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No.5 Southwark: Tower Hill to Rotherhithe

In 1984 GLIAS produced this walks leaflet, compiled by Robert Vickers and David Perrett.

We have reproduced it here for historical interest. Links to entries in the GLIAS Database are given.

In 'Oliver Twist' Bill Sikes met his death in a district which Dickens described as 'the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants ... in such a neighbourhood, beyond Dockhead, in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob's Island'.

Today some parts of his description may not apply. The slums have gone and the area is dominated by the remains of 19th-century industries and Victorian riverside warehouses. Jacob's Island is now remembered only in a street name but Shad Thames, Mill Street, Dockhead and Rotherhithe, although forming a fascinating riverside area within a mile of the City, are still unknown to the majority of Londoners.

The walk is about two miles long and should take less than two hours.

No.5 Southwark: Tower Hill to Rotherhithe

Starting from Tower Hill station (LT District and Circle Lines) follow the signs to the St Katharine Docks. Cross the road via the subway and turn left at the remains of the Postern Gate. Ascend the first flight of steps leading onto the Tower Bridge approach road.

On the left the new office blocks are replacements for the original St Katharine Docks warehouses of 1828. An attempt to recreate the original appearance has been made by re-siting wall cranes and cast-iron columns but note that the brickwork is non-structural. The cast-iron parapets and lamp standards on the Bridge Approach are by T R Creighton Ltd, Stepney, whose foundry survived until c.1960.

Cross the road and walk onto the bridge.

Tower Bridge

① Tower Bridge (GTL00001) was built 1886-94 to the designs of the City Architect Sir Horace Jones, and the engineer, Sir John Wolfe Barry. The central span is 200ft with two 270ft side spans. The steel-framed towers, faced with stone, rise 206ft above road level. The hydraulic machinery supplied by Armstrong's, which could raise the twin 1,000 ton bascules in four minutes, has been replaced by electric motors. An original control room is preserved on the south pier.

A moveable bridge was needed in order to allow ships to enter the Upper Pool. Then warehouses lined the banks of the Thames immediately downstream of London Bridge, now only a few survive on the south bank.

South of the bridge the road passes over the arches housing the boilers and steam engines, which generated the hydraulic power.

(Parts of the bridge, including the engines and the high level walkway, are open to the public.) On the left, in front of you, stand the chimney and accumulator tower associated with the original hydraulic system.

Tower Bridge Tower Bridge chimney and accumulator tower

Go down the steps next to the chimney and at the bottom turn right into Shad Thames (GTL00044).

The view ahead is a rapidly disappearing Thames-side scene, with a narrow lane running between the cliff-like walls of the warehouses. Bridges on several levels connect the riverside. buildings with later but more extensive landward warehouses which became necessary as trade expanded during the 19th century.

Shad Thames 2009. Robert Mason Shad Thames 2021. Robert Mason

② The Anchor Brewery (GTL00275) was established by John Courage in 1787 and brewing started in 1789. The premises on the south side of the road (GTL01408) were the fermenting rooms, cooperage and offices. The brewhouse proper was on the riverside where malt, coal, etc. could be easily unloaded. The present riverside buildings mainly post-date a fire in May 1891; the chimney is dated 1895. Brewing ceased here in 1981.

Anchor Brewery Anchor Brewery

On the right is the Butler's Wharf office with its square cast-iron columns. The clock is dated 1891-92 but in Curlew Street a wall plaque says 1886. The riverside buildings date from 1873-75 and through the elaborate cast-iron wharf entrance gates one can look over to St Katharine Docks. The hydraulic cranes at the top of the warehouses served the goods doors on each floor.

Stand on the corner of Maguire Street.

Immediately to the right is the re-faced gable end of a large granary from before 1850. Its original character is best seen to the rear.

③ Next door the terracotta and glazed brick building is the Thames Water Authority's Shad Thames storm relief pumping station (GTL00772), built by the L.C.C. between 1906-8. Inside, the six giant three-cylinder gas engines made by the Campbell Gas Engine Co. of Halifax (three were installed in 1907, the others in 1929) are being replaced by electric pumps during 1984.

Shad Thames Pumping Station

Continue along Shad Thames passing the 1922 concrete warehouse, part of Butler's Wharf.

From here eastwards was one of London's principal milling districts. The nose should detect the area's last working spice mill of Butler's Grinders & Operators Ltd (GTL04035). Because of the industry's high fire risk the mill has, above the roof, a large cast-iron water tank to feed a sprinkler system.

Butlers and Colonial

Following the line of the waterfront is a series of traditional narrow-fronted wharves, with warehouses and mills variously rebuilt in the second half of the last century, named Java, Crown, Andrews, St George's, Shuter's, Dockhead, No 1 and No 2. Notice the small cast-iron framed windows, goods doors with hinged loading platforms at each floor and a crane at the top. St Andrew's was built in 1893 for Brown & Co, Flour Millers, and No 2 is marked '1883. Erected by Talbot & Lugg'.

Java Wharf St Andrews Wharf St Saviours Wharf St George's Wharf Shuters Wharf Dockhead Wharf

④ Over the wall is one of the finest surviving views in Docklands. The narrow channel of St Saviour's Dock (GTL00066) was originally the mouth of the River Neckinger and the site of a tide-mill owned by St Saviour's Abbey, Bermondsey. You can clearly see the relationship between the river and the warehouses; river-craft, which only had access at high tide, were unloaded by the powerful wallcranes.

St Saviour's Dock St Saviour's Dock

Over the road, the building adjacent to the Dockhead Stores pub is also by Talbot & Lugg (1884), local builders and builders' merchants, established here in 1876. They occupied these premises until the 1970s. To the rear the three-storey building with a square chimney, formerly Phoenix Wharf, was a spice grinding works.

⑤ Devon Mansions stretch from Tooley Street to Dockhead. Originally called Hanover Buildings, they were built c.1888 to house 525 dockers and their families as a philanthropic venture by James Hartnoll based on revolutionary concepts introduced from Germany. Recently refurbished they contrast sharply with the un-modernised Tower Bridge Buildings in Mill Street.

Turn left into Mill Street

From 1858 to about 1892 Peek Frean's, biscuit makers, occupied the tall building on the right (GTL00811). From 1892 another famous biscuit maker moved from the city into these premises and in the next street, Wolseley Street, an extension of c.1907 is marked 'W R Jacob & Co Ltd. Note the factory doorways marked 'Workers' and 'Office'.

8 Mill Street

Continue down Mill Street.

James Vogan moved here from Tooley Street in 1849 and Vogan & Co still occupy Mill Wharf, a miscellaneous group of buildings (GTL01541). Behind the concrete silo (1955), is the pea-splitting mill (c.1850), next is the pearl barley mill (c.1920) followed by the lentil mill of c.1862.

⑥ Jacob Street is a reminder of the 'Jacob's Island' slum of Dickens' fame. L.E.S.C. on the transformer house on the corner stands for the London Electricity Supply Co (GTL04039).

L.E.S.C. transformer house

St Saviour's Wharf (GTL04040) is still a warehouse, while New Concordia Wharf (1885) (GTL01539), originally a flour mill, is presently being converted into flats. Spiller's Mill, on the right, made dog biscuits until 1983.

New Concordia Wharf

At the end of Mill Street turn in to Bermondsey Wall West.

The road now follows the line of the riverbank. Here Reed's Wharf (GTL04025) is also being converted into flats.

Reed's Wharf

At St Saviour's House look down George Row.

On the right are the empty premises (1864) of W A Crips, Engineers, Smiths and Welders, who were also hand-made chainsmiths (GTL00723). Note the cast-iron lattice windows. On closure in 1980 much equipment was removed for preservation.

Former premises of W A Crips

Continue along Bermondsey Wall West passing Nos 29-33 (GTL04024), another granary-style warehouse of c.1865, which was used for a time as a grist mill.

Tempus Wharf

Bear left into Chambers Street, pass the large cold store (c.1938). At the end cross Bevington Street and go down the alleyway.

⑦ The tree-lined roads ahead (Wilson Grove, Scott Lidgett Crescent, Jane Street & Emba Street) form part of Bermondsey Garden Suburb built in 1928 by Bermondsey Borough (GTL00789). They are the only completed part of a larger scheme inspired by Dr Alfred Salter, a local doctor and politician.

Emba Street

Turn left up Farncombe Street.

Near the river is the Duffield Sluice House (1822) situated above the outfall of a pre-Victorian sewer (GTL01187).

Duffield Sluice

Follow Bermondsey Wall East, passing the converted warehouse block (GTL04023), the sole survivor of the many which crowded this area until the 1960s.

Corbett's Wharf

On the wall of the Angel pub a blue and white enamelled sign reads 'Royal Humane Society equipment kept here', a reminder of the dangers on the Thames; in 1900 one waterman was drowned each week. The isolated building, 41 Rotherhithe Street, is the offices of Braithwaite & Dean, one of the last firms of licensed Thames lightermen (GTL00986).

Angel pub Braithwaite & Dean

Follow the path through the park and at the gate turn left into Jamaica Road towards the Rotherhithe Tunnel (GTL00026).

⑧ The road tunnel, 4,860ft long, was constructed in 1904-08. Over the entrance to the approach road is part of the Greathead shield used in its excavation. Adjacent is the Norwegian Church, built for Norwegian sailors coming to the whaling and timber wharves in Surrey Docks. The toilets at the entrance to the tunnel have Norwegian and English signs.

Rotherhithe Tunnel © Sidney Ray

Bear left into St Mary Church Street and right into the park.

⑨ On the right, the 1895 mortuary (GTL00904), which still contains hooks for hanging up bodies fished from the Thames, is now used by the Time & Talents Association, a religious organisation, also founded in 1895, to help working-class girls.

Time & Talents Association Engine House St Mary's Free School

The façades on the corners of the burial-ground are inscribed Watch House, 1821, and (Fire-) Engine House, 1821. On the right is the former St Mary's Free School, founded in 1613, but the present building with statues of schoolchildren in uniform was an 18th-century house.

Turn left, bear right into Elephant Lane and, at Princes Ironworks (GTL01017), tug & barge repairers, turn right into Rotherhithe Street.

Next to Wilson's yard is a restored 1930 hydraulic crane alongside two electric cranes. Hope (Sufferance) Wharf (GTL03734), dating from c.1800, has been re-used as craft workshops. In the 18th century the growth of shipping on the Thames led to the Customs licensing, under sufferance, private wharves for the import of goods.

Hope (Sufferance) Wharf

The handsome Georgian St Mary's Church is a reminder of Rotherhithe's more prosperous days as the home of sea-captains. Thames Tunnel Mills (GTL03688), a former flour mill, has been converted into flats. Notice the milestone outside the Mayflower. Opposite, a picture library occupies the former Grice's Granary (c.1795) (GTL01079), which has a remarkable timber interior.

Thames Tunnel Mills Grice's Granary

⑩ Next is the restored engine-house (GTL00036) which housed the engines powering the pumps for draining the Thames Tunnel (GTL03629). The Tunnel runs from here to Wapping. Built by Sir Marc Brunel between 1825 and 1843, this was the world's first underwater tunnel built using a tunnelling shield. Intended as a road tunnel, its approaches were never built, and for the first 26 years it was used only by pedestrians. In 1869 it reopened to carry the East London Railway now the Metropolitan Line (East London Branch). The engine-house now contains a small display about the tunnel, a restored steam engine and other exhibits. Members of the Brunel Project open it on summer weekends.

Brunel Museum Brunel Museum  Thames Tunnel

Turn right into Railway Avenue and right into Brunel Road at Rotherhithe Station (LT), where our walk ends.

© GLIAS, 1984