On the south bank of the river, the hamlet of Rotherhithe had existed since at least the 12th century. Its medieval riverside church of St.Mary was rebuilt in 1714. During the 17th and 18th centuries the area was usually referred to by the alternative name of Redriff. Like the communities on the north bank, its people depended on sea-faring and maritime industries. It was home to many ships’ captains, most memorably Christopher Jones, master of the Mayflower that sailed the Pilgrims to America, who was buried at St.Mary’s in 1622. The local charity school, opposite the church, was founded for the sons of mariners in 1613 by Elders of Trinity House and in 1731 seventeen of its trustees were captains. Many of those who made up the vestry – the parish council – were ships’ masters.
At the end of the 17th century the large Howland Great Dock was opened at Rotherhithe for the laying up and repairing of ships. By the turn of the 19th century Rotherhithe’s long waterfront was lined with shipbuilders and breakers-yards, wharves, and dry docks, as well as the entrance to the Howland wet dock. Numerous stairs led down to the water. There were about twelve shipyards, with some perhaps dating back several centuries, building ships for the Royal Navy and East India Company amongst others. The famous painting by J.M.W.Turner shows The Fighting Temeraire being towed to John Beatson’s yard at Rotherhithe to be broken up. All these businesses were connected by the two-mile long Rotherhithe Street, which curved around the edge of the peninsula. By around 1800 the population of Rotherhithe was over ten thousand.
During the 18th century the Thames from London Bridge downstream to Limehouse Reach was busy, and often congested, with shipping. As vessels sat idle waiting to be unloaded for days, or even weeks, they became prey to theft, particularly from gangs based around Wapping. At the end of the century a marine police force was established, initially to combat theft from vessels arriving from the West Indies. At the same time, the West India merchants, frustrated by the lengthy delays they endured in unloading their cargoes, made plans for new enclosed docks that, in the early decades of the next century, were to completely change the riverside hamlets.
Sources include: John Marriott ‘Beyond the Tower’; Derek Morris & Ken Cozens ‘London’s Sailortown’; Millicent Rose ‘The East End of London’; John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598); The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669); Roger Williams ‘London’s Lost Global Giant’; Stephen Humphrey ‘The Story of Rotherhithe’; London Archaeologist magazine. Also, talks given to the Docklands History Group by: Prof. Sarah Palmer; Derek Morris & Ken Cozens; and Chris Ellmers. Many thanks to Derek Morris for his kind advice.
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