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Bermondsey history

Historic image of Bermondsey Abbey

Bermondsey is almost certainly one of the oldest parts of Southwark. It is believed that a Benedictine Monastery was based here during Saxon times and evidence has been found of Roman occupation.

In the "Domesday" book Bermondsey was owned by the King. In 1089 a London Merchant, Aylwin Child, founded St Saviour's Monastery for the Cluniac order. The Abbey was to develop into a very important body and dominated the area for centuries. Initially it was run by French officials and the first English Prior was appointed as late as 1374. In 1338 Abbey Church was built and in 1399 it was confirmed as an Abbey by Pope Boniface IX, with its Abbots sitting in the House of Lords.

The Abbey was home to at least two Royals, Queen Catherine, consort of Henry V, died there in 1437 and Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen of Edward IV, died there in 1492. Both were there after a decline in their fortunes and were almost under house arrest.

The Abbey was confiscated by Henry VIII in 1539 as part of his dispute with the Church. It was sold off to a private owner who then demolished the building.

A parochial church, St Mary Magdalene was founded, possibly in 1337, for more general use. The current building mainly dates from 1680. St Olaves also has a long history dating from the Middle Ages. Outside of the Abbey, Bermondsey was still a small village, set on ground which was frequently flooded by the Thames.

The Bermondsey industry

The leather industry began to establish itself in medieval times. The area, with freshwater tidal streams, was ideal for the tanners. Bermondsey was also close to the London markets and had good transport links.

The Bermondsey industry was perceived as a threat by the City of London, which often tried to restrict the sale of Bermondsey goods within three miles of the city. By 1792 a third of the leather in the country emanated in Bermondsey. The decline began in the nineteenth century. Hides were imported into the northern ports and many of the firms moved north. With the leather industry went many of the associated industries, for example parchment and glue makers.

Bermondsey was very fashionable for a while after Thomas Keyse discovered Bermondsey Spa in 1770. He built the spa up to include a picture gallery, musical concerts and fireworks displays and soon had many customers. The boom proved to be short lived and the spa closed in 1804.

In 1835 the Spa Road to Deptford railway opened up and it was soon extended to London Bridge and Greenwich. This opened up Bermondsey to industry but with industry came poverty and overcrowding. In 1801 the population was 27,465, in 1851 it was 65,932 and by 1891 it had reached 136,660. Open sewers and poor quality housing were common. Cholera hit the area badly in the nineteenth century, especially the areas near open tidal sewers. Jacob's Island, whose residents took drinking water out of the Thames, was particularly affected.

By the end of the century the borough was all built over apart from Southwark Park. One of the main industries in the area was the food business. With the goods arriving at the local docks, three quarters of the butter, cheese, bacon and canned meats needed in London landed there and the processing firms moved in nearby. The area became known as "London's Larder". The first tinned food in Britain was canned by Bryan Donkins of Bermondsey in 1811. The docks provided work but it was casual and badly paid leading to local poverty.

By 1900 the population was declining but the living conditions were awful and the local council began to act. There were known examples of nine people living in one room and one tap serving 25 houses with no sanitation.

Alfred Salter

Alfred Salter was a doctor who got to know Bermondsey whilst a student at Guy's. He was a brilliant student but chose to work in Bermondsey, charging 6p a visit but free to those who could not pay. He realised that to achieve long term changes he had to become involved in politics and in 1903 was elected to Bermondsey Council. In 1922 he became the independent Labour Party MP for Bermondsey. In 1910 his wife, Ada, had become the first female London Councillor and in 1922 she became Mayor of Bermondsey, launching the council on a series of pioneering reforms.

A public health centre was built that pre dates the NHS by 20 years. In those days TB could only be cured by sunshine so a solarium was built to help sufferers. In 1927 a "palace of baths" was built that contained baths, swimming baths and a public laundry.

The 1930 Housing Act gave the council greater powers over housing and a housing department was established. Many of the worst slums were demolished and better houses were built helping to turn the area into a much nicer place to live.

In the Second World War Bermondsey was one of the most heavily bombed parts of Britain with 709 civilians killed and thousands hurt. Further economic decline followed after the war. A new breed of super tankers needed deeper docks than Bermondsey could offer. In 1970 the docks closed their doors for the last time. With the decline of the docks much of the food processing industry moved away.

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