Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Bermondsey - Docks and Slums

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited Peckham, may board a Number 78 Bus from Peckham High Street to Tower Bridge. The route takes us through further residential suburbs, and over the site of Bermondsey Abbey, founded in 1082. The Abbey of Saint Saviour was a Benedictine establishment, and was dependent on the French Abbey of Cluny, one of the wealthiest and most politically influential monastic institutions in Medieval Europe. Today, only a few architectural fragments of the abbey are visible in the basement of the Lokma Restaurant, in Bermondsey Square.

Bermondsey Abbey, reconstruction drawing by Sir Walter Besant, 1894 (image is in the Public Domain).

"A Fete at Bermondsey," possibly a marriage feast, c 1579, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (image is in the Public Domain).

Alighting at Tower Bridge, we find ourselves back on the river-front, and at the southern end of one of London's most iconic landmarks, looking across the Thames towards the Tower of London. The bridge itself was built, to the then fashionable neo-Gothic design, between 1886 and 1894, as part of an ongoing effort to ease the passage of people and goods between the City of London, to the north of the river, and the Borough of Southwark, to the south. At the time of its construction, however, the "Pool of London" (the stretch of river between Tower Bridge and London Bridge) remained one of the most important elements of London as a port, hence the imperative to design a bridge that could be raised, to allow the passage of ships, and lowered, to accommodate road traffic.

Tower Bridge under construction, 1892 (image is in the Public Domain).

Tower Bridge, looking back from Shad Thames. Photo: Colin (licensed under CCA).

Strolling eastward along the river, we come to Butler's Wharf and Shad Thames, where a series of warehouses, completed in 1873, have now been converted into high-class restaurants and boutiques, with luxury apartments above. Beyond them is Saint Saviour's Dock, once owned by the monks of Bermondsey, who had a tidal mill at the point where the (now largely invisible) River Neckinger flowed into the Thames. The river's name, however, post-dates the monks (we have no idea what they would have called it): it recalls the "Devil's neck-cloth," or hangman's noose, for it was here that Eighteenth Century pirates were hanged, and their bodies exposed as a warning to others.

Shad Thames warehouses. Photo: David Iliff (license CC-BY-SA-3.0).

Saint Saviour's Dock. Photo: C.G.A. Grey (licensed under CCA).

On the other side of the wharf lay Jacob's Island, one of the most notorious of London's Nineteenth Century slums, the home of Charles Dickens's villain, Bill Sykes, and the place where he meets his untimely death.

Dickens spares us none of the details in his description:

" ... crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses,with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it - as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob's Island."

Jacob's Island, 1813 (image is in the Public Domain).

Folly Ditch, Jacob's Island, c 1840 (image is in the Public Domain).

Some decades later, however, in 1878, Edward Walford tells us of the transformation of the area:

"The foul ditch no longer pollutes the air. It has long been filled up ... there is now a good solid road ... Part of London Street, the whole of Little London Street, part of Mill Street, beside houses in Jacob Street and Hickman's Folly, have been demolished. In most of these places warehouses have taken the place of dwelling-houses. The revolting fact of many of the inhabitants of the district having no other water to drink than that which they procured from the filthy ditches is also a thing of the past. Most of the houses are now supplied with good water, and the streets are very well paved. Indeed, so great is the change for the better in the external appearance of the district generally, that a person who had not seen it since the improvements would now scarcely recognise it."

Most of Bermondsey remained an industrial area, an integral part of the working river, throughout the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. As cargoes moved from the holds of ships into containers, however, and the Port of London shifted downstream, the districts of London that look out on the river have become so gentrified that even professional Londoners have long since been priced out of the property market. Millionaires now gaze down into clean flowing water, where once the underworld characters evoked by Dickens stared into the abyss, breathing its noxious fumes.

Butler's Wharf and Courage Brewery, 1971. Photo: Dr Neil Clayton (licensed under CCA). 

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.


  1. One of my great-grandfathers grew up there. No wonder he ran away to sea.

  2. Fascinating, our family tree research found relatives who came to London, settling and working in the Bermondsey area. One relative first earned his 'freedom of the city' beginning life as an apprentice, then later his descendants became granary keepers, Wharfingers and property owners.
    Good to hear more about the area.