The Parish

The Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe

Rotherhithe has been a place of human habitation for many centuries. Men and women have lived, worked, and worshipped here since Roman times. There is documentary evidence that a church has existed on this site since 1282, when the Abbot of Westminster and the Rector were involved in a lawsuit over fishing rights. However, when the tower was underpinned in 1913 Roman bricks were found, so it is probable that there was an earlier building on the site.

The area was eventually served by Catholic priests from Bermondsey Abbey. Following the break with Rome under Henry VIII in 1538, the vestments, silver and gold plate and other gifts of the cathedral were sold to provide money to repair the mediaeval church.

Some remains of the mediaeval building can still be seen, for example stone blocks incorporated into the walls on each side of the organ. In the crypt parts of the old church walls of chalk and flint are visible, and some later Tudor brickwork. A drawing which was made of this building in 1623 has survived. Although the artist had difficulty representing the perspective of the old church, this drawing is the only remaining evidence of its appearance. A few memorials from the old church have survived.

Rotherhithe had to adapt to the reformed religion of the 16th Century, and gradually became a fervently puritan area. It was during this time that the Mayflower sailed to America (1620) and established the links between America and Rotherhithe, which still exist more than 380 years later.

In 1710, when the parishioners of St Mary's petitioned parliament for a grant to rebuild their church 'which standing very low and near the banks of the Thames, is often overflowed, whereby the foundation of the church and tower is rotted and in great danger of falling', they pleaded that 'the inhabitants consisting of seamen and seafaring men in general have sustained great losses by sea during a long war' (the Marlborough wars against France). The petition was not successful but the parishioners were not discouraged. They went on to collect subscriptions and the local craftsmen, of which there were many, turned their hands to church building!

John James, a major architect of his day (and an associate of Sir Christopher Wren) was in charge of the work. As money was short the tower was not finished until 1747, when Lancelot Dowbiggin completed the rebuild. Since then the external appearance of the church has remained almost unchanged. It is set in a narrow street close to the Thames, surrounded by former warehouses and facing the charity school house which was built in 1703.


Bells and bell ringing

Sunday morning, outside looking up - and later inside, looking down.

The bells were restored and re-hung, and essential repairs made to the spire, between 1996 and 1999. They are regularly rung by members of the Docklands Ringing Centre. For further information please visit the Ringing Centre web-site:

Mediaeval wall of chalk and flint, in the approach to the crypt.



Tudor brickwork in the approach to the crypt.



The Reynolds memorial: plague in 1593.

This is one of the few remaining memorials from the earlier building. In nearby London in 1593 there was a great upsurge in deaths from the plague,and this disease may have been the cause of the family tragedy recorded here. Some few words are difficult to make out (see below), but the sense of the text is clear:




'Next without this wall are buried, Brian, Richard and Mark, Alize and Elizabeth, the three Sonnes and two daughters of Nicolas Reynolds Citizen and Goldsmithe of London and of Elizabeth his wife. The said Elizabeth theyr younger Daughter was maried to Robert Wheatley Sallter the XX day of August 1593 and she died the XVIII day of September the same year,

"These Blossoms Younge and tender loe, blown down by deadly winde

May urge the riper sorte to knowe, like blast shall them out finde

For fleshe as grasse away doth wither, no age can it eschewe

Yonge and olde decay together when deathe shall them pursue

No parents frends or advocate, can him intreate to spare

The fayre the fine or dilicate for threats he doth not care

Let that most certen statue made by God our Mighty Kinge

All men assure and eke perswade, death shall them equall bringe"


Peter Hills and his Free School:

A brass plate commemorates 'Peter Hills, Mariner, one of the Elder Brothers of the Company of the Trinity' and Master of Trinity House in 1593. He died six years before the sailing of the Mayflower and, together with Robert Bell, 'gave the free School and £3 per annum to the master to teach eight children, sons of seafaring men'. (Founded by Henry VIII to provide buoys, lighthouses, and assist mariners, Trinity House used to run the coastguard and pilot services).


'Here lyeth buryed the body of Peter Hills Mariner one of the eldest brothers and assistants of the company of the Trinity and his two wives, who while he lived in this place gave liberally to the poore, and spent bountierfully in his house, and after many and great troubles being of the age of 80 yeares and upward Departed this life, havinge noe issue upon the 16th day of February Anno Domini 1614. This was made at the charge of BT Bell Though Hills be deade His will and act survies, his freeschole and his pension for the poore Thought on by him performed by his heire for eight poorest seamens children and no more'

A charity board at the back of the church lists what in the late18th and early 19th centuries were substantial benefactions towards rebuilding and supporting the school. In 1797 Peter Hills School moved to a house just across the road from the church. On the exterior are two figures of a schoolboy and girl of the 18th Century. The school provided an education for Rotherhithe children until 1939.

The Free School Charity Board

The sum left by Peter Hills was small. It became insufficient to support the school, but others came forward to help. Their contributions were recorded and displayed in the church, where they can still be seen. The school was funded in this way until the early 20th century


Brass of Peter Hills and his two wives:

The brasses commemorating Peter Hills were salvaged from the old building and fixed to the floor of the middle aisle of the present church. They became damaged in this position so were removed, mounted, and put on display in the late19th century. Despite the severe damage the portraits retain a presence, especially the wife on the right whose outward gaze appears remarkably direct.


Everilda Bracken memorial tablet

This simple memorial commemorates one who died caring for the sick during the second and most serious outbreak of cholera ever to affect England and Wales. In the period 1848-1849 over 53,000 deaths from this disease were registered, out of a population of about 14 million. The nature of this water born disease was quite unknown at the time.