History of Rotherhithe

Rotherhithe is a riverside district of south London. It is almost a peninsula, filling the huge sweeping bend of the Thames immediately downstream of the upper pool. Appropriately, the focus for the town has been the River Thames, the sea, ships and seafaring. Even the place name refers to this relationship: ‘hithe’ means a landing place.

Like much of riverside Southwark the area is low lying and only defended from flood by the river wall, which follows the line of Rotherhithe Street. The historic nucleus of the parish is around St Mary’s Church, where the ground was just slightly higher and so dry. Rotherhithe was a place more devoted to industry and commerce than residence. In the 19th and 20th centuries the parish was dominated by huge areas of cut docks, the Surrey Commercial Docks. The docks have their origin in the Howland Great Wet Dock of the late 17th century which, when enlarged, became the Greenland Dock. It was originally built as a shelter for ships waiting to offload at the London quays. Vast amounts of softwood from Scandanavia and grain from Canada were landed here.

Shipbuilding, repairing and breaking was also prominent, typically at riverfront yards off Rotherhithe Street. Business was particularly brisk at times of war when the Royal Naval yard, just downstream at Deptford, sub-contracted much of this work. The firm of Randal and Brent, based at the Nelson Dock was prominent in the shipbuilding business, as was the firm of John Beatson in the breaking business; John Beatson is patricularly noted for being the firm which broke up the HMS Temeraire, a veteran of Trafalgar and the subject of Turner’s famous (albeit inaccurate) painting.

Rotherhite has also produced mariners: Jonathan Swift’s fictional traveller Lemuel Gulliver and the historical Christopher Jones, part owner and captain of the Mayflower, the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to America.

In the 18th century skilled and wealthy shipwrights and captains lived in Paradise Row, the principal street, while in the 19th century development was less ostentatious with many streets of small terraces.

See historic maps of Rotherhithe