Rotherhithe is an 'urban village' in South East London. The name is Saxon, meaning 'Mariners' landing place', which demonstrates the long history of habitation in the area. The river Thames half surrounds the district, which used to consist of marshes, meadows, and rivulets - prehistoric animal and human remains have been found and ancient causeways, deep under the present surface of the ground, leading towards the river, give a clue about the importance of the river Thames and of the community living on its banks.
Over the centuries, the area has been transformed from one of total rurality to become one of complete urban living. There have been immeasurable changes in the social and working structures of the community - emerging from a village of mariners, ship repairers, ship breakers, whalers, market gardeners and finally, dockers.
Docks had existed in the neighbourhood from the 17th Century, reaching a peak of activity prior to the 2nd World War. It was an area vibrant with life, highly populated, with sons following their fathers into the same trade. Even so, here was an area of great poverty and social deprivation. In the 1930's this led to Bermondsey Borough Council developing an ambitious programme of 'slum clearance' and the start of successful rebuilding.
The 2nd World War left the area severely bombed, with many human casualties. After the war, the docks required business, but the political balance of the country at this time weighed heavily against inner city trade and industry. The result of containerisation and the building of larger ships created trade further down the river at Tilbury. As a consequence the 'Surrey docks' at Rotherhithe were closed in 1971 and fell into decay. They remained derelict until the early 1980's, when the then Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher created the 'London Docklands Development Corporation' This had sweeping powers, was a planning authority in its own right and for a period of approximately 16 years carried out a huge programme of regeneration for London's Dockland areas.
Much good has come of this, but many problems remain; what cannot be constructed is the sense of belonging, with that closeness and concern for neighbours which underpinned the old community. Some of this remains, but much has yet to be conceived and born out of patient work and unselfish community building. Time will tell!
An Engineering Triumph
In 1825 a foot tunnel under the Thames was begun by Marc Brunel. This pioneering feat of engineering was successfully completed in 1843 by his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Originally it was provided with shops, but 1869 it was converted into a tunnel for use by one of the Railway Companies of Victorian England.It is still in use by London Underground. An old print of work in progress shows St Mary's in the background.
Shipping in the Pool of London, with St. Mary's in the background~
The Diving Bell at work over the Thames Tunnel;
- looking to the South Bank and St. Mary's