South East London

Exploring the old Surrey Commercial Docks on the Rotherhithe peninsula

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Holy Trinity church, Rotherhithe

Holy Trinity church in Rotherhithe knows how to provide a friendly welcome to visitors on a chilly November Saturday afternoon. With homemade cakes, coffees and hot soup on offer, it is the ideal spot to warm-up and take a break from exploring the surrounding area.

The church is a bit of a hidden gem – and somewhere worth visiting when it has a monthly Saturday open day. Its current building dates back to the 1960s, yet it stands on the site of a neo-Gothic construction which was built between 1837 and 1838 to a design by Sampson Kempthorne.

Worshippers would have needed to travel some distance, to St Mary’s in old Rotherhithe village, to attend services before it opened. But in the 19th century, with the rise of the docks here, the area was changing fast and becoming more populated. The Commercial Dock Company (which would become the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1865 following a merger with a neighbouring company) provided the site to enable a new church to be built, one of four new Anglican institutions to be founded by 1850.

Some were, however, dismissive of the original building, as this 1912 description, published in a fascinating history pamphlet of Holy Trinity, illustrates:

“The church consists of a shallow sanctuary recess and a wide barn-like nave with vestibules and a tower at the west. The nave is lit by large lancet windows and the whole church is meanly designed in 13th-century style. The tower has an embattled parapet.”

The 19th century church wasn’t to last because on September 7th 1940, it was hit by a devastating bombing raid and completely destroyed. Holy Trinity believes it was the first church to be wiped out by the Blitz. An adjacent building – which was run as a National School from 1836 to 1910 and is now used as the church hall – did however survive and was temporarily used for services.

Few traces remain of the Victorian church, bar a First World War memorial and some tomb stones, one of which was remarkably made of wood and probably dates back to the 1860s. But eight years ago a small cross was returned to the church by a former resident of nearby Bryan Road who had found it in the ruins following the 1940 bombing raid. He had kept it to himself for many years, before giving it back to the vicar enabling an important relic from the past to go on display.

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Returned cross from original church on today


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Rate wooden tomb stone

Eventually the remaining charred walls were removed and a new building, designed by Thomas Ford, was erected. Unlike its predecessor, the modern church is extremely light, making it extremely welcoming and it boasts excellent acoustics (there is an organ on a raised platform at the back). There are no stained glass windows, but there is a large mural designed by Hans Feibusch, called ‘Crucifixion & Resurrection’, which visitors either love or hate – some have apparently complained about eyes from the painting following them round as they look at it.

Feibusch’s artwork is in need of repair, but the church has put its restoration on hold until it decides how to resolve a much more fundamental issue in that the building is suffering from concrete cancer. Some of the supporting pillars in the church have been boarded around the base and it is estimated that some £100,000 will be needed to put things right.

But the history of Holy Trinity speaks for much more than the church as both an institution and a building. It opened when the wider Rotherhithe area was growing fast and the new church was commissioned in the time of post Second World War optimism. But then as shipping trade moved elsewhere – other ports were better equipped for new forms of cargo – Surrey Commercial Docks fell into decline and then closed for good in 1970.

If you visit the area today, you will realise that wasn’t the end for the area. London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC) was appointed to lead the charge on regeneration, rather than the task being left to local authorities. It has taken time, but the area is now booming and is an extremely desirable place to live. And with schemes like a new bridge to Canary Wharf planned, property prices will only continue to rise.

Holy Trinity church and its rich history provides continuity with the past. But it’s not the sort of place I would have encountered on my own had I not been in the capable hands of Ken Titmuss, aka the Old Map Man, who runs fascinating tours across hidden parts of London using historic maps as guide. This tour proved that even though the docks are closed (and many of the original basins have been filled in) clues to the past are still there and are waiting to be discovered.

Shipyards and dock pioneers

The Double Tree by Hilton on Rotherhithe Street is today popular with executives working in Canary Wharf, a short hop across the Thames. Guests can make use of the hotel’s clipper and be on the other side of the river in a matter of minutes. It’s a peaceful spot, with half of the building in a former granary and further bedrooms in a separate, modern block, which is connected by a glass walkway.

Pleasant as this hotel and its surroundings are, for history buffs, what’s fascinating about this site is that it that the buildings stand on what was previously a shipyard. Marked on Ken’s 1916 map as ‘Nelson’s Dockyard’, the dry dock survives as does a ‘wet’ dock. And on the road side of the site is a wonderful master shipbuilders’ house, which dates back to 1754, and would have been the head of the yard lived and held lavish parties. It boasts two entrances – one opening on to Rotherhithe Street and the other facing onto what was the workshop area itself.

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Surviving master shipbuilders’ house (1754)

Today, the house is one of few surviving buildings of its kind, but originally there would have been many more of these properties – and the yards they were attached to – on Rotherhithe peninsula. Many people associate Deptford as the centre of shipbuilding, yet Rotherhithe also has a long association with the trade in that a charter of 1612 acknowledged the ship builders of Rotherhithe. Indeed, the 1746 map that Ken gave us on the walk shows shipwrights and timber yards along the water’s edge.

Much of this eastern part of Rotherhithe was open land in the 18th century. But there is a very interesting spot – marked on the 1746 map as ‘Upper Wet Dock’ – that deserves some attention. Shown on the plan as surrounded by trees, it was dug out by the Duke of Bedford between 1695 and 1699 and could accommodate around 120 ships. It is the oldest dock south of the Thames and was initially intended to refit East India ships in a sheltered spot.

From the 1720s it was used by whaling ships from Greenland (explaining its later name of Greenland Dock) and whale oil was produced in dockside buildings, which created a terrible smell across Rotherhithe. This trade scuppered Bedford’s plans to create here the ‘Bloomsbury of south London’.

In 1806 Greenland Dock was bought by William Richie, a timber merchant and founder of the soon-to-be-created Commercial Dock Company. The whaling trade had pretty much died out by this point, so it was used predominantly for timber and grain imports. Although the warehouses that lined the quayside have gone, many of the apartment blocks that stand where they once were are built to resemble their style.

Greenland Dock was greatly expanded to some 22.5 acres between 1895 and 1904 at a cost of £940,000. The construction work meant that ocean-going Cunard liners and large cargo ships could be accommodated. Many people from Rotherhithe and Bermondsey people emigrated from here in the first decades of the 20th century. But as trade expanded in the 19th century – through for example imports of timber from Scandinavia and the Baltic, and food produce from Canada – numerous other docks were dug out on the Rotherhithe peninsula, covering an area of 460 acres (some 85% of the land mass here).

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Greenland Dock today

Surrey Commercial Docks – which eventually consisted of nine docks, as well as timber ponds and a failed canal, and controlled 80% of London’s timber trade – was described by Richard Jefferies in 1884:

“Everything here is on so grand a scale the largest component part is diminished; the quay, broad enough to build several streets abreast; the square on stretch of gloomy water; and beyond these the wide river…. It is a great plain; a plain of enclosed waters, built in and restrained by the labours of man, and holding upon its surface fleet upon fleet, argosy upon argosy. Masts to the right, masts to the left, masts in front, masts yonder beyond the warehouses.”

South Dock – built in 1807 and connected to Greenland Dock by Greenland Cut – was cleared of shipping during the Second World War and used for the building of Mulberry floating harbours which were used on D-Day. But overall the docks suffered considerable damage as a result of the bombing raids. And worse was to come as the shipping industry opted to use containers for carrying cargo, something Surrey Commercial Docks were ill-equipped for.

Regeneration

Looking at the 1916 map, the entire Rotherhithe peninsula was once pretty much covered in docks (like one giant lake, representing 150 acres of water), with only narrow strips of land separating the different basins. The last of these to be built was Quebec Dock, dating from 1926. But following the closure of the docks, the LDDC decided that much of the docks here should be filled in so that new homes, the Surrey Quays shopping centre and a new ecological park could be created. The likes of Greenland Dock – today used for water sports – and Canada Dock (now Canada Water) are rare survivors.

What I find fascinating is that even where docks have been filled in traces of the area’s maritime past remain. As you walk through the peaceful Stave Hill Ecological Park, you can see where the Russia Dock would have been, for example. The dock wall remains in place and waterside features, such as anchors, are still where they would have been when the quay was in commercial use.

And there are a number of interesting former dock buildings dotted around Rotherhithe peninsula as well. You can see, for example, the old lock keeper’s office at Greenland Dock and also a 1902 hydraulic lock gate engine. Then there is a swing bridge, which dates back to 1855 and was originally placed at the entrance lock of South Dock, and the Gauge House (used to help the lock-gates of the Thames to operate efficiently).

Before leaving the area of the old Surrey Commercial Docks I went to have a close look at a mocked-up shelter designed to show the sort of spot where those waiting for work each day on the docks would have stood. Murals painted at the back of this conjured up a variety of maritime scenes on the Rotherhithe peninsula. The whaling ships, timber ponds and bustling warehouses may have disappeared, but plenty of clues to the past remain.

For the date of Ken’s next Rotherhithe Docks walk, keep an eye of his website.

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Guage House, Greenland Dock


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Hydraulic lock gate engine, Greenland Dock


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Surviving dry dock at the Double Tree by Hilton hotel


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Stave Hill Ecological Park


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Surviving dock wall at former Russia Dock


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National School building (used from 1836 to 1910), now Holy Trinity church hall

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