The peninsula of land known as Rotherhithe is created by a bend by of the River Thames as it loops south creating the Isle of Dogs on the north bank and the Rotherhithe peninsula on the south. The area was originally marsh land although its first mention is in AD868 and the land is listed in the Doomsday Book. The name "Rotherhithe" can be translated from the Anglo-Saxon for "Sailors' Haven".
Rotherhithe in about 1800
The area has always been used for ship building and docks owing to its natural geography and it is from here that the great fleet for the invasion of France was fitted out by Edward the Black Prince, here the first gunpowder factory in England was built in 1554.
In 1620 the Mayflower set sail from a berth near St Mary's church, where its captain Christopher Jones is buried (he died after the return of the ship to England a year later).
However it was with the industrial revolution and the growth of the British empire that the area gained its international reputation (along with Blackwall, Limehouse and Millwall) for ship building and the peninsula became known as Surrey Commercial Docks. Holy Trinity and three other new Anglican churches had been founded in Rotherhithe along with many from other denominations. They all ministered to the influx of ship builders, dockers and their families. Ministering to different needs were over 150 pubs, 57 of them on Rotherhithe Street alone.
In 1884 Richard Jefferies in "Venice in the East End" described the Surrey Docks :
"Everything here is on so grand a scale that 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 ware-houses." (Richard Jefferies, 1884)
One development that was particular to Rotherhithe, due to the timber trade with Scandinavia, was the establishment of Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish churches. The first two survive, though not in their original buildings, and they maintain close links with Holy Trinity. The Swedish church closed in 2012.
In Rotherhithe by the start of the 20th century there were fifteen basins and timber ponds covering a water area of almost 200 acres. A similar area was covered with wharves and warehouses. The docks were by far the largest local employer.
The work in the docks was hard and dangerous, the employment was insecure and seasonal and labour relations were often very poor. The ‘call-on’ system of twice daily hiring of casual labourers created fierce resentment and was likened to a cattle market. The docks were effectively nationalised in 1909 when they came under the control of the Port of London Authority but labour conditions improved only very slowly. Some of the casual labour arrangements continued until 1967.
Despite the events of September 1940, when 350,000 tons of timber burned on the wharfsides and Holy Trinity church was destroyed, somehow the Surrey Docks continued to operate throughout the war. Vital imports arrived by ship and many smaller naval vessels were built or repaired in the boatyards. Sections of the floating harbours for the D-Day landings were made in South Dock under conditions of great secrecy.
At about the time Holy Trinity Church was rebuilt in the late 1950s there was strong investment in the docks and a new period of prosperity seemed about to begin. However, within a decade, access for larger ships, new methods of cargo handling and better labour relations made newer ports far more successful. Trade at the Surrey Docks declined very rapidly and they closed completely in 1970 leaving large areas of Rotherhithe as vacant land. This was at a time when many other traditional sources of employment in the area were also in decline and the decade of the 1970s was a bleak one.
In 1974 the Hope Sufferance Wharf, near to St Mary’s church, was converted to small workshops in an attempt to bring small-scale craft employment to the area. Sadly that enterprise was short lived but nearby, at Grice’s Wharf, Sands Films have run the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library and a film production company since 1975. In 2011, Sands Films raised enough money to purchase their historic building by inviting local people to buy shares.
There were many other private initiatives and Southwark Council made regeneration efforts but in 1981 the government of the day formed the London Dockland Development Corporation. This took away all planning powers from local authorities in the former dock areas and favoured large-scale development schemes over less brutal piecemeal rebuilding or re-use of existing warehouses. For the most part the new building was for flats and houses and much less for industrial or commercial uses. In a very short time the area changed beyond recognition; in ways that were not always popular with local people.
Some decisions have been more popular. The Surrey Docks Farm was created. Large areas were set aside for open space and for recreation and there are still some stretches of open water. The Thames Path has been opened up along the river bank which was previously inaccessible to the general public.
On the other side of the river, on the Isle of Dogs, the setting up of an Enterprise Zone encouraged a different kind of development creating a new financial centre for the City of London, bringing new types of job and a new skyscraper skyline.
Inevitably, these improved transport links have created pressure for new development. Changes are already visible around the new Canada Water station where a new library building by Piers Gough and tall apartment blocks are going up on previously open land.
Planned re-development of retail and commercial sites in the same area will soon create a much higher population density.