Continuing on my walk through the centrally located but almost entirely unvisited district of Rotherhithe in London, I came across another hidden jewel in the form of the Watch House Cafe. This beautifully secluded cafe is one with a quite remarkable history.
Before the formation of the very first professional police service in the form of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, what would now be classed as policing duties were undertaken by a local body known as The Watch that was organised by the local parish vestry.
Until the end of the 17th century, the watch consisted of householders within the parish who patrolled the streets on rotation from about 9pm to sunrise, examining suspicious characters they encountered and apprehending felons suspected of burglary and crimes of violence. This was not without danger to members of the watch and increasingly householders paid deputies to take their place, the first steps towards a professional police force. The watch was supervised by a constable. Originally a member of the local parish this post was also increasingly undertaken by someone hired for the role.
Rotherhithe as might be guessed from my earlier posts, once had something of a crime hotspot. Being just down stream from the horrendous squalor of Jacobs Island and being surrounded by the famous East End; Rotherhithe would find itself littered with dead bodies that were washed up on the shore of the Thames. Many would be murder victims from the docks or London itself. Suicide was also a problem with many ill and impoverished perhaps understandbly seeing it as the best way out. Additionally few people could swim and should a misstep off a ship, pier, bridge or footway see you end up in ‘the drink’ then on a foggy night it was likely you’d be a goner.
On a related note, this almost happened to myself a year ago as a car I was a passenger in was just seconds from driving into the Thames at 6am one very dark and misty morning. Fortunately the driver was a little lost and going slowly.
During the early part of the 19th century there was a serious problem of body-snatching where corpses would be rushed off to be illegally experimented on. It may have been all in the name of medical research and science but it was also expressly against the teachings of God and so the good local people of Rotherhithe found themselves quite busy getting bodies to the mortuary and quickly buried before anything bad would happen, well bad beyond being murdered, committed suicice or drunkenly fallen off the quayside. Body snatching was a very lucrative and commonplace 19th Century activity, although illegal, because fresh bodies were always in demand by anatomists at Guys Hospital for dissection and teaching purposes.
Legally the medical profession were only allowed to use the bodies of those who had been executed but as the death sentence was carried out less frequently towards the end of the 18th century, there was a shortage of cadavers. The passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 ended this gruesome practice.
The Rotherhithe watch house had a cell in the basement where suspects could be held and was staffed by a beadle (a parish constable associated with the church), a constable and 14 watchmen.
There were different categories of watchman. Those who wore white overcoats and carried lanterns were meant to be seen and heard, as they called the time and weather. Watchmen wearing blue were ‘silent’ and looked for wrong-doing in the dark corners of the local area. It isn’t much of a stretch that this choice of blue outfits were the inspiration for the police wearing blue uniforms to this day.
On the opposite side of the old churchyard is the Old Mortuary. This one though built in 1895 replaced an earlier mortuary building that was not fit for purpose. Interestingly, the watch house was used as a temporary mortuary whilst it was being built. Hmmm, yummy anyone fancy a pie?
In 1885-1886, the inquest records show that 28 men were drowned in Surrey Docks and the river either by suicide or accident. Many others were received at Rotherhithe Mortuary, but following a damming report by a Dr. James who performed post mortems there, it was determined that better equipped facilities were required to deal with the bodies and so the present structure was built.
There were lots of pleasant surprises I encountered on my walk through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and by way of throwing a ball to a friend dog, I was led to a chance enounter to two of the most fascinating and interesting people I have ever met. It was probably one of the best conversations I’d ever had with two incredible characters, likely actors but I wouldn’t name any names on here.
Another person I chatted to there informed me that in their younger years, which I’d wager was around the time I was born if not earlier, he actually was something of a smuggler. Something I thought to be tremendous exciting… given he had long ago retired from the profession. Doubly so as I’d been walking through streets that were rife with smuggling for centuries and very unexpected too.
You can find the Watch House Cafe at 69 Marychurch Street in Rotherhithe or check them out on Twitter
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:
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 and as you can see on the map below is adjacent to the ruined manor house. The second post is all about the notorious Jacobs island which incredibly is now a luxory housing and retail area whilst the third and most recent is on the ruins of a manor house belonging to King Edward III