Keeping history alive in Rotherhithe and Bermondsey

May is Local and Community History Month, a month-long celebration, created by charity the Historical Association, that aims to get people interested in their area’s past and raise awareness of the stories behind local communities.

Here in Canada Water we certainly don’t need to dig too deep to find the traces of our heritage. The area hums with history, having been a working port from Elizabethan times until the 1970s.

Michael Daniels, president of the Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Local History Society, said:

“Canada Water, and the broader Rotherhithe and Bermondsey area, boast a rich and wide-ranging history including the Mayflower, the docks, the Brunels and even Royalty. We’ve been keeping this history alive for the past 30 years by delivering monthly talks which are open to all, and are as entertaining as they are informative. Last year, British Land helped to fund our very well-attended Mayflower 400 Christopher Jones lecture series, and, as the weather improves, we’re looking forward to enjoying some of the self-guided walks whose pamphlets are also being sponsored by this major Canada Water developer.”

Take a look at a few pieces of local history that have lived on into our own time, and how they continue to be part of the life of the area into the 21st Century.

A street sign on the side of a building

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

IMAGE: 16th-century pub The Mayflower was named after the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship, which sailed from just outside

Perhaps the area’s most famous ‘monument’ is the Mayflower. The namesake square-rigged ship set sail from its home port of Rotherhithe in July 1620, carrying 65 passengers bound for the New World. When the settlers eventually arrived in Massachusetts they established the first permanent colony in New England, and these “Pilgrim Fathers” are central to the founding of the United States. The 16th-century pub is one of the oldest on the Thames. It’s located a stone’s throw from where the ship docked, some of its timbers are said to be incorporated in the pub building, and Mayflower captain Christopher Jones is buried in St Mary’s churchyard opposite.

The Mayflower also gave its name to the Mayflower Tenants & Residents Association, its headquarters standing on the site of the old Rotherhithe Town Hall, which was demolished after being repeatedly bombed in the Second World War.

The area’s maritime connections grew throughout the Elizabethan age and beyond, as the Age of Exploration saw Britain establish itself as a world power through seafaring and trade. Surrey Commercial Docks operated in various forms from 1606 to 1969, functioning as an entry point for timber to build the fast-expanding city of London and a base for Arctic whalers. Canada Water is named after the remaining portion of Canada Dock, which was constructed in 1876 to handle the large iron ships that brought grain and other foodstuffs from the country to feed London’s growing population. The Dock is now being restored by British Land as a habitat for wildlife and a place for people to enjoy.

A distinctive sight in the docks during the 19th and early 20th century was the deal porters, who carried enormous baulks of softwood or “deal” over their shoulders. It was a demanding and dangerous occupation, but at least their heads and necks were protected from splinters by special leather hats. They are commemorated by the Deal Porters Statue. This usually stands next to Canada Dock, but has temporarily been removed for cleaning and refurbishment as part of the Dock restoration. 

A picture containing outdoor, grass, sky, dry

Description automatically generated

The Deal Porters Statue Credit: Philip Bews  (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence)

At the heart of Surrey Commercial Docks were the Dock Offices. The historic building has recently been sympathetically restored for use as British Land’s marketing suite. Another section of it houses our on-site office, meaning we’re always here and working in the area. We’ve also been able to offer the occasional use of the space to our local partners, including Global Generation and Construction Youth Trust.  Read about the restoration project here.

Rotherhithe's trading links to the Baltic gave rise to a thriving Scandinavian community that survives to this day. The area is home to a Norwegian church, where the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society hosts its monthly talks, and a Finnish church, which hosts fairs at Christmas and Easter where you can sample traditional treats.

IMAGE: St. Olav's Church (Norwegian_, Albion Street, SE16 by Mike Quinn, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Working on the river and in the docks was a risky business, and as such the area’s economy kept the Old Mortuary well supplied. In 1885-86, inquest records show that no fewer than 28 men drowned in Surrey Docks and the river. The historic building was constructed in 1895 to replace a mortuary that was no longer fit for purpose. Today, it retains many original features including the doors, a vaulted ceiling, lantern skylight and wooden panelling. It is now home to Time & Talents, which hosts a varied programme of events to bring isolated people together. With British Land’s support, Time & Talents has also opened a second space, T&T2, in Surrey Quays shopping centre, helping it reach more people in the community.

One way to avoid the dangers of the river was to go underneath it rather than across.  Rotherhithe and Bermondsey has a further claim to fame as the site of the first tunnel known to have been built below a navigable river. Standing on the site of the Thames Tunnel, the Brunel Museum celebrates one of the world’s most famous engineering dynasties. The Thames tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843 by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The museum tells that story as well as hosting music and theatre in the old entrance hall. British Land has worked with the museum over several years, running community days (another one is scheduled for this year) and carrying out pro bono work.

IMAGE: The Brunel Museum uses the old tunnel entrance hall for storytelling in various formats

All News & Events