A History of Bermondsey

By Tim Lambert 

Early Bermondsey

Bermondsey takes its name from a Saxon landowner. It was Beormund’s eg. The word eg meant an island, a promontory of land or in this case an ‘island’ of dry land surrounded by marsh.

In the Middle Ages, a Cluniac Abbey stood in the heart of the settlement. It was founded in 1089 by a merchant called Aylwin Child. (At first, it was a priory but it later became an abbey). However, Henry VIII closed it in the 16th century but it lives on in the name Abbey Street. A man named Sir Thomas Pope dismantled the abbey. In its place, a ‘goodly house of stone and timber’ was built using materials from the abbey.

There was once a river called the Neckinger, which flowed through the area. (It now flows underground).

Then about 1570, a man named Joris Hoefnagel made a painting called The Feast at Bermondsey. It shows a quiet village opposite the Tower of London. The painting also shows a boatyard on the Thames.

However, Bermondsey began to develop in the late 17th century. After the plague in London in 1665 and the fire of London in 1666 wealthy people began to move to nearby villages. They were close enough to London to reach it easily but were also away from the dirt and noise of the town.

The Church of St Mary Magdalene has existed since at least the 13th century. However, it was rebuilt in 1690. (It was also altered in the 19th century).

In 1770 a man named Thomas Keyse discovered a natural spring on land he owned by what is now Spa Road. As a result of his discovery, Bermondsey became a spa town. In the 18th century, people believed that drinking mineral water was good for your health and many doctors prescribed water from the Bermondsey Spa to their patients. As a result, Bermondsey boomed and in the late 18th century many large houses were built in the area. However, the boom was short-lived. The spa closed in 1804.

Modern Bermondsey

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bermondsey developed into an industrial centre. It was known for tanning and leatherworking. There was also an industry making calico (a type of cotton).

Furthermore, as the port of London grew rapidly many wharves and warehouses were built at Bermondsey. Another industry in Bermondsey in the 19th century was food processing. Food was unloaded at the many busy wharves.

In the 19th century, Bermondsey was engulfed by the growing city of London. However, Bermondsey was a poor area of London with many unskilled and casual workers. Much of its housing was dreadful slums.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the wharves and warehouses in Bermondsey rapidly declined as the port of London could not compete with more modern ports. Bermondsey became a deprived area.

However, at the end of the 20th century, parts of Bermondsey were transformed. The London Docklands Development Corporation was formed in 1981 and it invested large sums of money in regenerating Bermondsey. Where once foodstuffs were unloaded and stored in warehouses there are now flats, offices, and restaurants.

Bermondsey is also known for the Fashion and Textile Museum, which opened in 2003. Today Bermondsey is also famous for its antique market.