find other ships on which to work, and the ship would have been repaired and refitted for whatever future service awaited her. 

Acasta was broken up at Woolwich in 1821 after 24 years of service, which is not a bad life span for a wooden war ship of the period.

Plan of HMS Acasta on the HMS Acasta website.

E-book available online: The Peep Show of the Port of London by A.G. Linney c.1930

Stuart Rankin has been doing more hard work to provide digitized out-of-print books for a nominal fee online.  The latest is one of my absolute favourites.  It took me a while to track down a hard copy, and it is a wonderful and lyrical account of the Port of London in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including enthusiastic sections about Rotherhithe's Surrey Commercial Docks.  Linney was profoundly interested in both the working docks and the scenery around them, had a particular love for the Surrey Commercial Docks, which he calls simply "the Surrey," and his books are completely unique.  I wrote a review of it here, when I had just read it for the first time.

Here's what Stuart has to say on the subject:

The Peep Show of the Port of London by A.G Linney no date but c 1930. Sampson Low Marston & Co. Ltd.


The Peep Show of the Port of London by A.G Linney no date but c 1930. Sampson Low Marston & Co. Ltd.  Hardback book grey cloth binding, 9”x 6”, pp. 244, full page B&W frontispiece, 59 B&W half tone photos mainly by the author.  Many of the pictures are rather small but are nonetheless full of interest like the timber steamer at Surrey Entrance Lock,  Deal Porters at work and Acorn Pond.    

I have never seen a photo of Linney but from his style of writing I get a very clear mental picture. He is of medium height, dressed in a comfortable old tweed jacket and cap probably wearing trousers rather than plus two breeches and well-polished brown brogues. As he guides us around the Timber Ponds in the Surrey Commercial Docks, he strides out briskly swinging his ash-plant, this last possibly a relic of service in The Great War as an infantry officer. He is smoking a much-loved old briar pipe which is trailing whiffs of one of those faintly aromatic pipe tobaccos which seem to have gone off the market nowadays – possibly   “ Parson’s Pleasure”… There, that should put readers in the right frame of mind to enjoy this guided tour of the busy Port of London and the riverside communities between the wars.

Please do not let the rather twee title put you off – I think the publishers are the culprits here.

Linney has particularly good Chapters on Rotherhithe and the Surrey Docks contrasting the bustle and activity round Greenland and Canada Docks and the athletics of the Deal Porters at Russia and Albion, with the peace and quiet of the huge acreage of Timber Ponds with their rafts of baulks and logs kept wet to avoid becoming “shaken”. For over a century the water was held within earth embankments and the area was a kind of wild life reserve. At the time Linney was writing that was beginning to change with concrete replacing earth as the 20th century caught up with this peaceful haven, for which he seems to have had a particular affection.

However there were still a few visits by “Onkers” – battered old sailing vessels from  the Baltic probably only kept afloat by the buoyancy  of their timber deck cargo and the incessant windmill pumping water over the side, making the noise which gave them their name “onker-onker-onker”.

“Peep Show” has many odd facts and anecdotes which I have not seen elsewhere other than in some more recent publications which obviously got them from here. Highly recommended.

Here's the link to purchase your copy for £3.95 (a fraction of what I paid for a hard copy!):

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two SE16 Planning Applications announced in Southwark News today

I was really hoping to move away from planning issues over the next few weeks, but never mind!  There are two SE16 planning applications announced in Southwark News today the first of which will certainly be of interest to some residents. Both are categorized as "Major Planning Applications":

Ref 15/AP/4099 
Address: SURREY QUAYS LEISURE PARK, SURREY QUAYS ROAD, LONDON, SE16 1LL;jsessionid=6BDDAC2C126CB76028FB6D8BC8627E2C?action=firstPage
Application Received:  Thursday 08 Oct 2015 
Proposal:  Application for Reserved Matters for external appearance, landscaping and internal layout for Phase 1 comprising the construction of a basement and the construction of Block B (cinema) pursuant to condition 1 of planning permission 09-AP-1999 Outline planning permission for demolition of all existing buildings and erection of buildings ranging from 2 to 10 storeys (36.3m AOD) comprising 11,105 sqm leisure floorspace (including cinema) (Class D2), 2 695sqm retail floorspace (Class A1-A3), 49,276sqm of private and affordable residential accommodation (Class C3), 495 car parking spaces (142 for residential and 350 for leisure uses and 3 for commercial uses) and associated works including public and private open space, as well as detailed design for 123 rooms (4,240sqm) of student housing (sui generis use), 2500sqm commercial floorspace (Class B1), 86 residential units (included in the 49,276sqm referenced above) (Class C3) and the external appearance of any elevation facing Harmsworth Quays Printworks.
The documentation submitted for the application is here:
There are two related cases:
There are no comments from the public to date.  

Application Received: Friday 16 Oct 2015
Proposal: Variation of Condition 11 (wheelchair units) of planning permission 14-AP-0309 for: 'Redevelopment of the former Surrey Docks Stadium and land adjoining comprising demolition of existing buildings and erection of 103 residential dwellings (Use Class C3) in a series of buildings up to 4-storeys high, associated car parking and cycle parking, alterations to the existing vehicular access, enhancement to existing open space, associated landscaping, new pedestrian access/egress, and the creation of a new public park with associated works' to remove reference to the marketing of wheelchair adaptable units.
There are two associated documents here:
There are two related cases:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A painting of Lower Manor House (Rotherhithe) 1826, by George Yates

I haven't been able to find out anything much about this building, but it is a beauty by George Yates (now in the Southwark Library collection).  I must go back and label all the posts where I have used George Yates paintings.  He painted extensively in the Rotherhithe area, and I have been unable to find out anything about him either, so there are two minor enigmas in this post:  both the painter and his subject matter. 

According to the Portcities website, the Lower Manor House stood very near the corner of Rotherhithe New Road with Lower Road, also near today's Rotherhithe Old Road.  This is now the notorious one-way system, and one of the most congested parts of Rotherhithe, but it was very rural when Yates painted the house in 1826, and very isolated.  Its nearest neighbour was a windmill.  Later, it would have been located near to the St Helena's Gardens and Tavern.  The 1843 B.R. Davies Map shows a possible candidate for Lower Manor House, and at that time the entire area was still very rural with market gardens and orchards.  The house was still standing by the mid to late 1860s, but there is no sign of what happened to it at that point.  Looking at the 1868 Ordnance Survey map of the area, which doesn't record a building of this shape in this sort of garden space, I suspect that it was demolished for low cost housing, which was swarming through the area at that time and eventually consumed the well known St Helena's Gardens (which was still open in 1868, but was right on the edge of the new housing developments, and was completely built over by 1914).   

If anyone has any information about this building, and who owned it, please let me know.  It would be great to know more about George Yates too.  If anyone has any information, my email address is in the header at the top of the blog.

The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe - Happy 300th Birthday!

St Mary's Rotherhithe in
September 2015
It is always difficult to know how to provide value on a post like this, because the church has been so thoroughly covered elsewhere (for example Stephen Humphrey's book The Story of Rotherhithe and the St Mary Rotherhithe website).  But it is impossible to maintain a blog that centres so firmly on Rotherhithe's past without talking about the church, because St Mary's Rotherhithe, maintaining a thriving congregation even today, has been central to the Rotherhithe village community for 300 years.  2015 is its tercentenary, a very special anniversary for a very special church.  So here's a short history of the church, and to celebrate its role in the community I have added special references to the maritime and river world that the church served, setting it in the context of its changing local social and economic background and highlighting one or two individuals of note who were connected with St Mary's.

I have added a list of the main sources of information for this post at the end, with my thanks.  Unless otherwise stated, all the hyperlinks in this piece link to earlier posts on this blog, which contain more relevant information.  Unless otherwise stated, photographs by Andie Byrnes.

St Mary's Rotherhithe is a Grade II* Listed Building located in the heart of Rotherhithe village, the oldest settlement area of Rotherhithe peninsula, and arguably the most attractive.  Referred to locally as St Mary's Rotherhithe, the full name of the church is St Mary the Virgin.  The church sits on St Marychurch Street today, but this name was only given to the road in 1892, before which it was Church Street, and before that Church Lane.  There has been a church here since the 12th Century.   Like all churches, its external architecture has not remained static, and its interior has undergone substantial changes.  It has been added to and altered many times, a product of the changes in the community that surrounds it and different needs at different periods of its history. It is located next to one of Rotherhithe's oldest buildings, an 18th Century house that became a school in 1742 but was probably built in the early 1700s.  These two lovely 18th Century buildings are surrounded by 19th Century buildings of all sizes and job descriptions.  The church's former overflow churchyard is now a small park, but the churchyard immediately surrounding St Mary's is partly preserved. 

St Mary's in 1623, by Samuel Palmer.  Taken from "The Story of
Rotherhithe" by Stephen Humphrey (1997, p.9)
Rumour has it that the first church was built on the remains of a much earlier structure, and included Roman building material.  A church was certainly here during the reign of Edward I the late 13th Century, when it was under the jurisdiction of Bermondsey Abbey, and parish records for the church date back to the 1500s.  Between 1537 and 1562 its rector, John Fayrwall, apparently managed to maintain his role at the church during the Reformation.  There is only one image that exists of the church that pre-dated the 1714-15 rebuild, and this was clearly a church that had itself been modified many times during its lifetime.  Drawn by Samuel Parsons and dating to 1623, it shows a nave with two tiers of windows, a northern porch, and a small eastern chancel. Buttress set-offs are shown all around the building. The 15th century tower at the west had a crenelated parapet, and a short needle spire.   A splendid monument to Captain Anthony Wood, who died in 1625, was moved into the 1715 church and tells something of the early 17th Century shipping character of Rotherhithe.  It shows a ship in full sail, in high relief, with a commemorative text beneath it - see the photograph below. Although the church underwent repair in 1687 it was in very poor condition.

The memorial to Captain Anthony Wood
During the 17th Century Rotherhithe's marshy and stream-incised interior was not suitable for habitation and could be used for little more than pasture.  All the activity in Rotherhithe at that time took place along the edges of the Thames.  The riverside was beginning develop east from central London, and Rotherhithe already had a ship building industry at this time.  The earliest known ship to be built in Rotherhithe was the 1654 HMS Taunton, commissioned by the Royal Navy for use in the First Dutch War.  The maritime wars of the 17th and early 18th centuries were the source of a considerable amount of income for private ship builders and repairers, and the river Thames was, of course, a vital artery for trade throughout the 17th century.  The residents of Rotherhithe at this time would all have been involved in trades involving the river and the sea, both commercial and military.  It was also a period of religious diversity.  From the same era as the above-mentioned monument to Captain Anthony Wood, a group of post-Reformation religious dissenters known as the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in the Mayflower from the Thames at Rotherhithe in 1621, and the captain and part-owner of their ship, Captain Christopher Jones, was a local man.   He died on the 5th March in 1622, in his early 50s, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's in Rotherhithe.  During the 1705 flood and the 1714-15 reconstruction of the church many of the old churchyard monuments and memorials were lost, and the exact location of the burial of Christopher Jones is no longer known.  There is modern monument to him in the churchyard of St Mary's, depicting St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, holding a small child.  It was unveiled in 1995, to mark the 375th anniversary of the voyage.  Two other Rotherhithe residents, John Moore and John Clarke, were included in the crew.  John Clarke was the First Mate of the Mayflower.  He was baptized at St Mary in 1575, so he was almost certainly born in Rotherhithe, and he died in 1622.  Clarke Island in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, is named after him.

Another contemporary of the old church was Peter Hills, whose legacy founded the charity school for the children of impoverished seamen in the immediate vicinity of St Mary's.  Peter Hills died on 26th February 1614, a century before the new St Mary's was built in 1714-15.  Fortunately, some of the memorials were taken from the old church and installed in the new one, and the Reverend Beck, writing in 1907, tells how the three portions of a monumental brass dedicated to Peter Hills and embedded into the floor of the old church were taken into the new church and, because they were so badly eroded, were mounted on wood and hung on the wall.  The brass includes a portrait of Peter Hills and both wives and the inscription reads:

Here lies buried the body of Peter Hill, Mariner, one of the eldest Brothers and Assistants of the Company of the Trinity, and his two wives; who while hee lived in this place, gave liberally to the poore, and spent bountifully in his house;  and after many great troubles, being of the age of 80 yeeres and upward departed this life without issue, upon the 26 February, 1614.  

This was made at the charge of Robert Bell.

Though Hills be dead,
Hills' Will and Act survives
His Free-Schoole, and
his Pension for the Poore;
Thought on by him,
Performed by his Heire,
For eight poore Sea-mens
Children, and no more

Photographs of the Peter Hills brass and the subscription board mentioned above can be see on the St Mary's Rotherhithe website at

The Blome Map of 1673 showing the spread of
industry and habitation along the Rotherhithe riverside
By the late 17th Century the medieval church had fallen into serious disrepair, partly due to repeated flood damage throughout the decades that had not only destroyed furnishings but had seriously undermined the structural foundations. The river had been recorded breaking its banks in Rotherhithe throughout St Mary's long history, and in 1705 it did so again, flooding both the church and the graveyard.  The churchyard had housed a bone house, but this and the bones it contained were destroyed by the floods, and the site was unconsecrated so was not used for burials.

A church was vital to the community, its natural core, so plans were made to replace the existing church with a new one.  There was great hope in the local community that they would be able to benefit from the Fifty Churches Act, a government-inspired initiative to create more places of worship in London, funded by a tax on coal.  The argument outlined in the petition put forward by Rotherhithe residents was persuasive.  They attempted to convince the Commission that the community's multiple roles in bringing the coal that was being levied for the building programmes should qualify them for the a new church "being chiefly seamen and Watermen who venture their lives in fetching those coals from Newcastle which pay for the Rebuilding of the Churches in London and the Parts adjacent."  However, the bid for this funding was unsuccessful and the community had to pull together to raise the funds for the new church themselves.  Funding came from both voluntary contributions and the money that was charged for burials.  By 1714 they had raised £4000 (which the National Archives Currency Converter estimates at £306,360.00 in today's money), which was sufficient to purchase  a 1000 people capacity church, although financial difficulties were ongoing for many years afterwards and they had to defer plans to build a new tower.  The architect John James was appointed and it was he who established the essential ingredients of the architecture that we see today.  

St Mary's Rotherhithe in the with its 1747 tower, with ships in the
background and a rather untidy churchyard in the foreground.
From Beck 1907.
John James is generally considered to have been a competent but unremarkable architect. Although he built several residential and commercial buildings, and submitted a design for Westminster Bridge, his main income was derived from work on churches. He had worked for Sir Christopher Wren during the construction of St Paul's Cathedral, collaborated with Nicholas Hawksmoor on the construction of two London churches, one of which was in Southwark and, somewhat ironically, served as a surveyor for the Commissioners for the Building of Fifty New Churches.   Many of his churches featured tall arched windows, similar to those at St Mary's Rotherhithe.  John James is best known for the church of St. George's Hanover Square, London, a very different architectural conception from that of St Mary's. 

One of the more attractive of
the gravestones in the churchyard
In many ways the 1714-15 church of St Mary's Rotherhithe is a typical 18th Century building, with its simple rectangular plan, its clean lines and its distinctive arched and segmental-headed windows arranged over two tiers.  It is reminiscent of the style of Sir Christopher Wren, whose influence on post Great Fire London can be seen in many buildings in which he himself did not have a direct hand. John James built the church mainly in yellow brick, which was attractive and cost effective (and was used to build much of Rotherhithe's buildings) with decorative red brick used as dressing around windows and doors, only using the much more expensive stone elements for quoins (corner stones), window trim and other special features. The structure consisted of a nave flanked by internal aisles, a vestry and a sanctuary, but no chancel.  James retained the 15th Century tower as shown in the Samuel Parsons illustration above, the remains of which can be seen in the vaults today.  The church was provided with a burial ground, which surrounded it.  Some of the gravestones and tombs are still dotted around, but others have been removed.

The skills of local ship builders were employed in the construction of the interior fittings for the church, and the four internal Ionic columns were made of oak ships' masts, which were then plastered and painted white. Originally the interior contained galleries, box pews and an elaborate three-tiered pulpit.  The ceiling was provided with a central barrel vault. Although the carvings have been ascribed to Grinling Gibbons in the past, it is more likely that Joseph Wade may have been responsible for many of the more elaborate wooden carvings in the church, as well as the original reredos.  A monument to Joseph Wade is still hanging in the church, reading "King's Carver in his Majesty's yards at Deptford and Woolwich," which was erected on the south wall after his death in 1743.  See the British Listed Buildings website for the full technical description of the church.

The interior of St Mary's, showing two of the
Ionic pillars that were formed by masts
covered with a thin layer of plaster, and
mounted on pedestals.
18th Century Rotherhithe was increasingly busy and its increasingly industrial fate was partly determined by the building of the Howland Great Wet Dock in east Rotherhithe in the early 1700s.  It was probably the largest dock in Europe at the time (about half the size of  Greenland Dock, which is built on top of the site), and attracted ship repair yards as well as new ship building docks.  Between maritime commerce, the Royal Navy and the Great Dock, 18th Century Rotherhithe became an important base for people employed in maritime roles, from the lowliest rope-makers to the most prestigious ship builders. In the 1720s Mayflower Street was an elegant road of wonderful sea captain's homes.  Tragically, these are long gone.  At the other end of the social scale were less salubrious properties.  In 1722 Daniel Defoe encountered Redriff in his tour through Great Britain:  "We see several villages, formerly standing, as it were, in the country, and at a great distance, now joined to the streets by continued buildings, and more making haste to meet in the manner; for example, Deptford, this town that was formerly reckoned, at least two miles off from Redriff, and that over the marshes too, a place unlikely ever to be inhabited; and yet now, by the increase of buildings in that down itself, and the many streets erected at Redriff, and by the docks and building-yards on the riverside, which stand between both, the town of Deptford, and the streets of Redriff, or Rotherhithe (as they write it) are effectually joined." As Defoe describes, the interior of Rotherhithe was still quite marshy, and poorly drained, but a series of market gardens grew up, and the land became a mosaic of small plots turned over to all manner of horticulture.  Industry, river commerce and housing were all still concentrated around the edges of the land, along the Thames foreshore where every form of industry and commercial activity associated with the river took place, the most prestigious of which was ship building.  The most illustrious of the ship building enterprises were engaged in work for the Royal Navy and the Honourable East India Company. The best known of the Rotherhithe shipyards was Nelson Dock, now part of the Hilton Hotel complex. The adjacent Nelson House, which stands today and is quite lovely, was the ship builders house, and was built in the 1730s.  By the end of the 1700s Rotherhithe was beginning to develop along far more elaborate lines, with many more homes, commercial enterprises and docks.

In 1730 an administrative change led to a strong link between St Mary's Rotherhithe and Clare College, Cambridge.  Clare College purchased the advowson of the church, which meant that they now had the right to appoint new rectors to the church.  Advowsons usually belonged to Manors, enabling the local Lord of the Manor to influence the rector and the church's role in the parish, but they could be bought and sold, and the benefit to them for Clare was that it allowed them to place their own Anglican clergy beneficially, securing a position for the individual and allowing Clare to influence policy.  The first to be appointed was Thomas Curling in 1734.

The Barrow Memorial
The 16th Century church tower did not survive the 18th century and the decision was made to replace the current tower and steeple in the 1730s, but this was not completed until 1747.  The job of building the new three-storey new tower was given to the improbably-named architect Lancelot Dowbiggin.  It was probably built to the original designs provided by John James, which could not be completed at that time due to funding problems.  The tower was completely consistent with the rest of the building, in yellow and red brick with stone facing and arched windows. Its parapet at the top of the tower features a modillion cornice. The tower was furnished with clocks on three faces, a steeple (composed of a louvred belfry with Corinthian columns, a lantern and small spire).  The new tower is shown above as it appeared in the late 1700s, and of course survives today.

The organ was created by John Byfield Senior in 1764-5, and although it has been restored some of the original pipes and its original case survives, decorated with musical instruments and trumpet-playing angels. The first organist was Michael Topping who was paid £30.00 per year for his services.  Years ago I stumbled across a vinyl L.P. of music recorded on the St Mary's organ and it has a beautiful resonance.  A decade later in 1775 another memorial was added.  Captain Thomas Barrow dedicated the memorial to his wife Elizabeth who died at the age of 62.  His own name was added to the memorial in 1789 when he himself died at the age of 72.  The monument is an impressive one, with a coat of arms over the dedication and various funerary symbols surrounding it.  The urn is a common funerary device on tombstones and mausoleums.  There's a short but interesting article on the Hand Eye Foot Brain blog about the contested origins of that motif.

St Mary's Rotherhithe and Rotherhithe village
in 1799 (the Horwood Map, copyright
It was only at the very end of the 1700s that ambitious plans for the development of new docks in Rotherhithe were made. In 1796 the surveyor Charles Cracklow proposed a new dock system, and William Vaughan, Director of Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation (founded in 1720) and spokesman for the West India Merchants, identified Rotherhithe, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs as suitable riverside sites for potential expansion of dockland areas. The new docks were proposed in order to meet the challenge of London's ambitions to become a global centre for trade. The following dockland developments were staggering, with architects and engineers hired to plan and build new docks in the late 1700s, many of which opened in the first years of the 1800s.  Inland Rotherhithe in 1801 was rural, a series of marshes, streams and fields.  However, the Thames banks were lined with shipyards where ships, barges and lighters were built and repaired.  Rotherhithe's most prominent ship builders were producing vast wooden vessels for the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  The only incursion inland was Greenland Dock which had been established on the east side of Rotherhithe in 1699.  However in 1801 plans were rolled out to build the Grand Surrey Canal, and in 1807 this opened and reached to the Old Kent Road before being extended later to Camberwell and Peckham.  The map of 1811 shows it as a conventional canal passing from Surrey Basin across a nearly empty Rotherhithe, but a 1843 map shows the extent to which the canal had been widened at this time, being renamed the Inner Dock, whilst the basin was the Outer Dock in order to compete with the other docks that were being built within the interior of Rotherhithe.  The canal was never a commercial success, being used mainly to carry the produce of the market gardens rather than more lucrative cargoes that its builders had foreseen, so expanding its margins to incorporate docks was a good way of generating additional income.  The canal's Rotherhithe section became an integral part of the network of docks that were constructed throughout the interior of Rotherhithe.  The docks changed the face of Rotherhithe forever, expanding London's ability to handle maritime commerce, attracting many more workers to the area and leading to the construction of a lot more housing.  By the late 19th Century Rotherhithe continued to be an important centre of ship building, for the construction of lighters, sailing barges, naval ships, fabulous tea clippers and even steam ships.  Prestigious ship builders and ship owners lived here, as well as wealthy ships captains and officers of the Honourable East India Company, but the ever increasing influx of dock workers meant that considerable new building was required, and many new blocks of terraced housing grew up along the river to house dockers and their families.

The Prince Lee Boo memorial in St Mary's
Many of the church's monuments reflect some of the more adventurous and overtly commercial aspects of the Victorian age, particularly memorials to various ship owners and captains and local dignitaries.  Most exceptionally, the church  contains a monument to Prince Lee Boo.  One of the local stories associated with the increase in British maritime trade concerns Rotherhithe resident Captain Henry Wilson and his return to Britain with the son of a Beleau Island chief.   Captain Wilson lived on Paradise Street (now part of Jamaica Road) and commanded the Antelope for the Honourable East India Company. When the ship was near the Pelew (now Belau) Islands in 1783 it was wrecked, badly damaged and was forced to beach on the island of Coo-Raa-Raa. The native inhabitants of the island were able to communicate with the sailors because one of the tribesmen and one of Wilson's servants both spoke Malay. The presence of the ship's dog seems to have helped bridge the two cultures - it was a Newfoundland named Sailor and the islanders had never seen a dog before. The two groups worked together to build a new ship, and when it was time to depart Abba Thule, the tribe's king (or rupack - which is the origin of the 1912 name Rupack Street), asked Wilson to take his son to England so that he could receive an English education. Sadly, Prince Lee Boo was only twenty years old when he died from smallpox in 1784, a mere six months after his arrival in England.  The memorial is almost almost illegible in my photograph but reads:

"In the adjacent churchyard lies the body of Prince Lee Boo son of Abba Thulle, Rupack or King of the island Coorooraa, one of the Palew or Palos Islands who departed this life at the house of Henry Wilson in Paradise Row in this parish on the 27th Day of December 1784 aged 20 years.  The tablet is erected by the Secretary of State for India in Council to keep alive the memory of the humane treatment shewn by the natives to the crew of the Honourable East India Company's ship "Antelope" which was wrecked of the island of Coorooraa on the 9th of August 1783.  the barbarous people showed us no little kindness."

Richard Horwood's 1799 map of Rotherhithe shows the church in its own churchyard, with a long thin burial ground to the south, on the opposite side of the road.  To the south and west were dozens of houses with gardens and yards, backing on to each other, as well as a small row backing on to the churchyard to the north.  There are few indicators of what some of these houses must have looked like, but the Peter Hills Charity School, which had been a home before it became a school, provides an idea.  Slightly later in 1814, William Gaitskell House is another example of the type of residential housing that has been destroyed.  Most of Rotherhithe is shown as marshy fields, and a section to the south west of the church, immediately to the south of today's Paradise Street and west of Lower Road is marked as Calanders Gardens, which were apparently the first of the market gardens that slightly enveloped the more cultivable areas of Rotherhithe.

The 1821 Watch-house
In 1821 a tiny watch-house was added to the edge of the churchyard, partly to provide the area with a much-needed police presence and partly to watch over and prevent body-snatching from the cemetery.  Body snatching was quite a lucrative trade.  Anatomists at Guys Hospital were very much on the look out for unclaimed bodies to dissect and analyse and grave robbing became a serious problem.  More about this on an earlier post.

Memorials continued to be erected in the church.  One commemorates Henry Meriton, a senior officer in the Honourable East India Company and participant in the Napoleonic wars who died in 1826.  An even more direct connection with the seas is represented by the altar table and two chairs, which were made from timbers that were salvaged from the famous and much-loved ship HMS Temeraire and are still housed in the church today.  In 1838 HMS Temeraire was broken up at the nearby Beatson Yard.  Temeraire, which had served at Trafalgar, was later made famous by J.M.W. Turner, who painted a somewhat fanciful version of her final trip upriver to the Beatson yard.  He had been visiting his mistress in Margate and on his trip home back into London on the Margate steamer saw the ship being towed in.  Breaking ships was a lucrative business, due to the ongoing value of the oak that was used to build them, and the various fixtures and fittings that could be resold or recycled.  Even old rope could be recycled, a task that had frequently been carried out in workhouses throughout the centuries (hence the phrase "money for old rope").  There is more about Temeraire and the Beatson yard on an earlier post.

Chairs made from timber from HMS Temeraire

The memorial to Reverend
Edward Blick in the churchyard
In 1835 Clare College nominated the Reverend Edward Blick as Rector of St Mary's.  This was a significant appointment, because Blick was a real activist on behalf of the community.  The Church of England had a lot on its hands in urban areas with the expansion of industry and the influx of people into towns where they came from rural areas to find work. As commerce and industry expanded, so did populations, and as well as new opportunities there were real social problems, including poverty, lack of education, and, from the Church's point of view, poor access to religious institutions and guidance.  Blick was one of the new generation of clerics who believed that the Church should be active in supporting the community in all these areas of concern.  Until 1838, three years after Blick was appointed, St Mary's was the only Anglican place of worship in Rotherhithe. Blick's main achievements were the establishment new Rotherhithe churches, and the opening of ten new schoolrooms.   Blick held the position until 1867.  The rather strangely located monument near to the tower of the church was erected in his honour.

The spire of St Mary's was rebuilt in 1861. The interior has changed considerably since 1714, mainly because of a major remodelling by Gothic revival architect William Butterfield. Between 1873 and 1889 Butterfield removed the galleries, lowered the pulpit from three tiers to one, added wrought iron rails to enclose the chancel, made space for a choir and added new stained glass windows.  He gave the interior a bright face-lift, quite contrary to post-reformation minimalism, and the altar was given a backdrop that is more than a little reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite ideas in its enthusiasm for gold and vivid colours.

Part of the churchyard was sold to the Thames Steam Ferry Company. Although Reverend Beck mentions it in his book (see below) he doesn't give any idea of when the sale was made.  However, a Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe in 1877 shown on the Wellcome Library website mentions it and gives the following account:

The Thames Steam Ferry adjoining Church Stairs, Rotherhithe, was formally opened by the Lord Mayor, of London, on the 31st day of October, 1877, on which occasion, the vestry caused a suitable address to be prepared and the same was presented to his lordship at the opening ceremony by Mr. Churchwarden Foottit on behalf of the vestry, the vestrymen and officers being in attendance, after which the Lord Mayor in his couch accompanied by the Vestrymen and Officers, was conducted across the Thames upon the company's ferry boat. 

Beck says that the land sold to enable its construction was at the northeast corner where the bone house had once been, and that the land was unconsecrated.  Given that it was a steam company it has to have been sometime in the 19th century, so I have plonked it in the middle.  Beck says that the Thames Steam Ferry Company used the land to widen the road and improve access to the wharf from which the ferry departed.  The venture was a failure, as this passage by Beck describes:

The expectations upon which it was founded proved delusive; the fine two ferry-boats with elaborate hydraulic machinery for the passage of vans and cars at all times of the tide failed to tempt the timber-merchants and contractors to shorten by nearly two miles the journey to London Bridge, and, like many other improvements born before their time, the Ferry did but herald the magnificent enterprise of Tower Bridge, with its bascules."

Reverend Edward Josselyn Beck
In 1913 the tower again caused problems and had to be underpinned. It was paid for by Hubert Car-Gomm in memory of his mother Emily.  The Carr-Gomms were the Lords of the Manor of Rotherhithe, a title that dated from Norman times and was related to property ownership and the rights of the incumbent within the local manor.  The Carr-Gomms were notable community benefactors.  Hubert became the Liberal M.P. for Rotherhithe in 1906, a more modern form of community service.  There are lots of photographs of the interior on the St Mary Rotherhithe's website on the Church Interior page.

In 1867 Reverend Edward Josselyn Beck succeeded Blick and held the position until 1907, another Clare College Fellow.  Beck's many contributions to the community included a history of the parish of St Mary's Rotherhithe (published in 1907).  Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary, Rotherhithe shows just how important the pedigrees of the incoming rectors were to the status of the church.   The photograph to the left was taken from his book.  Memorials also records some of the more influential local families of the time, painting a really evocative portrait of how Rotherhithe was put together and what sort of activities were carried out in the area.  It also, of course, emphasises the role of the St Mary's in community life.  As Rotherhithe developed and expanded throughout the 19th Century the clerics of St Mary's were responsible for extending community support, welfare projects and ensuring children's education in the further reaches of Rotherhithe as residential areas.  Beck himself was responsible for the establishment of several new parish churches but bemoaned the fate of St Mary's at that time in a rather sad section of the book:

We do not forget that the present congregation is far less able to contribute than those who were the resident parishioners in 1867; and the other churches which now quite naturally draw the church people who live in Union Road, in the Lower Road, in Plough Road, and in the streets on the other side of Southwark Park, where there were then market gardens and rope grounds, have left the old mother church almost derelict, surrounded no longer by streets of houses, by wharves, mills, granaries and high buildings, with scarcely an inhabited house near it, like a stranded hulk left high and dry on the shore.

The fate of old city churches is in some respect a sad one.  They possess the furniture and fittings and alter plate of a by-gone age, by their congregations have migrated to other homes, and St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, if not quite so forlorn as St Nicholas', Deptford is yet out of the main stream of life to-day;  On week-days it is shaken by the vibrations of an endless procession of timber vans and other heavy traffic;  but on Sundays the neighbourhood is quiet that you might think St Marychurch Street and Rotherhithe Street a deserted thoroughfare."

The Old Mortuary of 1895.
Photograph copyright Time and Talents
One of his more grizzly roles was overseeing the establishment of the mortuary, built in 1895.  The mortuary was located on the far side of the extended churchyard, which now serves as a small public park situated between the mortuary and the 1821 watch-house.  The mortuary will be described on a future post, but was built to handle the dead that the River Police pulled out of the Thames. Now known as the Old Mortuary it is occupied by the Time and Talents charity.

With the demise of the ship building industry at the end of the 19th Century, Rotherhithe became a world of docks and dockers, fulfilling a destiny that began in 1699 with the Howland Great Wet Dock.  This was a far less differentiated world than that of the ship-builders and their workers, but one that needed more help than it ever had done before.   Churches, charities and individual benefactors helped to raise the standards of daily life, but throughout the centuries up until the end of the ship building industries it was clearly a real hotch-potch of diverse livelihoods, lifestyles and standards of living, a mixture of rich and poor. 

Other churches and chapels have come and gone, and only a few have remained.  Partly through the efforts of St Mary's vicar Reverend Blick in the late 1800s other chapels and churches were established to serve other parts of Rotherhithe as new housing was built.  These included All Saints on Lower Road (1839, destroyed in the early 1950s) , St Barnabas on Plough Way (1872, destroyed in the 1960s) , St Paul's Chapel (1850, destroyed 1955) on Ram Alley (later Beatson Street), Trinity Church in Dowtown, on the corner of Salter Road and Rotherhithe Street (1937, destroyed in 1940 and replaced in 1952), and various others.  More recently other churches have been added including the Catholic church of St Peter and the Guardian Angels in Paradise Street (1903), St Olav's Norwegian church (1927), built where the entrance to Rotherhithe Tunnel now stands, and the Finnish Church on Albion Street (1958) on Albion Street.  However, St Mary's continues to be the oldest and most prestigious of the area's churches.

St Mary's Rotherhithe, September 2015
Today St Mary's Rotherhithe has a lively congregation and sits in a thriving residential area, which would have staggered its 19th Century population.  It is in good condition, has the relative security of a 2* listing, and is clearly much loved.  The children's playground is ugly, but the churchyard is well cared for with original tomb stones, mature trees and flower gardens.  The former extended churchyard is now an attractive park with a rose garden at its centre.  The church and its land are in good company with the contemporary early 18th Century Charity School.  Surrounded by imposing but attractive 19th Century warehouses,  it is an oasis in a place characterized by many social and economic transformations.  The Reverends Blick and Beck might have been astonished at the metamorphosis from commercial and industrial to residential use, but I think that they might have been happy.

To end on a note of complete trivia, there's a lovely story from 1717 reported in Edward Walford's History of Rotherhithe (1872-78) from the Weekly Packet, dated 21-28th December 1717: "Last week, near the new church at Rotherhithe, a stone coffin of prodigious size was taken out of the ground, and in it the skeleton of a man ten feet long" but, as Walford adds, "this we do not expect our readers to accept as literally true" (p.137). Walford doesn't say why they were removing the coffin from the ground, so that will have to stay a mystery.

Visitors to the area will find that the church is closed during the week, although a side entrance is usually open to allow access to a vestibule which has a glass screen from where it is possible to get a sense of some of the church's interior features.  The church is open for Sunday services and Eucharists during the week. It is usually possible to enter the church after the Sunday service without disturbing worshippers after the service when the congregation has departed.  St Mary's receives enquiries from people who are researching their family history. Although the church does not have copies of historic Parish Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, but these can be found at the Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, London, and many are available on that website.

The Byfield organ of 1764, also showing
part of the lovely ceiling. Photograph
by Jim Linwood. sourced from Flickr.

  • St Mary's Rotherhithe Church website See the site for many more photographs
  • Stephen Humphrey The Story of Rotherhithe. London Borough of Southwark Neighbourhood History No.6 1997
  • Reverend E.J. Beck.  Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary, Rotherhithe.  Cambridge At the University Press 1907.  This edition by Bibliobazaar.
  • Anon.  A Short Account of the Churches, Schools and Charities in the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe.  British Library. Date uncertain - mid to late 1800s.
  • Mervyn Blatch. A Guide to London's Churches. Constable and Company Ltd 1978 
  • Elizabeth Williamson and Nikolaus Pevsner. London Docklands. An Architectural Guide. Penguin Books 1998
  • British Listed Buildings website entry for St Mary's Rotherhithe:
  • Edward Walford. History of Rotherhithe. 1872-78

Rotherhithe in 1914, fully developed with docks,
houses and foreshore businesses.  The location of
St Mary Rotherhithe is shown with the red box.

The south side of the church

St Mary's Rotherhithe in October 2015, with the more modern
extension added on its northern side built in the
style of the original building.

The former extended churchyard as it is today, with the spire
of the church visible at top right