Bermondsey, Southwark

A densely developed – and developing – district, occupying a broad swathe of inner south-east London between Tower Bridge and the Old Kent Road

Hidden London: boozing in Bermondsey Square

Bermondsey’s Old Eng­lish name meant ‘Beornmund’s island’ and points to its gen­e­sis on hab­it­able ground amid the marsh­es. Evi­dence has been found of Roman and Sax­on occu­pa­tion. The dom­i­nant insti­tu­tion until the Ref­or­ma­tion was St Saviour’s Monastery – Bermond­sey Abbey – which was found­ed for the Clu­ni­ac order by mer­chant Ayl­win Child in 1089 on a site to the south of Tow­er Bridge. Near­by St Mary Magdalene’s was built as a parochial church in the 14th cen­tu­ry and rebuilt in 1680.

Bermondsey’s plen­ti­ful sup­ply of water and strong links with the City of Lon­don favoured the growth of its leather indus­try, with tan­nery pits dot­ting the area. Thomas Keyse’s dis­cov­ery of a spa in 1770 cre­at­ed a fash­ion­able resort but its pop­u­lar­i­ty was short-lived, the spa clos­ing in 1804.

Anoth­er side to the area was stark­ly embod­ied by Jacob’s Island, a river­side slum depict­ed by Charles Dick­ens in Oliv­er Twist. The island lay east of St Sav­iours Dock and south of Bermond­sey Wall, where the now-hid­den Riv­er Neckinger enters the Thames.

Bermondsey’s growth was encour­aged by the open­ing of the capital’s first pas­sen­ger rail­way, from Spa Road to Dept­ford, in 1836; it was soon extend­ed from Lon­don Bridge to Green­wich.

The borough’s pop­u­la­tion grew rapid­ly from 27,465 in 1851 to 136,660 in 1891. South­wark Park Road devel­oped into its main shop­ping street and South­wark Park its only sig­nif­i­cant open space. The con­tin­u­ing impor­tance of the leather trade was illus­trat­ed by the build­ing of the Leather Mar­ket on West­on Street in 1833 and the ornate Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange on the cor­ner of Leather­mar­ket Street in the late 1870s, when St Crispin’s Church was ded­i­cat­ed to the patron saint of leather and shoes.

The Bermond­sey wharves brought food pro­cess­ing as an indus­tri­al spin-off, and Hartley’s Jams estab­lished a fac­to­ry on Roth­say Street. The liv­ing con­di­tions of the urban poor inspired the work of the phil­an­thropist and MP Alfred Salter, whose wife Ada became may­or of Bermond­sey in 1922. She and her fel­low coun­cil­lors were active in replac­ing slums with ‘mod­ern’ ten­e­ments, plant­i­ng trees and turn­ing open spaces into play­grounds. The area suf­fered great­ly in the Sec­ond World War and post-war rebuild­ing did not treat it kind­ly. Indus­tries such as leather died away but the Leather Mar­ket and the neigh­bour­ing Exchange were saved from demo­li­tion in 1993 and con­vert­ed into work­spaces.

The regen­er­a­tion of the ware­hous­es to the east of Tow­er Bridge at Shad Thames has brought the Design Muse­um and oth­er attrac­tions. The fash­ion design­er and Bermond­sey res­i­dent Zan­dra Rhodes estab­lished the Fash­ion and Tex­tile Muse­um at 83 Bermond­sey Street. Dozens of bric-à-brac stalls oper­ate at the Fri­day morn­ing antiques mar­ket in Bermond­sey Square. There are also ware­house-based antiques deal­ers in Bermond­sey Street and Tow­er Bridge Road.

Postal districts: SE16; SE1
Population: 43,532 (Grange, Riverside and South Bermondsey wards, 2011 census)
Station: Jubilee line (zone 2)
Further reading: Stephen Humphrey, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Remembered (Archive Photographs), The History Press, 2008
See also: Jamaica Road
* The picture of the Mindful Drinking Festival 2017, Bermondsey Square, at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Voist Ltd, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.