Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Dockland Memory In Rotherhithe" - A video of historic Rotherhithe by Shintaro Kurihara

A must-see video on You Tube by Shintaro Kurihara for anyone interested in Rotherhithe's past. 

As usual, I found it today whilst looking for something else entirely.  This video, entitled "Dockland Memory in Rotherhithe," beautifully juxtaposes still black and white photographs from Rotherhithe Picture Library with video footage shot by the photographer today. 

Take a video walk around Rotherhithe and see past and present side by side.

A history of the Rotherhithe Workhouse on Lower Road - 1728-1884

The Rotherhithe Workhouse in 1820. By George Yates.

Workhouses were, crudely, buildings owned and administered by the state, in which impoverished people lived and for whom work was provided in return for their keep.  They are an 18th and early 19th Century phenomenon but they had been a long time coming.  The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor put the care of the poor firmly into the hands of parishes, who funded their poor relief by imposing a poor-rate tax on property owners.  In its earliest phases the sort of assistance that the poor could expect was usually in the form of hand-outs of essentials like food, clothing and fuel with which to cook and heat their homes.  However, the concept of the workhouse gradually began to evolve as a means of improving efficiencies both in terms of cost and the administration of relief.  Intentions were good, and these early forms of workhouse were successful.

Darton's 1817 map shows the location of the
workhouse (highlighted here in red).
These institutions were formalized with a 1723 act that gave parishes the freedom to deny the poor any form of relief unless they moved into the workhouse, where they were given shelter, clothing and food in return for labour.   Not all workhouses were purpose built, but there was a growing trend in that direction throughout the 18th Century.  Poor law unions were an outcome of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, and these were responsible for joining together parish management of the poor and creating big, purpose built workhouses to create economies and scale and centralize operations, the Poor Law Unions.  As well as dormitory accommodation and work rooms, they also included infirmary facilities.  These big 19th Century workhouses received bad publicity from a variety of sources, notably Charles Dickens, but although not all of them were the horror stories that the word conjours up, many clearly were.  They were run on a minimal budget. Conditions were basic, food  unappetising, beds arranged in large hospital style-large dormitories with men segregated from women, and all inmates had to wear uniforms. Workhouses were intended to deter potential residents. They were very much a last-ditch option for the poor and were often the dumping ground for orphans, the elderly, unmarried mothers and the mentally impaired. However, although they were organized along the lines of the prisons of the day, residents were free to leave at any time.

Rotherhithe workhouse was established in the 1720s and came under the St Mary Rotherhithe Parish, and its Vestry.  There are almost no images of the workhouse so I have supplemented this post with photographs and paintings from other London workhouses, as examples.

The workhouse is first mentioned in the Vestry Minutes on April 29th of 1722 when the proposal to establish a workhouse was put forward. Nothing was actioned at that time and it was only in 1728 when the proposal resulted in a workhouse on Deptford Lower Road (since 1888 simply Lower Road, opposite today's Neptune Street). 

An example of a work room in a London workhouse.
From Pyne and Combe's book (1810) "The Workhouse"
It is described in a remarkable book that describes numerous workhouses in the early 18th Century.  Assembled by the Society for Promoting Christian knowledge, a London group that supported and promoted workhouses, it described the Rotherhithe workhouse as follows:  "A Workhouse is lately set up here, near the Footway to Deptford, and though it is not yet finished, there are 8 Poor Men and Women, and 32 Boys and Girls put into it, under the Care of a Mistress; their chief Employment at present is the picking Ockam." Ockam, or more usually oakum, will be discussed below.

The Rotherhithe workhouse continued to remain under the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Parish, and its Vestry until 1836. From 1836-1869 the workhouse was placed into the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Board of Guardians.  Boards of Guardians were bodies who were responsible, by law (the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) for the management and administration of workhouses and related buildings. Those serving on a Board of Guardians were elected by the owners of the properties that were liable for the poor rate, a tax gathered by residents in order to provide provision for the disadvantaged. The board was elected annually.

This illustration from the Police Illustrated News gives
an idea of the light in which the workhouses were regarded
The Workhouses website ( reproduces an account from the 1865 edition of The Lancet, which describes the workhouse as follows at this time:  "The workhouse consists of three distinct blocks of building. The main block, which fronts the east, is 300 years old, and is now used for the "able-bodied" and for offices. The block which lies on the west was built in 1837, and is now occupied by the "old and infirm," and by the midwifery and nursery wards." The report mentions that the infirmary was often the victim of the high water table, but that drainage was generally good.  It also says that the handling of the infirm within the workhouse was less than ideal:  "The position and pay of the medical officer is a deplorable subject. He visits the house daily, and has about forty sick, besides the aged and infirm, under treatment; and attends about twelve midwifery cases yearly. For the whole of this duty, and for supplying and dispensing all the drugs, Mr. Firth receives £35 per annum! Any comment on these facts would be quite superfluous.  The mortality of the year 1864 was eighty-eight, and presents nothing remarkable; and there is no evidence of the outbreak of epidemic disease as far back as the records extend. This last circumstance is one for which the guardians are certainly not to be thanked." Sanitation was clearly appalling and the report takes the management severely to task on this as well. See the above page for the full report.

Weller's 1868 map of Rotherhithe,
showing the workhouse (in red)
sandwiched between Lower Road and
Southwark Park. Rotherhithe was
becoming increasingly busy.
Another bad report followed, this time from one of the workhouse's own employees. In the mid 1860s a nurse from the workhouse infirmary, one Matilda Beeton, wrote with such effect to the Poor Law Board that the master and matron of the workhouse were both dismissed following an investigation. Matilda Beeton worked as Head Nurse at the workhouse infirmary from 9 July 1864 and left 16 April 1865.  Here's the text of her letter (with thanks to the website for reproducing it):

"On the 9th of July 1864 I took office, as head nurse, in Rotherhithe Infirmary, where I had 50 patients sick and infirm; with this number I found I was really able to personally superintend the actual nursing, which is as much as one paid nurse can do with any satisfaction to herself or those by whom she is employed. For this number of patients I had four pauper nurses, all of whom were old and inexperienced; two could read but neither could write.

Of the four nurses allowed me three were all I could expect them to be; drunk only when they had the means or the chance of getting anything to drink; the fourth was a confirmed drunkard, so much so, that I was in constant fear of her doing bodily harm to the sick patients. She would beat them till they were black with bruises, more especially those who were unable to help themselves and friendless; and I found, by the patients, that they lived in fear of her, and only by giving her their beer, or other nourishment, could they feel themselves safe to ask for the most trifling thing to be done for them.

I complained to the matron and assistant master, and was told she had always done very well till I came there; they supposing she did not like a paid nurse over her. I must therefore do the best I could with her, as there was no one in the house she could put in her place.

Dinner at Marylebone workhouse
I then complained of the dirty state the patients were in, when the matron said I must get used to all that, as workhouses were not like hospitals.
When I had been there about four months, I had a pauper sent to the sick ward from some ward up at the workhouse. I understood this poor creature had been in the house for some time, she was an imbecile. This poor patient I believed sensitive to all her sufferings and yet she was the victim to the most cruel treatment from this inhuman pauper nurse.

This state of things went on till one morning I sent for the master to come to the infirmary. Immediately on his coming, I told him he must that moment remove the sick ward nurse, or I would go and bring in the guardians to see what could be done in the shape of finding me another nurse; the master, fearing I should do so, very reluctantly ordered what he thought a model nurse to the body of the house.

I do not think I am wrong in saying many a poor creature went to their home long before the time, by the hands of this inhuman nurse. It was my firm impression that when patients had got bad and troublesome she gave opium, put them on the left side, and so they passed out of this world as natural deaths.

Respecting things for the use of the patients, there was an insufficiency of everything throughout the whole infirmary.

As regards the sick diet, I considered on the whole it was insufficient; the mutton broth and beef tea were only mockery, the meat was more often than not one lump of fat, and nearly cold, so that a patient very ill could not eat it. Milk in the sick ward was never heard of till I asked the doctor to allow it with arrow-root; then the master made a great fuss about it. I had forgotten to say nightdresses were not allowed for the sick patients, with the exception of three or four of the union blue, made out of the skirts of worn out dresses. Patients were allowed to wear their own if they could pay for the washing; and I found they often had to sell their nourishment to do it.

On the whole, it did not seem to me that a pauper's life was regarded in any other light than the sooner they were dead the better.

I left Rotherhithe workhouse 16th April 1865."

Matilda Beeton
23 April 1866"

"The elderly at the workhouse" by Hubert von Herkomer
In 1869 the workhouse became part of St Olave's Union, under the administration of the St Olave Board of Guardians, named for the Church of St Olaf at London Bridge.  The Vestry of St Mary Rotherhithe continued to work with the poor, offering help, building churches, improving education and generally helping to support those in need.  The workhouse played a different role, consolidating those who had no other recourse but to turn to the workhouse for shelter.

Although it had included an infirmary of its own, the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 required that infirmary accommodation be separate from workhouse buildings and a separate infirmary was built next door in 1873.This will be covered in another post.

Residents of the Rotherhithe workhouse were employed in a number of tasks, many of which were directly related to the local shipping industry.  In the early Nineteenth Century a rope manufacturing operation supplied new rope to ship builders and owners.  Stephen Humphrey says that in 1836 it turned a profit of £592 2s and 2d (with thanks to the National Archives Currency Convertor, £582 2s 2d would have the same spending worth of around £25,670.98 - very impressive). Another of their tasks was the creation of oakum.  Old ropes and cables ("junk") were chopped into manageable lengths and these were in turn picked apart to reduce them to their component fibres.   These were then tarred and used as packing ("caulking") to fill gaps in wooden planking of ship hulls and decking.  It was a laborious job, and was commonly assigned to workhouse inmates.

Failure to comply with workhouse rules resulted in severe punishment.  Stephen Humphrey gives the example of four girls who were housed in the women's block in 1835 who were threatened with deportation to Tasmania.  

The workhouse closed in 1884, but the separate infirmary continued to operate until the 1970s, and will be described on another post. In 1889 the workhouse was still standing because the Minutes of the Board of Guardians state that it was "dilapidated and unused."  

Today, the land where the workhouse used to be located is covered by the residential estate on Ann Moss Way.  Although there are remains of the infirmary that survived the demise of the workhouse, there are no extant remains of the workhouse itself.

Ann Moss Way

With thanks to Stephen Humphrey's book "The Story of Rotherhithe" for untangling much of the history.  For more about workhouses and their history see Peter Higginbottom's fascinating and comprehensive Workhouses website.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Website: "I Live In SE16"

To my surprise, this website has apparently been going for around 6 months now, but I missed it because I was away for a lot of last year.  I am really terribly out of touch at the moment!  Peddling fast to make up for lost time :-)

So on the off-chance that other local residents reading the blog are unaware of the "I Live In SE16" website (, I thought it would be worth mentioning that it is a really good local resource.  There is both static text and a blog with news updates, and the site is supported by presences on Facebook and Twitter as well as meetings in the real world at suitable local venues.  I've paged through the news updates and it is particularly useful if you want to get involved in Rotherhithe life. 

It is probably best to let it speak for itself, so here's the introductory paragraph from their site.

An online hub for everything in Bermondsey, Surrey Quays, Rotherhithe and Canada Water in London SE16. We are a small group of friends who are building this community site to bring everyone together –  residents, workers and visitors. We provide a source of information and ideas about our neighbourhood.

We are volunteers finding our way and welcome others to help us make this a real success. We also have a Facebook page and run the weekly #SE16Hour on Twitter. If you’ve news to share, a business to promote or a an event to publicise, tweet to @SE16Hour.

And more from their About page:

In recent years SE16 has flourished with many new residents and businesses coming to the area. New builds are going up left right and centre and there are still many new changes to come. Members of the community currently residing in the area and new residents still aren’t aware about all the great local businesses and events that happen in the area, so it’s now time to get the word out through & @se16hour.

We are a collective of local businesses and organisations who have come together in partnership to bring to your attention of what goes on in your area. This includes day to day activities, services and local events. We feel the more support we give each other, the stronger we are in raising awareness of all the wonderful things that go on. Search through our page to find listings and contacts for all partners involved in iliveinSE16 and discover your area. The Census 2011 advised that the population for SE16 was 44,957.

There is advertising, but it is confined to local services and events. Just to remind you that the web address is

At the same time, do take time to look at the "4RS Amateur Video Productions" page on You Tube.  Amongst other great pieces of video, as part of the I Live In SE16 project, the 4RS team has started interviewing local institutions and organizations in Rotherhithe to build up a record of different initiatives in the area.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A short history of Greenland Dock 1806 - 1970

The 1807 CDC logo, showing the entrance
to Greenland Dock, with a granary on one
side and a sea of masts on the other.
Greenland Dock was established over the area occupied by the former Howland Great Wet Dock (1699-1807), which has been covered on a previous post. It was renamed Greenland Dock to reflect its use as a whaling dock (much of the whaling took place in Greenland waters) and the the whaling history has also been covered on a previous post (1763-1806).  This post takes up where that leaves off, in the first years of the 1800s, and ends with the closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1970.  A future post will look at how it survived, its current uses and, of concern to local residents, the prospects for its future care under Southwark Council.

I had some trouble fitting in all the images that I wanted to include, so some of them are rather small.  On the other hand, you can click on any of them to see the bigger images. I have also played very fast and loose with paragraphs, splitting them where they don't actually need splitting in order to prevent images overlapping too badly. That gives it a rather fragmented feel, for which my apologies.

The Commercial Dock Company

In 1806, following the decline of the whaling industry, Greenland Dock had fallen into disrepair. It was purchased by William Ritchie of Greenwich. An entrepreneur, he believed that its fortunes could be turned around due to the rise in timber and corn imports.  He immediately began to raise finance and was so successful that a year later it became the property of the newly formed Commercial Dock Company, headed by Alderman Sir Charles Price.  It needed substantial work for conversion to a timber and grain handling dock, and was closed whilst this work was under way.  The engineer employed to make the changes to the dock was James Walker, whose likeness is captured in a statue at the top of Brunswick Quay.  Walker was only 27 years old at the time but had impressive experience working on the construction of both the West India and East India Docks where he had commanded the respect of his employers. The pre-existing buildings were demolished and were replaced with large granaries. 

The Commercial Docks in 1811
The dock was awarded an Act of Incorporation in 1811, after which it was able to operate commercially with a capacity of 350 ships.  Another dock was also completed for timber handling  and was ready for use at the opening of Greenland Dock, to which it was connected as the map to the left shows. On the map Greenland Dock is marked as "Commercial Docks" and the irregularly shaped dock above it, "New Dock," later became Norway Dock (now the development known as The Lakes).

Meanwhile, William Ritchie was busy with the creation of a  small thin dock, which was added to the south of Greenland Dock, parallel to its southern end, also shown on the map to the left.  This opened in 1811, the same year in which the Commercial Dock Company opened for business, with capacity for 28 ships.  It supplemented Greenland Dock, handling similar traffic as well as supplies for the local shipyards. It is shown on maps between 1810 and 1843.  Unfortunately I don't have any maps for the area for the 1850s or early 1860s but it had vanished by 1868, when the land was used for warehousing, so it had a relatively short lifespan of under 50 years, after which it clearly became redundant.

Greenland Dock in 1813, from a bigger painting by William Daniell in the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich)
It clearly shows the dock itself full of ships, warehouses and granaries and a dry dock that opened
out into the Thames, which was owned privately and was not part of the dock complex.  At this time
there was no connection between South Dock, shown on the far left, and Greenland Dock.  The
Grand Surrey Canal can be seen in the distance with ships passing down it.

The new Commercial Docks were not the only docks in Rotherhithe. In 1807 the entrance to the Surrey Grand Canal had been extended to incorporate a basin (where Surrey Water is now located) for loading and unloading ships; and at the same time the East Country Dock Company opened the East Country Dock, a long thin dock parallel to Greenland Dock to it east, so there was competition for the CDC from the word go. However, in 1850 the East Country Dock Company sold the East Country Dock to the Commercial Dock Company, which they renamed South Dock, for £40,000.  Between 1850 and 1852 the Commercial Dock Company expanded the dock, and connected it to Greenland Dock.
Greenland Dock in 1868

A connection to the rail network was established in 1855, which linked South Dock, Greenland Dock and Norway Dock.

Competition between Rotherhithe's two dock companies, the Commercial Dock Company and the more laboriously named Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company resulted in the impoverishment of both.  Eventually the losses became untenable, business sense kicked in, and in 1865 the two companies were merged to form the Surrey Commercial Docks Company.  The two separate dock systems were connected by two locks where they ran along side each other, which enabled them to form one integrated, albeit complex dock network with entrances from the Thames from Greenland Dock at one side of Rotherhithe and Surrey Basin at the other. 

The Surrey Commercial Docks Company

John Wolfe Barry
The various ponds and docks of the system were renamed, making it much easier to distinguish them from each other because when they were originally built, most were just numbered and some of the numbers were duplicated across the two systems.  Greenland Dock retained its name.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1868 (above)  shows that Greenland Dock was lined with granaries as well as a steel yard and a small area of timber sheds.  The capacity of Greenland Dock had been extended by its connection to South Dock and the addition of Norway Dock, which by now flowed into Lady Dock, Acorn Pond, Lavender Pond and Globe Pond, a ribbon network of docks and ponds that had greatly expanded the capacity of the Commercial Dock Company.

In his book London's Docks, John Pudney's view of matters during this period was that  the Surrey Commercial Docks were more stable financial entities than those to the north: "While the dock systems on the north bank had proliferated in disarray, with much competition and little managerial competence, those on the south bank in the Surrey Docks system had prospered, with a regular regular dividend of 6 per cent, and had kept up with the needs of the times."  He puts this down to the sensible management of the directors, who were timber and grain merchants whose strategy was to retain existing customers and attract new ones by making continuous improvements.  Timber handling had begun to dominate throughout the Rotherhithe docks, together with grain, and as timber ships were not particularly long, there was no demand for big locks or docks.

Greenland Dock in c.1876, by Morgan and Laing
It was only when ships began to change that the owners of the Surrey Commercial Docks began to look at how to adapt.  New technologies had resulted in much bigger and faster ships that required bigger locks, docks and improved cargo handling solutions. Their solution was time-consuming, eye-wateringly expensive, and ultimately doomed to long-term failure.  Finding themselves in major competition with other Thames docks built towards the end of the 19th Century, it became clear that to stay competitive changes would have to be made to parts of the Rotherhithe dock system.  These were centred on Greenland Dock.  The plan to extend Greenland Dock, which was to include its connection to Canada Dock, was seriously ambitious. As you can see in the map below, the Grand Surrey Canal passed along the end of the dock and any dock extension would mean cutting across the canal's route.  There were also major roads that would have to be re-routed to accommodate the dock's new size, the dock railway would no longer be able to extend beyond South Dock, and  there were plenty of buildings in the way of the expansion, both industrial and residential, that stood in the way and would have to be purchased and demolished.  Once the decision was made and an Act of Parliament obtained, all of these changes could be implemented.  The engineer hired to make these changes was James A. MacConnochie.  MacConnochie had worked at a number of other sites, including Canada Water, and began work in 1894.  He had not been working on the project for long when he died in 1895, and was replaced by John Wolfe-Barry, a very experienced dock engineer who was knighted in 1897 for his work on Tower Bridge.  See his biography on the Grace's Guides website.

These two maps are designed to show the changes made
Greenland Dock between 1894 and 1914.  In 1894 it was a
short dock opening out on to the Thames with the Grand Surrey
Canal (in pink) running past its end.  In 1914 the dock was
now so long that the Surrey Grand Canal passed across its
middle.  At the end of the dock, a cut was established
(in lilac) to connect it with Canada Dock.  The unusual
lock walls extend into the dock, creating two "fingers"
(as they are still known today) either side of the
lock walls, and are highlighted in turquoise.
The extension works took ten years to complete and were hampered by repeated encounters with the highly unstable Thanet sand, which kept filling foundations and required major engineering work to neutralize.  The extension of the entrance lock was achieved by building it into the dock itself.  This meant that long vessels could use the dock but at the same time a second set of gates within the lock meant that smaller vessels could use the dock without using excess water. Water management within the dock system was an ongoing headache, with levels changing considerably during over a 24 hour period. The lock gates were operated with hydraulic machinery, which remains in position today. 

When completed in 1904, the dock measured 2250ft by 450ft and its lock was 550ft by 80ft, the measurements that it retains today.  It had cost a staggering £940,000. To put the cost into perspective, today the equivalent to £940,000 would be £53,636,400 (with thanks to the National Archives Currency Converter for their wonderful conversion application).

Greenland Dock remained connected to the Norway Dock section of the earlier Surrey Commercial Dock system and at its southern end, where the underpass to Surrey Quays Shopping Centre is now located, there was a new connection to Canada Dock, allowing ships to pass between the two largest docks in the system.  The Grand Surrey Canal now passed straight over the centre of the dock, which must have been an interesting navigational experience for all concerned.  The railway, which had reached as far as Norway Dock stopped just short of South Dock, meaning that cargo had to be offloaded from train wagons and onto road transportation for the onward leg of the journey - a far less efficient way of cargo handling than before.  The main dock roads had to be significantly re-routed and a swing bridges were installed to carry the road over the cut between Greenland Dock and Canada Dock and over the locks into both parts of the Grand Surrey Canal, thereby adding interruptions to traffic that are caused the same sort of traffic jams that build up at level crossings. 

Most of the bridges around Greenland Dock were moved here from elsewhere, but the bolted cast iron lattice-truss bridge manufactured by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. was added to its current location in 1904 when the lock was extended.  A magnificent structure, the bridge is one of the best features of Greenland Dock.  It was not fixed in its position. Its two parts could be swung to each side when tall ships needed to pass through the lock.  It was operated by vast hydraulic jiggers that worked by pushing water at very high pressure through pistons in the cylinder equipment to open and close the two halves of the swing bridge.  The hydraulic equipment is still preserved today in the pits next to the bridge on each side, although they no longer function.  Although the lock gates, the granite steps and the hydraulic gear have been preserved, the lock is now blocked off. The Grade II listed bridge was renovated in 1987 and still looks good.  

The delightful lock buildings, consisting of the harbour master's cottage and the tide gauge house were also built at this time at the side of the extended lock, both of which remain in situ. They were built when the dock and the lock were extended between 1894-1904. They were probably designed by James McConnochie (who is also thought to have been responsible for the dock offices on Surrey Quays Road) for the Surrey Commercial Dock company.  They are single-storey structures built in a pale yellowish brick (the yard office was of a paler, whiter brick), with a black brick plinth visible along the bases. The doors and windows set under red-brick jack arches with white keystones, and each building was topped with a black-tiled hipped roof (again, the exception is the Yard Office, which has a gabled roof).  Chimneys were provided for much-needed heat. They are lovely little buildings, nicely designed and were clearly intended to be good looking as well as functional. The lock keeper's office at Greenland Dock lock, headed by the Lock Keeper, was the equivalent of the modern edifice overlooking South Dock's lock entrance.  It was manned in thee shifts by teams whose role was to process ships in and out of the lock when the tide was right.  A lock keeper's office would have sat at every lock into the network of docks in Rotherhithe, and paintings of the office at the entrance to Surrey Basin survive.  The gauge house, next to the lock keeper's office, contained the equipment for determining the state of the tide.  It was essential for the correct operation of the lock for this to be precise.  The equipment consisted of a tide gauge that indicated the level of the river. 
Hydraulic machinery that operated
lock gates after the 1865 Greenland
Dock expansion and improvements
Many of extant features of the dock date to this time, including the hydraulic capstans, the rounded iron bollards, and hydraulic cranes that travelled up and down the dock along tracks. 

The expense of the newly expanded dock was not met by income from the timber trade, which was now in decline, and the company resorted to price-war tactics to try to win trade from other Thames docks, which benefited no-one.  The survival of London's docks was to fall on the shoulders of the Port of London Authority.

The Port of London Authority

In 1909 the Port of London authority was formed. Problems with river congestion, uncompetitive commercial docks and antiquated dock handling systems had plagued London for years.  Official investigations  were followed by the introduction of a Bill introduced by David Lloyd George and carried through parliament by Winston Churchill, receiving Royal Assent as the "Port of London Act, 1908," in December 1908. The decision was made to take the docks out of private ownership and amalgamate them under a single government body, the Port of London Authority (PLA), which also took on responsibility for dredging the main channel of the Thames and, following the First World War, upgrading parts of the newly consolidated London dock system.

Artist's impression of the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1909, the
year that the Port of London Authority became responsible for them.
Greenland Dock is the long expanse to the right of the picture, and
this painting shows clearly how Greenland Dock connected into
Russia Dock, the dog-legged dock that lies perpendicular to it
and into which it has a cut in the centre of its length.

In the Surrey Commercial Docks plenty of modernization took place, but in Greenland Dock it mainly took the form of new open-sided timber sheds for the deal timber trade and the building of a  general cargo warehouse of 75,000 square foot.

Alaunia at Greenland Dock
Although the main cargo handled at the Greenland Dock was timber, as well as some perishable foods, during the inter-war years one of the more unusual regular visitors was a division of the A-Class fleet of Cunard cross-Atlantic cruise ships.  Cunard's acquisition of ships of the Thomson Line in 1911 established Cunard's first direct service between London and Canada, and was the reason that Cunard acquired premises in Greenland Dock.  Following losses during the First World War (which included all of Cunard's A-class ships), eleven new "intermediate" ships were built by the Cunard company.  These had been designed to bridge the gap between their small and large, sometimes vast vessels and fulfilled a very useful role for Cunard.  Of these eleven, five made up the replacement A-class ships that moored at their home base in Greenland Dock.  All very similar, the Albania, Ausonia and Andania were sister ships whilst the Ascania and Alaunia differed in several ways. They were all turbine-driven and could reach 13-15 knots. They had particularly beautiful lines.  After the expansion of its lock, Greenland Dock was one of the few Thames docks capable of handling ships of this size.

Writing in 1929 the eternally enjoyable A.G. Linney loved the winter-quiet and bird life of the timber ponds, about which he admitted to feelings of sentimentality, but he was really unimpressed by Greenland Dock, which he described as "being kept busy by the arrival and departure of massive, modern-type, ugly and utilitarian steamers bringing huge quantities of provisions of all sorts from North America." But he couldn't help being fascinated by the ships that brought in timber during the late Spring and early summer:  "rustyish , sea-battered Baltic tramps with queer tall funnels and names painted amidships; plain dingy British cargo boats with little to give them grace;  and a certain yet undoubted proportion of elderly barques and barquetines."  Linney loved the Surrey Commercial Docks and was visiting just as the old sailing ships were becoming almost anachronistic anomalies.

Timber being unloaded from a ship onto the quayside
at Greenland Dock, beneath one of the mobile cranes
in 1927 (the crane tracks still survive
in places along the side of this and other docks)

Greenland Lock, filled with spritsail barges, 1930s
Port of London Authority archive

The Second World War

Canadian Cold Store, bombed in 1940
I have yet to write a post about how Rotherhithe was torn about during the Second World War by German bombing raids, but it was catastrophic.  The war lasted between 1939 and 1945 and the so-called Blitz began in September 1940. All of London's docks, reflecting moonlight, were easy targets for bomber planes and as important commercial centres of England's capital city were strategically obvious targets.

The Surrey Commercial Docks, its ships and warehouses, were devastated.  The losses throughout Rotherhithe were appalling. 

Greenland Dock's timber yards suffered repeated attacks and, thanks to the combustibility of the timber and the deliberate use of incendiary bombs, frequently burned but fortunately the loss of life was relatively small compared with the rest of Rotherhithe.  Damage was mainly to property.

the Dog and Duck public house before
its destruction in 1944
The Canadian Cold Store burned out in 1940, a building established in the early 1900s to accommodate perishables, mainly dairy products, imported from Canada.  The LDDC archive photograph, above, shows it with flames pouring out of it's roof and windows.  The heat must have been staggering.

One ship, the SS Empress Tristram was hit by a V1 flying bomb on 23rd June 1944 at 0413, killing five people. The bomb hit the portside decking and penetrated though to the engine room. The same ship was struck again by a V1 on the 12st July was moved to Greenland Dock for repairs. There was severe damage to 3 and 4 holds and a further six people were killed. The nearby SS Peebles was also damaged.  

The Dog and Duck pub, which sat between the lock entrances of Greenland and South Docks was obliterated along with other buildings by a VII rocket in October 1944, injuring 16 people.  The Dog and Duck was a famous old pub, but never rebuilt.

The Beginning of the End

Greenland Dock 1958
The 1958 photograph to the left shows a mixture of long low timber stores as well as more traditional warehouses at the top end of the dock.  Cranes line the quaysides but much of the heavy lifting was still carried out by manual labour, emptying cargo into lighters, small un-powered vessels of the sort that are gathered around the two ships in the foreground. The connection to Canada Water, now the underpass leading to Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, is clearly visible at the bottom of the photograph, with the road passing over it as it does today, on a lift bridge.  Whenever one of the Rotherhithe bridges was lifted to allow ships to pass through, massive traffic jams built up, remembered with more annoyance than nostalgia by some of the former dock workers who still live in the area.  The gathering of small vessels in the middle of the photograph mark the eastern entrance to the Grand Surrey Canal.  Opposite it is the inlet that led into another part of the dock system along the western route of the Grand Surrey Canal.

Greenland Dock in the snow, early 1950s
In spite of the appearance of activity on Greenland and other docks, the Surrey Commercial Docks never really recovered from the Second World War.  Cunard, for example, ceased to use Greenland Dock for its A-Class liners, other commercial fleets had been reduced during the war, international trade had changed and many shipping companies had to make fundamental changes in order to survive the post-war years.

Added to the serious difficulties that the post-war years imposed on the London docks, the main nail in its coffin was the shipping industry itself.  The entire character and organization of cargo handling operations was changing and all the associated ships and dockside technology were adapting accordingly.  Container transportation, new packaging systems and palletization, all involving increasing automation and much less manual labour, began to replace traditional methods.  These were serviced not by the older dock systems but by new dedicated docks that were positioned nearer to the mouth of the Thames, could handle larger vessels and included new state-of-the-art equipment.  The old inner Thames dock systems were being left behind very quickly.  Stuart Rankin gives some startling figures for the tonnage being handled, shown in the graph below, indicating the declining income of Rotherhithe's docks.  

Individual docks and ponds began to be blocked off and filled in even before the official closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks.  The PLA gained approval for the official closure in April 1970 and cargo deliveries were slowly run down until there was very little traffic by September of the same year.  As W. Paul Clegg puts it: "By the year-end it was all over, the last ship being the Russian timber carrier Kandalakshales (4673grt) which left on 22nd December.  The Russian services were transferred to the Royal Albert Dock, while others went to India and Millwall, and Phoenix Wharf."

By 1977 the land had been sold into the ownership of the Greater London Council (now defunct) and Southwark Borough Council, and most of the remaining docks were in-filled for safety reasons.  Various warehouse facilities remained in use, but the commercial life of the docks and its supporting infrastructure was effectively over.

In 1699 the Howland Great Wet Dock was established, and it took 271 years for the shipping adventure to come to an end.  Fortunately for Rotherhithe, the London Dockland Development Corporation came along and rescued Rotherhithe, salvaging traces of its heritage at the same time.  Greenland Dock is now surrounded by residential homes that overlook a very different vista, and this will be the subject of a future post.

Kandalakshales, the last ship to sail from the
Surrey Commercial Docks in 1970

Pacific Reliance (9337grt) in 1971.  A regular
of Greenland Dock, she transferred to the Royal
Docks after the closure of the Surrey Commercial
Docks in 1970

In this post I have not covered the two dry docks at the end of Greenland Dock that opened out onto the Thames and flanked the lock.  The post is already so long that I thought that these would be better covered on a post of their own.  They were not owned by the dock companies and were operated privately, so there is a solid argument for treating them separately at some point in the future.  

As usual with the dockland and shipping history of Rotherhithe many, many thanks are due to Stuart Rankin's excellent research.  He was by no means my only source, but where would I be without his booklets to give me a kick start?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Update re planning application for The Clipper pub?

I am somewhat out of touch with what has happened with the planning application (14/AP/1407) for The Clipper pub on Rotherhithe Street, but I just checked Southwark Council's page for it and it is now marked as "withdrawn."  I know that there was a huge flood of objection to the planning application from residents in the immediate vicinity of the pub, so this must have influenced the decision.

It appears to have been replaced by a new application 14/AP/4337, again available on the Southwark Council website: "Demolition of existing building and the erection of replacement four storey building comprising commercial unit (Use Class A1 or A2) at ground floor and basement level and 6 flats on first, second and third floors, associated car parking and amenity area." 

If anyone has any further information do let me know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

The China Hall, Rotherhithe

China Hall, 1916
The China Hall is a pub on Lower Road, facing Southwark Park (141 Lower Road, London SE16 2XL). The site has a very lively history.

In 1719 a pub on the site was called the "Cock and Pye Ale House."  It later became the "Marsh Gate" and records show that in 1776 it was leased to Jonathan Oldfield, at which time it was called the "Green Man."  Oldfield was a trader, dealing in tea and china, a classic example of a late 18th century entrepreneur.  He built a theatre on land next to the pub, a wooden building that could hold 500 people and staged plays and hosted musical concerts; this was named the China Hall.  The prices for seats were 3s for boxes, 3s for the pits and 1s for the gallery. 

George Frederick Cooke
During 1778 George Frederick Cooke 1756-1812) acted there.  Cooke was a famous and influential actor, whose acting style had a great impact on the more famous Edmund Keane, but at the same time he was an alcoholic and notoriously unreliable.  His last role had been at Covent Garden, but his behaviour disrupted his career:  "He now frequently appeared behind the scenes in a state of complete inebriation, or rather insensibility, in despite of all his friends could say to dissuade him from it.  He was accordingly laid upon the shelf for the remainder of the season" (from Roach's New and Complete History of the Stage, 1796).  He sought work at smaller theatres, including the China Hall, which was a success, his name attracting good audiences.  He was probably a good match for the China Hall, which itself apparently caused some disruption and was the subject of several complaints due to the noise and the undignified behaviour of its customers.

Another actor, who also performed at the China Hall in the 1778 season and was in several performances with Cooke, was Edward Cape Everard, a dancer, actor and musician, whose autobiography Memoirs of an Unfortunate Son of Thespis was published in 1818.  According to the book Eagan to Garrett: Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 (Highfill, Burnim and Langhans 1991), Everard performed in numerous plays at the China Hall including The Devil to Pay, The Busy Body, The Clandestine Marriage, Romeo and Juliet, Venice Preserv'd, High Life Below Stairs, The Earl of Essex, The Fashionable Lover, Cross Purposes, The Irish Widow and The London Merchant.  Other plays that were performed there, according to Edward Walford, were The Wonder, Love in a Village, Comical Courtship, and The Lying Valet.

The theatre burned down on 26th June in 1778 or 1779 (the various sources are in dispute) but according to Everard, a temporary wooden structure was erected in the gardens  in which The Merchant of Venice was performed only four days later on 30th June.  The temporary theatre, apparently little more than a large shed, remained in place for at least six weeks.  Oldfield was not deterred and re-opened again, but the new building was destroyed in a storm, after which Oldfied threw in the theatrical towel.  However, the China Hall re-opened in 1787 as a tavern.   Writing in 1872, Edward Walford  says that it had been "a picturesque building partly surrounded by an external gallery."

The China Hall faced land that was occupied by market gardens (today Southwark Park).  Across the park a that was called the Halfpenny Hatch (not to be confused with the Deptford path of the same name) led to the pub, starting in blue Anchor Road crossing Lower Road and, according to some accounts, extending to the Dog and Duck tavern, which was located near to the entrance of the docks.  The pathway was subject to a toll payment, but anyone drinking at the pub was refunded the toll fee.  Both the China Hall and Halfpenny Hatch path are still visible on the 1843 B.R. Davies map (picked out in green and red respectively).   Here, the Halfpenny Hatch extends to the Grand Surrey Canal at the bottom end of the Commercial Dock Company's land, leading into Deptford Road (now Salter Road).

The China Hall obviously suffered some other terminal indignity and for reasons unknown was rebuilt in the 1860s, albeit with the same sign that had adorned the previous building. 

The site of the theatre became a well known tea-gardens, with the during the Victorian period.  By the mid 1800s China Hall Road has been established, which later became Rotherhithe New Road.

Map of the Rotherhithe Estates in 1849
(from Codrington) showing China Hall Road,
now Rotherhithe New Road
A photograph of the pub in 1916 (at the top of this page) shows a brick-built building with a wide ground floor frontage with wide windows divided by pilasters. The first floor has four tall, slender arched windows. It was an end of terrace building, and to its left it was connected to other buildings looking out onto a narrow pavement and the street beyond, including a hairdresser and what appears to be a tiny newsagent advertising "ices."  The hairdresser, to the left of the China Hall, has the same style of windows and was probably built at around the same time, although it is shorter and narrower.

By 1920s the tea gardens that had originally belonged to the China Hall were absorbed into the Surrey Commercial Docks as part of a timber yard.  Tea gardens were a popular feature of late 19th and early 20th Century Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, but like the more famous Bermondsey Cherry Gardens, they all fell out of fashion.

Although the 1916 photograph clearly shows the China Hall as an end-of-terrace unpainted brick-built building, today the brick has been painted and is now invisible and the building, with an extension to the rear, is detached from its neighbours.   There used to be a road along the side of the pub, once known as Providence Row, shown in the photograph below as the stump where two cars are parked.  Just to the right of the picture is a narrow passage called China Hall Mews.  Providence Row is still shown on the 1868 and 1914 Ordnance Survey maps, terminated by a railway cutting, a siding of the East London Railway that ran along the end of the docks and under the Thames via the Thames Tunnel.

The China Hall today, by Chris Lordan
(under Creative Commons licence)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

South Dock as it was 30 years ago

A great video on the SE16 website today showing South dock as it looked 30 years ago.  If you're interested in trying to pick out which buildings were there before the modern developments, it's a fascinating insight.  I've written about South Dock on a previous post, and somewhere between the 19th century and early 20th century warehouses and the modern development we see today, there were some really very shoddy buildings!  Functional, though, even though not aesthetically pleasing.