Bermondsey

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History of the Area

Bermondsey lies between Southwark and Deptford on the south bank of the River Thames. Its name first appears as Bermundesye and may be derived from Beornmund's island. Bermondsey Abbey was founded as a priory by the Cluniac order in 1082 and the monks began developing the land near the outfall of the River Neckinger where they embanked the riverside and constructed St. Saviour's Dock where it joins the Thames close to where Tower Bridge was later built.

After the Great Fire of London Bermondsey started to get urbanised and a pleasure garden was constructed there. Samuel Pepys reported a visit to Jamaica House with his family and maids on 14 April 1667:

By and by away home, and there took out my wife, and the two Mercers, and two of our mayds, Barker and Jane, and over the water to the Jamaica House, where I never was before, and there the girls did run for wagers over the bowling-green; and there, with much pleasure, spent little, and so home, and they home, and I to read with satisfaction in my book of Turkey, and so to bed.

By the mid-19th century parts of Bermondsey had become notorious slums - particularly along the riverside and St. Saviour's Dock which was known as Jacob's Island. Charles Dickens used it as the setting for Bill Sikes to meet his end in 'Oliver Twist'.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants. To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman's door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner.

In such a neighbourhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob's Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch.

Industries considered too unpleasant to conduct in the City of London came to Bermondsey and it became a centre for trading and processing leather hides - a particularly smelly business.


Bermondsey was not all smells and filth though. The world's first food canning business was established there in 1812, by Bryan Donkin, John Hall and John Gamble. Donkin was a remarkable engineer who, quite apart from the canning business, had improved early Fourdrinier paper-making machines, was a director of Marc Brunel's Thames Tunnel Company and helped Charles Babbage in a dispute with the manufacture of his difference engine. The Donkin, Hall and Gamble canning company merged into the older and much larger Crosse and Blackwell food company in 1812.

Bermondsey became known as 'Biscuit Town' with the establishment of Peek Frean and Co. Factory construction started in 1866 on the site of former market gardens and the company remained at the heart of the community for over 100 years, earning a reputation as an enlightened employer that treated its workers well. The company introduced many biscuits still popular today including Marie, Bourbon, Custard Creams and Twiglets.

The Bermondsey riverside downstream of Tower Bridge had many wharves and warehouses but they became redundant in the 1960s with changes in maritime transport. After a period of dereliction, many have been converted into upmarket accommodation - particularly Butler's Wharf.

Raymouth Road

This photo shows cable laying work at Raymouth Road. In the background you can see the Peek Frean's biscuit factory in Drummond Road. My grandfather is standing in the trench and the first of many cables is being pulled over a series of pulleys.

Raymouth Road
Cable laying at Raymouth Road Bermondsey [1]

Here is the same view from Google Street View taken in 2023. It is interesting that the railway signal gantry is in about the same position as in the old photo.

Raymouth Road
Raymouth Road Bermondsey looking towards former Peek Frean factory from Gooogle Street View [7]

This 1916 Ordnance Survey map extract highlights Raymouth Road and shows the Peek Frean biscuit factory outlined in red. The railway line goes into London Bridge Station which is off the image to the top left.

Map
Ordnance Survey map extract from 1916 [2]

This photo is taken from a point slightly closer to the biscuit factory

Raymouth Road
Cable laying at Raymouth Road Bermondsey [1]

The next photo is one of just a few in my grandfather's collection that show workmen pulling a cable into place using the installed pulleys. It must have been backbreaking work. The man at the top of the trench is presumably synchronising the efforts to 'pull together'. It must have been somewhat like getting a group of seamen to pull the ropes to hoist sails on sailing vessels.

Raymouth Road
Cable laying at Raymouth Road Bermondsey [1]

The last photo in this set shows the cables all laid and covered with a protective layer of some kind of bricks or tiles.

Raymouth Road
Cable laying at Raymouth Road Bermondsey [1]

The main Peek Frean company closed in 1989 and the Peek Frean brand disappeared in the UK - although is still in use in Canada and the USA. The UK factory building was still standing in 2023 after rebranding as 'The Biscuit Factory' offering light industrial units and studios. How much longer it will be there remains to be seen as in 2013 planning permission was granted to demolish it to build 800 new 'affordable' homes and commercial floor space. The photos below show the building from Google Street View in 2023.

Biscuit Factory
View of 'The Biscuit Factory' from Google Street View [7]
Biscuit Factory
View of 'The Biscuit Factory' from Google Street View [7]

The 1920 aerial photo below shows the Peek Frean factory complex alongside the railway into London Bridge. Raymouth Road is just to the left of of the railway in the top right of the image with the view being from the opposite direction to that in the cable laying photos and London Bridge off the image to the bottom left.

Biscuit Factory
Britain from Above Image EPW000423 from 1920 [13]

The next page covers cable-laying at the Lambeth.