London Stories and Tips

A Bend in the River: Rotherhithe

The Greenland Docks today Photo, London, England

"Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London."

This was Rotherhithe as described by Charles Dickens, a vile slum set in a wretched landscape. Before coming to Rotherhithe, I confess I expected something vaguely Dickensian. Instead, I found a peaceful, almost suburban, community full of shops and terraced houses, interlaced with lovely landscaped parks and byways. Where had that industrial wasteland gone? What I came to realize after several days’ exploration of the area is that there are as many chapters to Rotherhithe’s long history as there are to a Dickens novel.

Marsh to Maritime Community

Like much of the south bank, Rotherhithe was originally a vast marsh, later protected from flooding by a river wall. It was somewhat isolated by virtue of being more or less peninsular, occupying a great sweeping bend of the Thames. Rotherhithe’s fortunes were linked to the river and by extension the sea. In fact, the old Anglo-Saxon word "hithe" meant "landing place."

Here the English fleet was fitted out for war with France in the late 14th century, and in subsequent centuries, shipbuilding and associated trades became the lifeblood of the community. England’s various wars and its expanding empire fueled the shipbuilding industry. There was stiff competition between the shipwrights on opposite sides of the Thames; those on the north bank referred those on the south as "foreigners," a term merely indicating that they were not freemen of the City of London.

One notable ship built at Rotherhithe was the 60-gun warship America, launched in 1757, while another ship, with the rather unlikely name of Carcass, went on a voyage of discovery in 1773, carrying onboard a young Horatio Nelson, who even at that early stage displayed a certain boldness and cavalier disregard for his superiors’ commands. He was reprimanded for attacking a polar bear with the butt of his empty musket -- Nelson coveted the bear’s pelt, which he thought would make a fine fur coat.

Some of the first steamships were built in Rotherhithe, as well as the very first iron ship, the Aaron Manby. Many industries associated with shipbuilding, such as iron works and the manufacture of gunpowder, also sprang up in the area. Some say, in fact, that Guy Fawkes may have gotten the gunpowder for the infamous Gunpowder Plot from Rotherhithe.

Many local pubs reflect Rotherhithe’s maritime connection, places such as The Clipper, Spice Island, Ship and Whale, and the Moby Dick. The most famous pub, however, is the Mayflower, which was originally called the Shippe. From a nearby quayside, the Mayflower set sail for Southampton in 1620, where it set out with the Speedwell on a voyage to America. The latter sprung a leak and returned to port, while The Mayflower, of course, ultimately went on. She returned to Rotherhithe in 1621, along with her captain, Christopher Jones, who was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard not far from the pub.

The Rise of the Docks

By the late 18th century, Rotherhithe was dominated by vast docks. The Howland Great Wet Dock, dug in 1696, was the largest commercial dock of its time, accommodating 120 sailing vessels. Eventually, 85% of the peninsula was devoted to docks and timber ponds, as well as a 3.5-mile canal connecting the docks to the Grand Surrey Canal. The area became known, by extension, as the Surrey Docks.

The docks’ cargo reflected the changing trade of the empire. The Howland Great Wet Dock became known as Greenland Dock when it became a base for Arctic whalers. Daniel Defoe wrote of the stink made by "the boyling of blubber into oyl," a practice which Herman Melville speculated gave whalers their reputation for foul smells. Indeed, early attempts to build high quality housing at Rotherhithe failed, as homeowners not unreasonably objected to the awful stench emanating from the docks.

Less odiferous cargo predominated by the beginning of the 19th century, with timber from northern regions and grain from Canada the chief imports. Even today the place names of Rotherhithe bear witness to this trade. The flat where we stayed, for example, was on Odessa Street, while nearby streets commemorated commercial ties with Finland, Brunswick, Quebec, and Russia. Canada Dock (now called Canada Water), Greenland Dock, South Dock, and Surrey Water are the sole remnants of the once-extensive docks, now used chiefly for recreational purposes.

The dock workers of Rotherhithe had their own slang and even modes of dress. The deal porters who unloaded timber wore special hats to facilitate carrying long planks of wood. To this day, a local dockers game called "Down the Slot" is played at the Blacksmith’s Arms on Rotherhithe Street. In Victorian times, between 50,000 to 100,000 men depended on London’s wharves and docks for livelihood, most employed on a casual rather than steady basis. Children began working on the docks at the earliest possible age in unskilled jobs condemning them to a life of poverty. Thomas Henry Huxley, visiting the area in 1870, found it remarkable that the poor of Rotherhithe did not "sally forth and plunder." Indeed, in 1889, there was a bitter strike and dock workers led daily processions into the city to demand more secure jobs and better pay. The paralyzing strike was ultimately resolved in their favor.

From Shipbuilding to Shipbreaking

By the 1830s, Rotherhithe shipbuilders faced stiff competition from shipyards in northern Britain. As this happened, some yards were turned over to ship breaking, with the remnants of the great fleet built during the Napoleonic wars making their last voyages to the breakers. The painter Turner, who was a frequent observer of Thames traffic, depicted one such scene in 1838, when HMS Temeraire, which played a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar, was brought to Rotherhithe.

However, Rotherhithe continued to be an important center for ship repair, and in 1904, the Greenland Dock was enlarged to accommodate larger ships. During World War II, the docks played a vital role in repairing the ships that were Britain’s lifeline to the outside world. Needless to say, the docks were targeted by German bombers, with the Surrey Docks suffering the most extensive damage. Many of the warehouses were destroyed, and commercial traffic came to a virtual standstill.

A Sad Decline and Remarkable Comeback

It was not the Nazis, but the rise of container shipping that spelled the end of a way of life in Rotherhithe. Containers needed larger ships than the docks could handle, and by 1969, all the docks had closed. Following this closure, the Port of London Authority filled in most of the area’s dock waters – 423 out of 460 acres – and many of the warehouses were demolished. By the 1980s, the area was an industrial wasteland, with some 5,000 impoverished residents eking out an existence.

In stepped the LDDC, or London Docklands Development Corporation, formed to undertake the challenging task of regenerating the Docklands area. With a major infusion of capital, aided by tax incentives, and the building of vital transportation links and infrastructure, new businesses and housing sprang up. Over 5,000 new homes were built in the area, and a number of new light industries, such as the new Associated Newspapers printing plant, provided much-needed jobs and economical revitalization. Happily, in Rotherhithe, the LDDC undertook the enlightened policy of giving local residents first choice of the new houses at discounted prices.

The plans for new Rotherhithe included expanses of open area and parks, including an ecological preserve and the opening up of the riverside, which had formerly been a restricted area. Today, riverside and dockside walkways make this part of London a stroller’s paradise. Rotherhithe boasts a fine leisure and shopping center and excellent tube stations now that the Jubilee Line has been extended. It is, in short, a very pleasant place, nothing like the squalid riverside community depicted in Oliver Twist.

Near Greenland Docks Today

Still, in some ways Rotherhithe hasn’t changed: it remains a place with a distinct identity. Some locals even bristle when outsiders call the area Surrey Quays, a termed invented by developers and estate agents, who prefer the more genteel-sounding word "quays" to "docks." But the locals will have none of it and insist on calling the area by its old name, "Surrey Docks."

Strolling the quiet streets of Rotherhithe, I observed that names of the former docks now commemorate rows of tidy houses, with scant reminder of the bustling past. The industrial has given way to the residential. Yet though the day of the shipyards has gone, one can still gaze out over the Thames and watch the occasional barge making its way up the river.

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