This my second post resulting from my scouting out a new tour I have been wanting to start offering to my lovely tourists. As well as the regular tourist hotspots, I really enjoy taking people to the lesser visited parts and judging from the reactions of my tourists, the more authentic an experience, the greater their enjoyment.
As such I took a walk along the the south bank of the Thames through the districts of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. These are parts of London that even most Londoners never visit, let alone tourists and yet having gone through a certain level of gentrification, what were the aspects that made visiting the area a seemingly stupid and possibly dangerous idea is now what makes it so attractive.
If you missed my first post on the area, you can read all about the The Angel Pub in Rotherhithe, which has a long and often murky history.
Most tourists don’t really get east of The Globe theatre or Borough Market at best, many of course visit Tower Bridge but generally on the north side. Two thousands years of poverty and crime means that even now, the southern bank of the Thames is much less visited and yet on this tour, where the tourists vanish is just where it gets interesting.
The district just east of Tower Bridge on the suth side of the river is Bermondsey which in old English means a ‘piece of firm land in a fen’ with fen being an alternative word for a marsh or swamp.
A community of Cluniac monks resided at Bermondsey Abbey close to the site from 1082 onwards. The community began the development of the Bermondsey area, cultivating the land and embanking the riverside into a Priory Close spanning 140 acres of meadow and digging dykes. They turned the adjacent tidal inlet at the mouth of the River Neckinger into the priory’s dock, and named it Saint Saviour’s Dock after their abbey’s patron. This provided a safe landing for Bishops and goods below the traditional first crossing, the congested stone arches of London Bridge. According to the Winchester Episcopal Register, the Bishop of Winchester when returning from abroad was expected to land at Bermondsey shores.
The watercourses of the marshes provided a water supply for tanneries (ever since the Middle Ages Bermondsey was one of the main places in England for the manufacture of leather) and factories as the area was developed, and prepared the ground for large-scale building. Soil excavated from the ditches was used to embank and raise the level of the adjacent ground to provide firm, dry foundations. The whole network of watercourses acted as an extended mill pond.
Bermondsey was historically a village on the outskirts of London until the 17th century when the area began to be developed as a wealthy suburb following the Great Fire of London. By the 19th century, the once affluent parts of Bermondsey had experienced a serious decline, and became the site of notorious slums with the arrival of industrialisation, docks and migrant housing, especially along the riverside.
Some of you may have read my recent blog post on the lost and secret rivers of London. At Shad Thames is one of the remnants of these rivers which gives a rather good idea of what 19th century London must have looked like.
Shad Thames is today one of the trendiest parts of London. It’s a glitzy stretch on the north bank of the river Thames with smart restaurants, fashionable boutiques and expensive apartments in converted Victorian warehouses. While the development has been popular for some time now, the opening of the nearby Shard and all the other construction going on around London Bridge can only add to the appeal – and the value of properties.
Once though, what is now Shad Thames bordered onto one of the worst parts of London. Detached from the mainland and surrounded on four sides by stagnant water, near to here was the site of Jacob’s Island – a collection of damp and rickety old houses, hidden away from public gaze by large warehouses and other industry. It was immortalised by Charles Dickens who chose the location to kill off villain Bill Sykes in the mud of ‘Folly Ditch’. The author provides a vivid 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.”
One of the biggest problems for the residents of Jacob’s Island was the poor state of the water supply. In the mid 19th Century, the writer Beames noted that the reservoirs remained stagnant until they were moved by the tide – something that only happened two or three times a week. What was “the common sewer of the neighbourhood” was “the only source from which the wretched inhabitants can get the water which they drink – with which they wash-and with which they cook their victuals.” In the summer children were seen bathing in the dirty water. The Thames, which was “not far distant” would have offered a cleaner bathing-place he said.
“There exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London… In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago… it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed.”
This so-called island was created alongside the Thames by the River Neckinger, the docks and a series of tidal ditches. Known as ‘The Venice of Drains’, it’s little wonder that the area was one of the main hotspots for the cholera epidemics in the latter half of the 19th century as the ditches were used for both sewers and drinking water.
Sluices at the mills could be opened, allowing the ditches to be filled from the Thames and Dickens writes, in Oliver Twist, that at these times you “will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side, lowering, from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage – all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.”
One of the biggest health hazards of the time was that of cholera, in London generally but Jacobs Island in particular. Reports of the time state that ‘Out of the 12,800 deaths which, within the last three months, have arisen from cholera, 6,500 have occurred on the southern shores of the Thames; and to this awful number no localities have contributed so largely as Lambeth, Southwark and Bermondsey, each, at the height of the disease, adding its hundred victims a week to the fearful catalogue of mortality. Any one who has ventured a visit to the last-named of these places in particular, will not wonder at the ravages of the pestilence in this malarious quarter, for it is bounded on the north and east by filth and fever, and on the south and west by want, squalor, rags and pestilence. Here stands, as it were, the very capital of cholera, the Jessore of London – JACOB’S ISLAND, a patch of ground insulated by the common sewer. Spared by the fire of London, the houses and comforts of the people in this loathsome place have scarcely known any improvement since that time. The place is a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it.
On entering the precincts of the pest island, the air has literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness comes over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the musty atmosphere. It is not only the nose, but the stomach, that tells how heavily the air is loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you cross one of the crazy and rotting bridges over the reeking ditch, you know, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once the white-lead paint upon the door-posts and window-sills, that the air is thickly charged with this deadly gas. The heavy bubbles which now and then rise up in the water show you whence at least a portion of the mephitic compound comes, while the open doorless privies that hang over the water side on one of the banks, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls where the drains from each house discharge themselves into the ditch on the opposite side, tell you how the pollution of the ditch is supplied
The 19th century social researcher Henry Mayhew described Jacob’s Island as a “pest island” with “literally the smell of a graveyard” and “crazy and rotten bridges” crossing the tidal ditches, with drains from houses discharging directly into them, and the water harbouring masses of rotting weed, animal carcasses and dead fish. He describes the water being “as red as blood” in some parts, as a result of pollutant tanning agents from the local industries in the area.
‘The water is covered with a scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking leather-dressers’ close by.
As alluded to above St Saviours Dock was a notorious area when it came to crime. Not only due to the slums and the terrible poverty in the maze of streets inland but also as the area was a famous holding area for cargo vessels wanting to unload their wares further west into London. The Thames was the busiest water way in the world and it was said that it was entirely possible to cross the river without getting your feet wet just by crossing from one ship to the next.
These ships could wait for many weeks and all just a minute or two away from one of the most lawless slums in the world and the good that they contained were often too tempting a target for the pirates in the area. Of course, if they were caught then the punishment was extreme and the River Neckinger is said to take its name from the “Devil’s Neckinger” or “Neckerchief”, London slang for the noose used to execute the pirates.
Most of the early buildings of Jacobs Island were demolished by 1860 and replaced by Victorian buildings many of which have also gone either from the WW2 Blitz or the resulting clearance. At least some survive in the shape of New Concordia Wharf & St Saviours Wharf still survive. The 1968 film Oliver! was filmed at New Concordia Wharf and in the opening scenes of 1999’s The World is Not Enough, James Bond’s speed boat traverses the length of St Saviour’s Dock.
If you’d like to tour with me on this trail that will culminate inside the Mayflower pub from where the famous ship departed and where it returned years later and abandoned on the banks of the Thames then visit my tour page below: