Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Opposite the church in St Marychurch Street is a secluded public park that opened in 1901 called St Mary’s Churchyard Gardens. It was formerly a burial ground that opened in 1821 when the graveyard surrounding St Mary’s Church was full and unable to accommodate any further interments. At the same time as laying out this new space for burials the parish also built a watch-house and engine house, one each side of the entrance to the new burial ground. The engine house, not to be confused with Brunel’s Engine House close by, housed the parish’s fire-fighting engine.
The parish fire engine was kept busy during the months of October, November and December 1834 when there was a series of arson attacks that alarmed residents, warehouse owners, business owners and wharfingers alike. There was daily speculation where the next fire might be and the “fire engine was kept constantly parading the streets ready for action.”
One of the earliest fires began at a mast maker’s and spread to several adjoining properties and it was reported that it seemed that the whole shipping on the river was in flames. More than 20 houses and warehouses were destroyed and the damage was estimated at £50,000. Another fire in November which destroyed a tavern and 12 houses inhabited by the poor led to the loss of two lives. Another fire destroyed a tar merchant’s premises and the adjoining shipyard, and there were many more minor fires. One of the most destructive fires destroyed the row of buildings facing onto the river opposite the church including Thames Tunnel Wharf, the adjoining granary and the Spread Eagle Tavern (now the Mayflower pub) It was soon realised that these fires were not accidents but had been deliberately started.
Then most shockingly in early December 1834, a local policeman whose beat in Rotherhithe had either taken in the locations or was very close to where arson had been committed was arrested for the crimes and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. Constable Palmer, whose first name is given alternatively as William and Henry in newspaper reports, was imprisoned in Horsemonger Gaol and the dreadful incidents ceased. Palmer however never stood trial. The Revd. Beck, one time Rector of St Mary’s in Rotherhithe explains in his history of Rotherhithe “Memorials to serve for the History of the Parish of Rotherhithe” (1907):
“This calamitous series of fires happened soon after the establishment of the police force, and before it had attained the confidence and popularity which it later on enjoyed; and there was a feeling that if possible the stigma which his conviction would have entailed on the civil power should be avoided.”
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade was founded in 1866 in the wake of the Great Fire of Tooley Street. In that year there was a floating fire station off King’s Reach Stairs and a fire station in Lucas Street, now Cathay Street, on the Bermondsey border. Later there were fire stations in Gomm Road and Coburg Street (now Neptune Street). ( This is partly guesswork but, looking at old maps, it’s possible the fire station in Lucas Street closed and a new station opened in Cherry Garden Street around 1893.)
The fire station at Pageant’s Wharf on Rotherhithe Street was opened in 1903, built to deal with potential fires in the timber yards of the Surrey Commercial Docks and other highly combustible goods stored locally. The fire station and its personnel faced a horrific ordeal which was met with great bravery and courage on the night of 7 September 1940 when German bombers released high incendiary bombs over the Surrey Commercial Docks, a prime target for the Luftwaffe as their destruction would disrupt the British supply chain. Within minutes the whole of the docks were alight and half a mile of the Thames riverside ablaze. Reinforcements were brought in and a total of 1,000 pumps and crews were deployed to fight the inferno and bring it under control. Station Officer Gerry Knight lost his life the following night when hit by a bomb.
The former fire station at Pageant's Wharf, Rotherhithe Street, now an apartment building called Old Fire Station Court.
Pageant’s Wharf Fire Station saw over 60 years of service until it closed in 1965 on the grounds both of its age and its condition which had made it both uneconomical to maintain and unsuitable for changing operational needs. Now called Old Fire Station Court, it has been converted into apartments. The firemen who worked at the station are remembered by a plaque on the front of the building that commemorates the crews of the station who “served with great valour particularly during the second world war.”