Excursion to Rotherhithe, by Jane McChrystal.


If you’re a Londoner with time on your hands, take a trip to Rotherhithe and spend an afternoon immersed in centuries of history.

Rotherhithe lies on the banks of the Thames where the roads haven’t been devoured by traffic, no towers block the view of the river and its cobbled streets stand cut off from the rest of Bermondsey and South London.  As you observe the converted mills and warehouses, it’s easy to imagine the way many earlier generations of Londoners saw their city.

Start with the Mayflower Pub where you can sit suspended over the river on its wooden jetty and look upriver towards Tower Bridge and the Shard.  The pub was built in 1780 and traded under a number of different names until a canny employee of Charrington’s brewery renamed it the Mayflower, evoking images of the Pilgrim Fathers climbing on board its namesake as they set sail on the first leg of a journey from Rotherhithe to Cape Cod.

A collective memory of plucky puritans fleeing from persecution in England proves a little fuzzy on closer examination.  While it is certain the Mayflower set sail for Maine from Plymouth in 1620, its exact association with Rotherhithe and the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage is harder to pin down.  It is true, though, that the vessel was built and fitted out there in 1588 by a group of ship-builders, including John Vassall, a local resident.

The Pilgrim Fathers were, in fact, a group of religious separatists, who first sought refuge from the Ungodly population of England in Holland.  Dutch Protestantism proved insufficiently bracing so they returned to England, where they were joined by fellow believers who were appalled by the prevalence of Roman Catholicism at the court of King James I.  Together they decided to start a settlement in the New World, free from the burden of tolerating anyone else’s religious convictions.

They were funded by the 17th century equivalent of venture capitalists who gambled on getting a good return on their investment, once the Fathers had established their colony.  In 1726 they gave up hope of ever reaping any profits, as the settlers struggled with the ravages of disease, death, famine, extreme weather and internecine strife, not to mention despoiling the locals of their precious seed corn, while committing heinous crimes against some of them.

The centrepiece of Rotherhithe is St. Mary’s Church, built in 1716 by John James, an associate of Christopher Wren.  The burial ground houses the grave of Prince Lee Boo, son of the King of a Pacific Island, now known as the Republic of Belau, who died in 1784.  The young prince arrived in Rotherhithe in the same year with the sailors of the Oroolong, a ship they built on his island, after they were wrecked off the coast of China, with the help of the King.  The story goes that the King wanted his son to learn everything the white men knew, and so sent him away to England in the hope that he’d return one day with all the knowledge.  The observant reader will have noticed that Lee Boo didn’t last long once he got here.  He succumbed to small pox six months after his arrival.

Maybe there is some consolation to be had from the fact that this encounter between the men of the East India Company and an indigenous population didn’t end in violence and exploitation, even though poor Prince Lee Boo died.  Doubtless he was seen as an exotic curiosity, but it seems his appealing nature, curiosity and application to learning all he could about this new culture impressed and won over everyone he met.

Leaving the churchyard, a simple, elegant, brown brick eighteenth-century building on St. Mary Church Street might catch your eye.  It is notable for two charming polychrome statues supported by scroll corbels which are fixed to the first-floor wall.  They portray a pair of scholars, a girl and a boy, who might have attended the Peter Hills School around 1700, as beneficiaries of a legacy left originally by Peter Hills in 1614 for the education of the sons of indigent Rotherhithe seamen.

Turn right and two minutes’ walk away you’ll find the Brunel Museum.  This small independent museum sits on top of an extraordinary underground cavern, the entrance to Marc Brunel’s tunnel which now links the Overground railway line between Wapping and Rotherhithe.  The hall was sunk in 1825 and originally was used as a theatre.  It has now reverted to this purpose and hosts a regular programme of musical and theatrical events.

Retrace your steps towards 70 St. Mary Street and you will see the modestly-named Sands Films at number 82.  This is a grade 2 converted mill made up of a warren of mud-floored corridors and rooms which hosts a collection of treasures.

There is a picture research library offering anybody looking for images of wide, eclectic range of subjects free access to materials filed in hand- labelled folders stored on wooden shelves.

There is a theatrical costumier and costume workshop which has provided costumes for Mr Turner, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Poldark to name just three in recent years.

It also has production offices, a sound stage, dressing rooms, a set workshop, and screening theatre available for hire to film and theatre professionals.

Many people are introduced to Sands Films by the Tuesday evening themed film club whose recent showings have included a season of 1950’s Italian films.

The collections and activities of Sands Films form a unique resource, but its props, costumes and paintings are also used to dress the rooms and corridors to create a place of enchantment.

The Mayflower, St. Mary’s Church, Peter Hills School, the Brunel Museum and Sands Films merely hint at the depth of the history in Rotherhithe, which was a major centre of shipbuilding for hundreds of years until the 19th Century.

Looking back at the opening sentence I can see that an afternoon isn’t really enough to do Rotherhithe justice.

If you’re visiting London in late November this year from anywhere in the world, I can recommend an early evening excursion to St. Mary’s on Thanksgiving Day.  Rotherhithe’s residents stage an annual lantern-lit procession to the church and a concert to commemorate the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage on the Mayflower, which they put on for the first time in 2016 as part of the countdown to its four hundredth anniversary.

Jane McChrystal © 2017.