Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Ships that sailed from the Baltic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to the Surrey Commercial Docks in the 19th century brought not just the sought after timber and deal but the men who sailed and worked on the boats. Whilst the boats were in dock, which could be for several weeks, the seamen spent time on shore, and to cater for their needs, primarily with regard to their religious and moral welfare, the churches in the Scandinavian countries established seamen’s missions. The first Baltic Church founded in London was in Wapping at the very end of the 17th century for Danish seamen but as the Surrey Commercial Docks grew in prominence, especially with regard to the import of timber, the Baltic churches opened Missions in Rotherhithe.
In 1875 the Finnish Government sanctioned the foundation of the Finnish Mission in the UK to meet the spiritual and practical needs of Finnish Seamen in the UK. The first mission was set up in Grimsby and in 1882, the first Finnish pastor arrived in Rotherhithe. In the beginning, the Finnish Mission shared premises with the Norwegian church until in 1894 the Mission was offered a site by the Surrey Commercial Docks Co.
It would be easy to mistake the Finnish Church in Albion Street for a building whose purpose is something other than a church. The main building from the outside looks more like a small block of flats and the tower to the side looks like a training tower found at a fire station, the only sign that this is a building with a religious purpose is the large cross displayed on its side. This is the third Finnish Church/Seamen’s Mission in London, consecrated in 1958. The building is Grade II listed.
A single storey iron building was erected and consecrated by the end of the year. It served as church and reading room and the pastor at that time described the site as quiet and “disturbed only by the thumping and clanking of the nearby mills and factories and the hooters of the steamship on the river.” The Rev Beck of St Mary’s Rotherhithe described the church as hidden away in the “stone alleys” that led from Rotherhithe to Deptford, and suggested the congregation was not very large.
In fact, by 1910 the attendance was said to have dwindled to only a handful. For some reason, about this time, there had been a shift of seagoing traffic from the south to the north side of the river and Finnish seamen spent their time between trips in the East End. The costs for the church had been £400 but now it was sold for only £25. The Mission rented various premises which was not a satisfactory arrangement and a Swedish aristocrat offered the use of her flat to the Finnish congregation but it was found to be too cramped, the more so as the sailors had to share the space with 11 cats and two parrots. The Rotherhithe tunnel opened in 1908 and three years later the pastor of the Finnish Mission noticed a site in Horseferry Branch Road at the northern end with an LCC notice saying the site was to let. A lease was signed and building work for a new Mission commenced with the new church consecrated at the end of 1912.
The Finnish Church moved back to Rotherhithe in the mid fifties and the current, unusual modern church in Albion Street was consecrated in 1958. Now with the London Docks closed, it has become a cultural and social centre for Finns living in the UK in addition to being a place of worship. It offers boarding facilities, and has a cafeteria and shop that sells Finnish produce. Every year, a Scandinavian Christmas Fair is held in Rotherhithe with the Finnish Church and the neighbouring St Olav’s Norwegian Church in Albion Street playing a leading role where stalls sell a wide variety of tempting Scandinavian arts and crafts and food. And the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe must be one of the few churches in London, if not the only church, to offer sauna facilities.
Recently completed in the early 1960s