Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Map of Tooley Street - 'Tuolus' Street - 172o. © Trustees of the British Museum
Tooley Street has had a chequered past over the last 60 years, declining from a bustling hive of activity and commerce associated with the Port of London and docks to become a deserted and barren place after the closure of the docks to rise once more to become a busy, lively place associated with the service industries of today. The warehouses and factories that remain from the 19th century have been refurbished for either commercial or residential purposes and are interspersed with gleaming new buildings from the late 20th and early 21st century. The western end has been transformed by the rebuilding of London Bridge station.
The street runs parallel to the River Thames from the approach road to London Bridge, through Horsleydown, and into Jamaica Road at St Saviour’s Dock. The road then continues to the former Surrey Commercial Docks and was the major route used for the transportation of goods to the City of London and the rest of the UK from the docks and vice versa.
From late Saxon times until the early 20th century stood a church dedicated to St Olave facing onto the river next to London Bridge. The road it was situated on was called St Olave’s Street but the pronunciation was corrupted over time to Towlles Street, Tuolus Street, Tullies Street and finally to Tooley Street. In medieval times, large expensive houses known as Inns with extensive grounds were built for the Abbots of Battle, Lewes and St Augustine, Canterbury for their use when visiting London. The Abbot of Battle’s residence was situated on the north side of Tooley Street where Battle Bridge Lane is now located but the well laid out gardens extended to the south of Tooley Street where a maze and fishpond were constructed. The street named Great Maze Pond behind Guy’s Hospital is a reminder of this.
By the 17th century, the area’s commercial and industrial success was established but despite this, behind the main thoroughfare of Tooley Street, there was poverty, overcrowding and slum housing. The Abbot of Battle’s maze had become a maze of small, narrow streets and courts of squalid houses. Some of these were demolished to build viaducts for the railway. The building of the railway viaducts and London Bridge Station changed the area fundamentally for ever, streets leading off to the south of Tooley Street were now enclosed by dark, forbidding tunnels.
Two images of Tooley Street: on the left from c1840 and on the right from 1910
By the 19th century Tooley Street was lined with warehouses and factories, “whose shops exhibit a singular mixture of the features which are found separate in other parts of the district—wharfingers, merchants, salesmen, factors, and agents; outfitters, biscuit-bakers, store-shippers, ship-chandlers, slopsellers, block-makers, and rope-makers; engineers, and others, together with the usual varieties of retail tradesmen—all point to the diversified, and no less busy than diversified, traffic of this street. "Here," it has been said truly, "the crane and the pulley seem never to be idle."” (Edward Walford, 1878) The Hay’s Wharf Company built Hay’s Wharf Dock in 1856 and had by the end of the 19th century acquired most of the warehousing and wharfage facing onto the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. But all such commercial success was dependent upon the trade carried out in the docks and when they closed in the early 1970s, Tooley Street grew silent and deserted.
The London Docklands Development Corporation was formed in 1981 to regenerate the areas of former docks in London. In Tooley Street, the regeneration was divided into Phase I (from London Bridge to Southwark Crown Court) and Phase II (from Southwark Crown Court to Tower Bridge). Redevelopment for Phase I was achieved by around 1986 but there were delays with Phase II and it was not until the end of the 1990s that redevelopment got under way, led by the choice of locating City Hall, headquarters for the newly created Greater London Assembly, next to Tower Bridge. This was followed by the More London development and still building works continue with the buildings ever getting higher.
Though Tooley Street is unrecognisable to when I first knew it in the early 1980s, there is still a lot of history to be discovered, hidden within the expensive refurbished buildings that remain from over a hundred years ago.
St Olaf House is the Art Deco building set back at the London Bridge end of Tooley Street. Now a part of the London Hospital, it was built 1928-1932 on the site of St Olave’s Church as the new headquarters for the Hay’s Wharf Co. There is a representation of St Olaf and an inscription on the elevation of the building which records the site’s history:
“On the ground occupied by this building stood formerly the Church of St Olave. This church was founded in the eleventh century in memory of St Olaf or Olave King of Norway who in the year 1014 helped King Ethelred defend the City of London against the Danes. The original building survived until 1734 and was then rebuilt to the design of Henrty Flitcroft. It was damaged by fire in 1843 and rebuilt afterwards to the same design. It was demolished in 1928. The proceeds of the sale of that portion of the site vested in the Bermondsey Borough Council have been applied to the establishment of a recreation ground in Tanner Street SE1”
Just to the east of St Olaf House is Bridge Yard, the former site of Bridge House. This was the headquarters of the Bridge House Estate, an organisation within the City of London that owned and administered London Bridge and later Blackfriars Bridge, Tower Bridge, Southwark Bridge and more recently the Millennium Bridge.
The Trust’s origins date back to 1097 when a tax was raised to repair London Bridge. The bridge was made of wood at that time but building commenced on a stone bridge in 1176. The bridge generated a significant income through tolls, taxes and rents, and also received many bequests in wills, encouraged by the church as an act of piety.
In addition to administrative quarters, Bridge House included a gaol, a Justice Room, and a building for the storing of wood and stone for repairing the Bridge. There was a also a brewhouse, a granary and ovens for baking bread for the poor. It remained the headquarters for the Bridge House Estate for many centuries and is now the site of the Cottons Centre.
In the late afternoon of 22nd June 1861, a fire started in Cotton’s Wharf. The fire took hold and spread along the river to Chamberlain’s Wharf in the West and Hay’s Wharf in the west. The fire was intense and the flames leapt up high over the houses with bounds and spurts like fountains of fire.” Firefighters from the London Fire Engine Establishment, led by Superintendent James Braidwood, fought the blaze with dedication and bravery. The fire, known as the Great Fire of Tooley Street, raged for two days. James Braidwood lost his life, buried under several tons of brickwork when a warehouse wall collapsed.
The plaque shown above is mounted on the side elevation of a building in Cottons Lane and installed by donation from M Division of the Metropolitan Police in March 1862. The inscription reads:
“To the memory of James Braidwood Superintendent of the London Fire Brigade who was killed near this spot in the execution of his duty at the Great Fire on 22nd June 1861.”
A little further to the East, a side street leading down to the river has been named Braidwood Street.
Continuing along Tooley Street, you come to Hay's Galleria, a series of large, Victorian warehouse buildings. These were designed and built in 1856 for the Hay’s Wharf Company by William Cubitt. A small inland dock named Hay’s Dock was engineered so barges could gain access from the river and on either side of the new dock a five storey warehouse was built. Disaster struck within a few years when, despite the new buildings having iron fire doors, the warehouses were destroyed by the Great Fire of Tooley Street in 1861 but were soon rebuilt.
When the London Docks closed, the land along that stretch of the river was acquired by St Martin’s Property Company. Hay’s Dock was filled in and paved over and a glass barrel vault installed to join the two warehouse buildings at roof level to create an atrium like area with shops and stalls on ground level with offices in the upper levels. The brickwork, dark and dirty from over a century of soot and industrial pollution, was cleaned to expose the light elevations of today. The refurbished warehouse complex, renamed Hay's Galleria, opened in 1987.
Just past Hay’s Galleria is a narrow road named Battle Bridge Lane, a reminder of the large medieval house and gardens belonging to the Abbot of Battle. The road used to be the site of a stream that ran into the River Thames at Battle Bridge Stairs. The stream was used to drive the Abbot’s mill and led to the street once being called Mill Lane. Tooley Street crossed over the stream via a bridge which led to the naming of Battle Bridge Lane and Battle Bridge Stairs.
Continuing east along Tooley Street, is Aston Webb House, now residential but built in 1900/1901 as offices for the distillery company Boord & Son whose warehouse and distillery behind the office building extended north to the River. Boord & Son was founded in 1744 by Jenner Swaine and a little over 100 years later, having gone through many name changes, the company became known as Swaine, Boord and Company when Joseph Boord became a part of the Swaine family through marriage. In 1866, the company became known simply as Boord & Son. The company was famous for their whiskey and gin, in particular their ‘Old Tom’ gin, and at the beginning of the 20th century, launched Twilight Dry Gin, described in their advertising as “Absolute Perfection.”
By the early 21st century, the building had become derelict, even though it had been Grade II listed in 1986. It was refurbished to create 14 apartments in 2003 and the building renamed Aston Webb house after the architect of the original building.
The publicly funded Metropolitan Fire Brigade was founded in 1866 as a result of the Great Fire of Tooley Street. Until that catastrophic event, fires were dealt with by the London Fire Engine Establishment paid for by insurance companies. After the establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, new distinctive and purpose built fire stations were built. The one in Tooley Street was one of the first of these, built in the 1870s in a gothic revival style, and one of the few of the earliest fire stations still remaining.
Today, called the Fire Station, the grade II listed building is owned by PWC who describe it as their social enterprise hub where there is a “group of inspired organisations working collaboratively to advance social and environmental change.” These include a bar and bistro named Brigade, a training facility for the homeless and a school for social enterprise. See their website.
Crossing over to the south side of Tooley Street there are two large refurbished Victorian industrial buildings. Magdalen House, named after the church of St Mary Magdalen in nearby Bermondsey Street, were once the premises of Richard Dickeson who describe themselves in an advert dating from 1903 ‘Wholesale Grocers, Provision Importers, Tea and Coffee Merchants and Blenders.’ The company had been founded in 1649 and its name was changed when Richard Dickeson took over the company in 1840. He expanded the company, winning contracts to supply the British Army and Navy, with branches and warehouses throughout the country and outposts of the British Empire.
Next door, 160 Tooley Street, is now the civic and administrative centre for the the London Borough of Southwark. The building has had a number of previous occupants, one of these in 1904 was Mendine Manufacturing Company, manufacturers of adhesive who in 1914 held contracts with The Admiralty and the War Office. They did not stay in Tooley Street for long, moving on to Borough High Street.
The building was refurbished in 2008 and Southwark Council took over the building in 2011. The more contemporary, stripped down “town hall” certainly provides a contrast to the former, more fussy and decorative town halls in Peckham Road, Newington and Bermondsey, designed to reflect the civic pride of the Victorians.
Returning to the north side of Tooley Street is Potters Fields Park, an open space next to Tower Bridge running down to the River that encompasses City Hall. Though only opened in the 1980s, the area of park to the north has its origins in a burial ground for St Olave’s which, when closed for further burial on safety grounds in the 1850s, was refurbished to provide a recreation ground for local people. When the adjacent wharfs and warehouses at the river’s edge were demolished in the 1970s, the cleared area was added to the recreation ground and the enlarged park created.
Next door to Potters Fields Park is the LaLit Hotel where Tooley Street forks. Tooley Street continues along the right hand fork and the left hand fork is named Queen Elizabeth Street after the Queen who granted the original charter to St Olave’s Free Grammar School, the original occupiers of the current hotel building. The school was founded by the parish of St Olave’s in 1571 by Royal Charter and paid for by a bequest from Henry Leeke, a Southwark brewer who died in 1560.
The school was originally housed in the church vestry hall but the rapid expansion of the railways and approach roads led to the school moving twice, firstly to new premises in Bermondsey Street in 1834 and then a new school was built on the site in Queen Elizabeth Street, then called Back Street, in 1855. This newly built school proved unsuitable as teaching methods progressed and a new school was built on the same site in two stages in 1894 and 1896. A couple of years later, the school was amalgamated with the neighbouring St Saviour’s Grammar School when the latter ran into administrative difficulties.
St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School relocated to Orpington in 1968 and for many years the school site was home to South London College, maintaining the building’s links with education. The College vacated the building in 2004 and lay empty for a few years before being purchased by LaLit Hotel. After a major refurbishment, the new hotel opened in 2017. For the passer-by, a couple of representations of elephants points to the Indian origins of the hotel.
On the triangle of land between Tooley Street and Queen Elizabeth Street are located a bust of Ernest Bevin, politician and trade union leader, and a statue of Col. Samuel Bourne Bevington, the first mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey.
Col Samuel Bourne Bevington (1832-1907) was a highly esteemed and popular Bermondsey businessman and a colonel in the volunteer army. A member of the Quaker family that owned the successful tanning works at Neckinger Mills, he was a great philanthropist and devoted much time, money and energy to improving the lives of those less fortunate than himself. He was a Justice of the Peace and when the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey was created in 1900, he was unanimously elected the first mayor. Read more about him here.
The bust of Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) was paid for through an appeal to local dockworkers and was unveiled in May 1955 by the Mayor of Bermondsey. The plaque on the bust’s pedestal has the following inscription:
"The Rt Hon ERNEST BEVIN “THE DOCKERS KC”
National Organiser of the Dockers Union 1910-1921
General Secretary of the Transport and General Works Union 1921-1945 / Chairman Trades Union Congress 1937
Member of Parliament Central Wandsworth 1940-1950 and East Woolwich 1950-1951 / Minister of Labour and National Service 1940-1945 / Secretary for Foreign Affairs 1945-1951
A Forceful and Inspiring Leader of Democratic Principles, he gained a place in men’s hearts few could equal.”
On the other side of Tooley Street from the statues of Ernest Bevin and Col Bevington, there are a range of six storey Victorian tenements that line the street on that side down as far as St Saviour’s Dock. Built between 1875 and 1884 by James Hartnoll, they were originally called Hanover Mansions but renamed Devon Mansions during the First World War. They were squeezed into a narrow strip of land that remained after the demolition of slum housing during widening roadworks to Tooley Street. Originally there were 525 tenements and let by James Hartnoll who took on the role of landlord to the employed working class. Southwark Council acquired the buildings in 1965 and embarked on a modernisation programme that was not completed until 1980 and reduced the number of apartments to 337.
Near the end of Tooley Street on the north side is an attractive late Victorian building. It was erected in 1899 as offices for the St Olave Union Board of Guardians but also included an out-relief station, dispensary and vaccination station. At this time, the Union were responsible for workhouses in Russell Street (now Tanner Street), Parish Street (now Druid Street) and Lower Road, Rotherhithe. There was also an infirmary at Lower Road and an additional infirmary at Ladywell for the aged and infirm. In 1903, the Union erected a children’s home in Shirley. More information on the St Olave’s Union here.
In latter years, the building was used as Social Services offices and a daycare centre for the elderly and disabled which closed in the 1990s. By the end of the 20th century, the building had been renovated and converted into apartments, and renamed Millennium Square.