Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The islands were home to every description of singing birds and waterfowl including snipe, wild ducks and moorhens though no mention of coots who give the moorhens such a hard time on the waterways of Rotherhithe today. There were partridges, herons and kingfishers, and swans were introduced that bred and thrived. The water of the islands was clean enough for eels, carp and even salmon.
But sadly this apparent idyll came to an end and it was said that what took centuries to create took only a score or two of years to reverse. A bank in the river had formed from the continual flushing of the ponds and streams that had become dangerous for river shipping. Flushing was prohibited in about 1809 so the old method of casting the collected sediment in the ponds onto the islands was returned to. This destroyed the beauty of the islands and the wealthy deserted them, to be replaced by the “humbler lot” who built over the islands. There is a passage in Beck (see below) that describes the sharp decline: “A great part of the mud found it ways back down the banks so that the water was greatly diminished and was considered of more expense than profit; and steam, that had been for many years used as an auxiliary to the water power entirely superseded it.” By the beginning of the 20th century, the streams and islands had disappeared and the main stream leading into the river had been culverted.
There are a couple of reminders to this “truly romantic place”: the leisure centre on Lower Road is named after the Seven Islands and a small 1930s built council estate to the east of West Lane is called the Millpond Estate.
Source: ‘Notes of an old inhabitants recollections’ in E J Beck (1907) Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St. Mary, Rotherhithe
Map of Rotherhithe 1848 (click to enlarge). Mill Pond and Islands can be seen on the left. Map from Ideal Homes website
Until the late 19th century, much of the land on the south side of the River Thames was waterlogged and marshy, intercut with a network of tidal water courses and ditches. In Rotherhithe, a tidal stream led from the river roughly following a route to the east of West Lane then continued to the east of Blue Anchor Road, now a part of Southwark Park Road. This watercourse, known as Mill Pond, intersected with Paradise Street where it travelled under a bridge called Mill Pond Bridge and a second bridge named West Bridge at roughly the place where Southwark Park Road and Jamaica Road meet today. The stream continued south where it divided into more streams, described as sluggish and dirty, with small areas of land in between, giving rise to an area known as Seven Islands. As more houses were built during the course of the 19th century, the only source of water for those who lived close by was from the filthy ditches of the Mill Pond.
But the watercourses described in 1878 as dirty ditches had in fact been a part of a well contrived pre industrial natural source of energy that powered a flour mill at the river’s edge, when the water had been clear and healthy and where wildlife flourished in an area of beauty. At the beginning of the 19th century, before the Surrey Commercial Docks were fully developed and the area extensively built upon to house dockworkers, Rotherhithe was mainly open fields and market gardens with few houses. It was possible to see from Seven Islands and Blue Anchor Road the hulls of the ships “at high water point passing some open spaces on the other side of the parish, somewhere about Cuckold’s Point.”
The network of ponds, channels and islands were regarded as one of the curiosities of Rotherhithe. Local tradition had it that the first of the ponds was created during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The area had large deposits of gravel which were excavated for ballast and used in the ships which were fitted out to defend the Thames at the time of the Spanish Armada. As the land was low lying, this formed a pond, the first, which was embanked. A channel was cut to connect it to the River Thames and the first water mill built driven by the rising and falling of the tidal water. The pond in time became choked by sediment from the river brought in at high tide so another linked pond was created further inland and the mud dug out thrown up to create islands. In time, the second pond also became choked which led to more ponds and streams being dug and more islands created from the mud. This process repeated over the next 200 years when it was considered to have been “brought to perfection, for after that each part reached in such a manner upon the other that there was no more accumulation of mud.” Eventually there were more than seven islands but it was seven that abutted onto the road with eleven bridges. The Island House Bridge, said to have “rather a pretty effect” was nearly 40 yards in length, crossed over the mains stream and formed an entrance to Island Tea Gardens. The streams were managed to drive the mill with a series of floodgates and sluices.
From the British Library website
“Islands were all rented as private gardens by the tradesmen and people of property in the neighbourhood and were well, indeed some of them were expensively, kept up with their fanciful summer houses and natty little boats in which they could row about the back streams and ponds at high water. For it would be as smooth as glass for several hours each tide and then all at once begin to move rapidly towards the mill and when you thought it had nearly run out, rush would come another stream, some sluice had been opened and then another down a different cut … and so they would go on in rotation, until the tide in the river again rose and the fall was no longer available. The island gardens altogether formed a very desirable spot for anyone who wished to enjoy quiet recreation."