Rotherhithe and Seafarers

Rotherhithe and Seafarers

Today Rotherhithe remains very much a separate community with a character of its own. Bounded by the Thames on one side, and on the other by the waters of the Surrey Commercial docks, it is easy to understand its long tradition of seafaring and all that has to do with ships. In 1620, when it was the home of Christopher Jones and others associated with the Mayflower, the neighbourhood was even more isolated. Rotherhithe, or by its old name Redriffe, consisted only of Rotherhithe Street, the longest Street in London, which follows the great bend of the Thames and is built on the river embankment.

At this time the heart of the village of Rotherhithe was the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. There had possibly been a church on this site since Saxon times; the building standing in 1620 dated from at least the early 12th Century. The list of rectors goes back to 1282. The Church's position on the river bank, made its tower a welcome landmark to homecoming sailors. The lovely building which stands on the same site today dates mainly from 1714, but a number of memorials preserved from the earlier church provide evidence that this was a parish of seafarers. A finely sculptured stone relief of a ship in full sail, nearly contemporary with the Mayflower, commemorates Captain Anthony Wood who died in 1625. The epitaph of Captain Roger Tweedy who died in 1655, leaving 'Two Shillings every Lord's day forever to be distributed among twelve poor seamen or seamen's widows in bread', is obviously that of a Rotherhithe Sailor:

'His soul a ship with graces fully laded

Through surges deep did plough and safely waded.

At Rotherhithe he did at length arrive

And to their poor his tribute fully gives

And in this port he doth at anchor stay,

Hopefully expecting Resurrection's day'.

Rotherhithe men who were not sailors were shipbuilders and their wooden sailing ships looked a fine sight at anchor in the Thames. In 1612 Rotherhithe received recognition as an official centre of the shipwright's craft when a charter was granted to 'The Master, Wardens and Commonality of the Art or Mystery of Shipwrights of Redrith in the County of Surrey'. Even in the 17th Century there was a dry dock at Rotherhithe. In 1700, the first of the great wet docks was constructed, known originally as the Howland Great Wet Dock after the Howland family who were the landowners at that time. Its purpose was to provide safe harbourage for ships, which had earlier been forced to anchor in mid river and suffer buffeting by storms. It came to be known by its present name, the Greenland dock, after 1725 when the South Sea Company leased it for the Greenland whaling trade. The other docks, which made up the 365 acres of the Surrey Commercial Docks, were constructed in the 19th Century.