Notes from a talk given by Diana Rimel
The land now covered by Bermondsey Square and St Mary Magdalene church was a low island rising slightly above the surrounding marshy ground. This was “Beormunds Ev”, the island of Beornmund, probably an early Anglo-Saxon lord who owned the land. Birds such as gulls, ducks, heron, snipe, moorhens and kingfishers thrived here and fish like carp and salmon swam in the tidal streams.
Bermondsey Abbey: A monastery founded in 1082 on the site of an older one (of 700AD) founded by the monks of St Peter at Ghent. Founded by Aylwin Child, a citizen of London, who gave the rents of some property to a monastery in France which subsequently came to Bermondsey. This monastery was under the Cluniac, a very strict order, with the monks wearing a black habit. It was under a Prior who was under the French Abbot of Cluny. In 1399 it became Bermondsey Abbey, under its first Abbot, an Englishman called John Attilburgh.
The Abbey became rich and famous and owned a great part at Southwark as well as other parts of England. It came to an end in 1538 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries throughout England. Sir Thomas Pope bought the abbey church and demolished it. With the stones he built himself a fine mansion known as Bermondsey House. Nothing now remains of either, but the main entrance to the abbey was through a gateway leading from Bermondsey Street into what is now Abbey Street. Bermondsey Square, where the Caledonian antiques market is held, was then the inner courtyard of the Abbey.
The abbey church, over 300 feet long, was on the line of Abbey Street, the altar being about where Abbey Street crosses Tower Bridge Road. Foundations of the church were excavated about 20 years ago and more recently.
Part of the stone work of the east gate of the Abbey is hidden behind the wall of No. 7 Grange Walk, and two hinges of the gate can be seen on the outside of this house. Nos. 5-11 and No. 67 are about 300 years old, some of the oldest in Bermondsey. Many of the street names around are reminders of the Abbey. For example Grange Road led to the Abbey grange or farm, at the corner of which is now Spa Road. The abbey’s mill for its corn was in Mill Street, not far from St Saviour’s Dock, where goods were landed for the Abbey of St Saviour.
St Mary Magdalene stands in Bermondsey Street, the old High Street of Bermondsey many hundreds of years old. The parish church is the oldest building in Bermondsey, built for the people who lived and worked on the abbey lands. Its list of rectors inside starts at 1291. Part of the west wall and lower part of the tower are contemporary with the old abbey. But most of the church was rebuilt in 1680, much as it is today. The only exception is the upper part of the tower, rebuilt in 1830. There are many beautiful objects inside. Church registers date from 1548.
The Watch house was built in 1816 and housed guards who protected churchyard graves from grave robbers ready to fill the nearby theatres of Guys and St Thomas’s hospitals.
Bacon’s School was the oldest school in Bermondsey. Founded in 1703 or 1718 with money left by Josiah Bacon, it used to be in Grange Road, where Southwark Institute of Adult Education now stands, but then moved to Pages Walk and Delaford Road. At first it was intended for 40-60 boys, but nearly over 100 boys and girls attended the college. It moved in 1990, funded by the LDDC, to a site in Timber Pond Road, close to Stave Hill Park, in a brand new building in the Surrey Docks. It is now known as Bacon’s College and is a Church of England sponsored City Technology College, an independent day school and community college admitting students of all abilities.
Bermondsey Spa: In the 18th century there was a fashion amongst the well-to-do in this country for taking the waters from a mineral spa or spring. Bermondsey Spa was discovered in 1770 by Thomas Keyse in the grounds of this tea gardens in what is now Spa Road. He provided entertainment for his visitors, including a picture gallery, musical concerts and grand fireworks displays. The Spa finally closed in 1804.
St James’s church: The clock tower can still be seen from many parts of Bermondsey, although the church stands close to the Jamaica Road. Next to St Mary Magdalene it is the oldest church still in use in the borough. It was built in 1829 when the population was increasing and could seat nearly 2,000 people. It looks like a Greek temple with its great entrance columns. It was built as one of the “Waterloo” churches, with money granted by parliament after the Battle of Waterloo., along with several others. Its bells were cast from cannon captured at Waterloo.
London to Greenwich railway: railway arches are a feature of the Bermondsey scene. The viaduct for this railway, 878 brick arches, was built in 1834 for London’s first passenger railway. The first part completed was Spa Road to Deptford and Spa Road station was the first temporary railway terminus in London for 10 months until London Bridge was completed. The first train ran on 8 February 1836. Spa Road station closed in 1915 but the words “Booking Office” are still there under the arches in Priter Way.
St Olave’s church stood in what is now Tooley Street, a corruption of St Olave (or Olaf) for 900 years. It was rebuilt in 1737-40 by Flitcroft and demolished in 1926-28. St Olaf’s House, near London Bridge, head office of the Hays Group, was built on the site. A picture and story of St Olave decorate the outside of the building. The top of the tower of the church was set up in Tanner Street recreation ground.
Bermondsey riverfront used to be lined with wharves and warehouses to the river’s edge, with ships, cranes and large ocean-going vessels, and was known as London’s larder.
Hay’s Wharf Company was one of the largest. Its founder, Alexander Hay, took over some property near that part of the Thames known as Hay’s Dock in 1651. Over the years it expanded all along the riverfront as far as Tower Bridge. The wharf suffered badly in the fire of 1861 which raged for two weeks, losing the owners some £2 million, but the wharf soon made good again. The Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, James Braidwood, lost his life in the fire (memorial on No. 33 TS). When about 1970 many of the docks were closed, the warehouses were either demolished or converted into luxury fiats or shopping malls such as Hay’s Galleria. Hay’s Wharf Dock remained unchanged until 1984 when it was filled in, the exterior walls of the development were then incorporated into what became London Bridge City.
Shad Thames and St Saviour’s Dock are now conservation areas, where once ships from many nations but especially the Baltic and Scandinavian countries plied their wares.
Star cinema Abbey Street was a popular place, la de da, tuppenny rush nicknames, as the cheapest seats were only two old pence. In Victorian times it was a music hall, later’ a cinema. Other cinemas included The Stork (Storks Road); The Trocette, (Tower Bridge Road); the Grand (Grange Road); the Rialto (St James’s Road); the Palace (Southwark Park Road).
Bermondsey Settlement was founded by the Rev Scott Lidgett of the Methodist church for boys and girls of fourteen whose education had finished school. It began in 1892 in Farncombe Street and had a lecture room, gym and library. It had concerts, art exhibitions and many interesting activities for youngsters. There was a dramatic society and football club, and a Guild of Play for younger children. It closed in 1967.
Dr Salter was the most important man in Bermondsey’s recent history. He studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital and got to know the area well. He was a Quaker. He joined the Bermondsey Settlement in 1898 where he met Ada, his future wife. In 1900 he set up as a doctor in Jamaica Road, giving his poor patients greatly reduced charges or not charging at all. From then until their deaths he and his wife continued to work devotedly for Bermondsey in a major way, including setting up its first health service.
Salisbury Street, near the river, was one of the worst areas for slums in Bermondsey. Dr Salter, by then a well-known MP, called it a death trap and fever den. It was rebuilt and renamed Wilson Grove. Now it has a pleasant village feel and is designated the Alfred Salter Conservation Area.
The War Memorial has the names of 1,274 men on the Roll of Honour for the Great War 1914-1918. The memorial in West Lane and the other to the men of Queen’s Regiment in Old Jamaica Road are the two for the borough of Bermondsey.