I live in Surrey Quays in South East London. I've lived here for three years before I decided to investigate some of the local history, which it turns out is incredibly rich and vibrant. I knew that only 30 years ago Surrey Quays as we know it didn't exist but I did not know what came before it. To give some perspective, the Greenwich Visitor Center has a painting on display that is part of the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (one of my top 2 museums in London along with the British Museum) by Hendrick Danckerts from around 1670. It looks like this:
Image credit Royal Museums Greenwich collection.
It shows the Isle of Dogs centre right, and to the left we can see Deptford and its Navy Dockyard, then further north we see Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays. If you take a walk through Greenwich Park up to the Royal Observatory you can see what that vista looks like today, and it's a bit different.
Image source: moomin1981 on Flickr.
What is now largely a residential area (Rotherhithe, not Canary Wharf) was in the not-too-distant past a bunch of fields and meadows. So what's been happening between now and then?
- 1600s - the ship building industry grew and received a royal charter, and Rotherhithe witnessed the launch of the Mayflower, was frequented by Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and had the last recorded case of the Great Plague of London
- 1700s - the area was a staging ground for whaling ships, and businesses boiled down whale blubber to make oil.
- 1800s - there were several companies involved in ship breaking, where old Navy ships were sold to private companies who took them apart and sold their parts for profit. This included the HMS Temeraire which was launched in 1798, fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and was the subject of J. M. Turner's oil painting "The Fighting Temeraire".
- 1900s - There was a thriving wood shipping industry, and the Surrey Commercial Docks were targeted by the Luftwaffe in World War II. This occupied a large portion of the docks, including special man-made lakes used to store timber. The Finnish Church and Norwegian Church were built to serve the scandinavian communities that had grown up due to strong timber trading connections, and a great fire burned 350,000 tonnes of timber on the first night of the Blitz, the largest blaze requiring 300 pumps to contain it.
The wikipedia page for Surrey Quays provides a brief explanation of the most recent changes, where the stagnating commercial docks were rejuvenated by the London Docklands Development Corporation who built over 5,000 houses including the shopping centre at Canada Water and converted Surrey Quays into its modern-day form.
… and that's where I come in. I've walked and cycled around the area fairly extensively and have always been impressed at the small chunks of historic architecture and signs of days gone by that litter the area. Now that I know how rich its past has been I've been paying more attention and I see more and more of these historic remnants. I now know the stories behind the Bascule Bridges in Rotherhithe and the red Scotch Derrick at Odessa Street and it's encouraged me to get out and document what I see. I think it's fascinating and since I've recently begun large format photography with a Sinar Norma like these ones I think it's a great idea to combine the two. My intention is to cycle round during the next few months and document a whole bunch of historic remnants that I've noticed, then post them here with a description for people to see and learn about. It will help me learn about large format photography while learning cool stuff about my local area at the same time. I've already taken a few but I need to get the negatives scanned and write them up, so watch this space.