Wednesday, October 21, 2015

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

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