Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Once a noisy, bustling thoroughfare, today Rotherhithe Street is a peaceful street that follows the curve of the river in Rotherhithe. Once the river was lined with granaries, wharves and warehouses that handled and stored goods and produce from all over the world. Since the closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks in the late 1960s, those warehouses that survived the bombing of the second world war have, with a few exceptions, been demolished and tall, residential blocks of mostly unremarkable architecture have taken their place. A few warehouses have survived demolition and have been converted into residential blocks, reminders of a time and way of life long since disappeared. All buildings below are Grade II listed.
Brandram's Wharf, just outside Rotherhithe Village, is owned by a housing co-operative that provides homes to single people and childless couples on a low income with strong living or working connections to the Borough of Southwark. Dating from the mid 19th century, it was the warehouse for the huge Brandram Brothers factory located near what is now Canada Water. The factory produced colour paints and chemicals such as white lead, sulphuric acid and saltpetre and was a large employer in the area until the factory’s closure in 1958.
The warehouse at Globe Wharf was built in 1883 on the site of the Upper Globe Dock shipyard. This had been named after the Globe Stairs that led down to the river and the stairs in turn had been named after a tavern that had once stood there. The Upper Globe Shipyard had included the Royal Navy among its customers but by 1860 the yard was only used for repair and maintenance. Gradually the shipyards along this stretch of the river went out of business and warehouses built to replace them.
Left: the granary at Canada Wharf in about 1860, seen from the river
Right: Columbia Wharf, seen from the hotel forecourt
Canada Wharf and Columbia Wharf where built in the middle of the 19th century and part of an overall complex called Canada Wharf that overlooked Nelson Dry Dock.
Dating from 1864, Columbia Wharf was built by the Patent Ventilating Granary Company and the first grain silo to be built in any British Port. It had been converted to a standard warehouse by 1914 when the ornate oriental riverside frontage was replaced by a plainer façade. The warehouse was used for storing dried fruits, cocoa, tea and coffee until it closed in 1976 and is now a part of the Double Tree by Hilton hotel complex.
The building known today as Canada Wharf was built in 1870 by James Edmeston who also designed Columbia Wharf. The elevation facing the road was altered in the 1900s and the building completely refurbished and converted into flats in 1995.
The new Globe Warehouse was six storeys high, twenty bays wide and nine bays deep. In the early part of the 20th century the building was used as a rice mill but by 1982 had fallen into disuse. It was Grade II listed in 1983 and conversion of the building into apartments was completed in 1999.
By the 1980s, the warehouse on Rotherhithe Street had deteriorated to such an extent it was little more than a burnt out shell but the original external walls were still standing and mostly in good condition. The building was Grade II listed in 1983. Purchased by Brandram’s Housing Co-op, Levitt Bernstein were appointed to restore the building and create residential accommodation inside the empty carcass. The conversion was completed in 1987.
The group of warehouse buildings in St Mary Church Street and Rotherhithe Street now occupied by Sands Films and the Rotherhithe Picture Library are known collectively as Grice’s Granary. Mr Grice’s name has proved enduring even though he was in fact no longer the owner by 1857 when a Mr A F Timothy was in occupation. The earliest building dates from 1796 and the rest were added during the first half of the 19th century.
Sands Films moved into the former warehouses in the 1970s. Their films include ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘As You Like It’. In addition, they have created the most sumptuous and intricate costumes for a long list of TV dramas and films, the most recent being ‘Mr Turner’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and both series of ‘The Hollow Crown’. It is also the venue for a monthly film club.
Thames Tunnel Mills, facing onto the river on one side and overlooking St Mary's Church on the other, were built in the 1860s and consisted of warehouses and flour mills. Latterly the mills produced flaked rice and tapioca made by White, Tomkins and Courage until they closed the mills in 1972.
It was one of the first warehouses to be converted into residential use in the early 1980s by the London and Quadrant Housing Association.
The Hope (Sufferance) Wharf consists of a collection of former warehouses, one that faces onto the river which links to those on the other side of Rotherhithe Street by overhead gantries. They are some of the earliest warehouses still standing in Rotherhithe which Historic England consider were built at the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century. At least one post used in the construction is the mast from a ship that was broken up in a nearby shipyard.
It became a “sufferance wharf” in the early 20th century. Customs regulations stated that all goods where duty was payable had to be offloaded in legal quays but as a consequence the legal quays were unable to deal with the volume of cargoes so sufferance wharves were established that allowed, or suffered, the landing of goods to ease the bottleneck at the legal quays. When the London docks closed in the 1960s, there was no requirement for sufferance wharves and the Hope (Sufferance) Wharf became derelict.
The buildings were taken over by the Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust in the mid 1970s who carried out a refurbishment to create workshops for craftsmen. Sadly the project was way ahead of its time and was not successful. The buildings passed to Southwark Council and then into private ownership. Combining high end conversion and new build, five separate residential buildings were created that include blocks named East India Wharf, Bombay Wharf and the Stables, the last one named after a building that had formerly occupied the site. The project completed in 1999.