Ditch circa 1860 Watercolour by J.L.
has always awed
visitors with its size and grand architecture. But, like other
cities, it was more interesting in the past than the present. The capital was
once a fascinating labyrinth
of streets, alleys, courts, watercourses and venerable buildings; an amalgam of individual localities, each with its unique character
and culture. And the strangest and most
interesting of all of these, in Bermondsey, was known as Jacob's Island.
London was seriously overcrowded
in the mid-19th Century, and the poorer areas were not healthy to live in.
Jacob's Island was particularly
squalid; a run-down area surrounded and crossed by stagnant, sewage-filled ditches. It first came to fame when
immortalised as the location of Bill Sikes' last refuge in "Oliver
Twist". Dickens wrote, in 1837:
to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the
buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with
the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there
exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many
localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great
mass of its inhabitants.
'Beyond Dockhead, in the Borough of
Southwark, stands Jacob's Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet
deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but
known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet
from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices
at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a
stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane,
will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back
doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds,
in which to
haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the
houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before
him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses,
with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and
patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there;
rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even
for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting
themselves out above the mud, and
threatening to fall into it, as some have
done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament
of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these
ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.
Jacob's Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling
down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets;
the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years
ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but
now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are
broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they
live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret
residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in
This was echoed in "The
Rookeries of London", by Thomas Beames, in 1852 - "Wooden
galleries and sleeping rooms at the back of houses, which overhang the dark
flood and are built on piles ... Little rickety bridges ... span the ditches
[which were] the common sewer for drinking and washing water [and excrement]."
Another, more detailed
contemporary description of Jacob's Island is
reproduced below. But first, how did so strange and extraordinary a
locality come to be, and when and why were these curious buildings built in that
Jacob's Island - a Brief
As an "island", it was man-made.
Local maps place its date of creation between 1660 and 1680, the first 20 years of the reign of
Charles II, when the tidal ditches surrounding and intersecting the island
were dug. The oldest houses, and their 'crazy wooden galleries' (Fig
1) dated from this period.
Before 1658, this area contained a wide, T-shaped
mill pond, a large house with a formal garden, and a short road with houses on
both sides, surrounded by vegetable plots, orchards and fields. Nearby St Saviour's ("Savory") Dock
was enclosed on 3 sides by warehouses (Fig 3).
By 1682 (Fig 4) Jacob's Island had become a densely built-up commercial area of factories, tanneries, warehouses and mills,
with houses, shops, small workshops
and workers' tenements built between them. The bank-side houses owed
their curious features to their
position; the ditches, which served both as water supplies
and sewers, provided open space to build galleries for access,
overhanging sleeping chambers and privies.
By 1830 (Fig 2) Bermondsey was urbanised to the
south of Jacob's Island. The 17th Century ditches were still in situ
but redundant sections had been filled in
over the years (Fig 6). By the mid-19th Century the area
was in decline, and many of the commercial buildings had become derelict.
The houses became as interesting inside as out. Jacob's Island had become
of London's notorious "rookeries", and myriad secret doors and passages between
cellars, attics, roofs and ditches provided thieves with escape routes and
hiding places. By 1850, the area was separated from the Thames by a long
row of large warehouses and industrial units on the river's South bank.
After major Cholera outbreaks in 1849 and 1854, the last of the open ditches
were filled in. In 1861 a huge fire, which raged for two weeks,
destroyed most of the old houses in London Street and neighbouring streets. By
1875 those buildings that survived the fire had been cleared away as the area was
"improved", and Victorian warehouses and tenement blocks built in their place.
Jacob's Island, in all but name, had ceased to exist. A few buildings that
Dickens remembered survived the clearances; the "Ship Aground" public house (Fig
still standing until the early years of the 20th Century.
Dickens knew the area well; he was
taken there by officers of the river police, with whom
he would occasionally go on patrol. But he might have exaggerated
the desolateness of the place. According to an 1849 survey (see below), most houses
still had owners, and were let to and inhabited by working trades people, labourers and
their families, and trade for their landlords and local publicans was buoyant.
place teemed with children. The houses were mostly inhabited by
corn-runners, coal-porters, and longshore-men getting a precarious living -
earning some times as much as 12s.a day, and then for weeks doing nothing."
And there was washing hung out on the poles, albeit yellow-stained. In
1849 Jacob's Island (the streets within and immediately surrounding the main
ditches) had a population of 7,286.
But it was every bit as dirty and pestilential
as he portrayed it -
Jacob's Island was rightly dubbed "The Venice of Drains", "The Capital of
Cholera" and "The Jessore of England". Children died young from water-borne
and contagious diseases. It was never
free of fever.
In most of Victorian
London, stench was the norm, from cesspits, chimneys, drains, decomposing
bodies, and the horse (and other animal) dung and urine covering every road.
In Jacobs Island, the tanneries added their own pungency to this. Tanning
required animal hides to be soaked in urine and then kneaded with "dung water" -
made from dog faeces, collected from the streets by "dung gatherers", usually
The mid-19th Century
was time of epidemics. Four major outbreaks of cholera between 1831 and
1832 emanated from Jacob's Island, which had become a reference point of squalor
and degradation through Dickens' novel and other writings. In 1853, in a letter to the
philanthropist and fellow do-gooder Miss Burdett-Coutts, he wrote:
"There is a public house
in it, with the odd sign of The Ship Aground, but it is wonderfully appropriate,
for everything seems to have got aground there - never to be got off anymore
until the whole globe is stopped in its rolling and shivered. No more mud there
than in an American swamp - odious sheds for horses, and donkeys, and vagrants,
and rubbish in front of the parlour windows - wooden houses like horrible old
packing cases full of fever for a countless number of years. In a broken down
gallery at the back of a row of these, there was a wan child looking over at a
starved old white horse who was making a meal of oyster shells. The sun was
going down and flaring out like an angry fire at the child—and the child, and I,
and the pale horse, stared at one another in silence for some five minutes as if
we were so many figures in a dismal allegory."
Dickens might have been describing
Hickman's Folly, a street just South of Jacob's Island, from which Folly Ditch
got its name. A writer in the 'Morning Chronicle'
in 1849 described "A Visit to the Cholera Districts
of Bermondsey" (Abridged here):
'Out of the 12,800 deaths which, within the last three months, have arisen
from cholera, 6,500 have occurred on the southern shores of the Thames; and to
this awful number no localities have contributed so largely as Lambeth,
Southwark and Bermondsey, each, at the height of the disease, adding its hundred
victims a week to the fearful catalogue of mortality. Any one who has ventured a
visit to the last-named of these places in particular, will not wonder at the
ravages of the pestilence in this malarious quarter, for it is bounded on the
north and east by filth and fever, and on the south and west by want, squalor,
rags and pestilence. Here stands, as it were, the very capital of cholera, the
Jessore of London - JACOB'S ISLAND, a patch of ground insulated by the common
sewer. Spared by the fire of London, the houses and comforts of the people in
this loathsome place have scarcely known any improvement since that time. The
place is a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it.
'In the days of Henry II, the foul
stagnant ditch that now makes an island of this pestilential spot, was a running
stream, supplied with the waters which poured down from the hills about Sydenham
and Nunhead, and was used for the working of the mills that then stood on its
banks. These had been granted by charter to the monks of St. Mary and St. John,
to grind their flour, and were dependencies upon the Priory of Bermondsey.
Tradition tells us that what is now a straw yard skirting the river, was once
the City Ranelagh, called "Cupid's Gardens," and that the trees, which are now
black with mud, were the bowers under which the citizens loved, on the sultry
summer evenings, to sit beside the stream drinking their sack and ale. But now
the running brook is changed into a tidal sewer, in whose putrid filth staves
are laid to season; and where the ancient summer-houses stood, nothing but
hovels, sties, and muck-heaps are now to be seen.
'Not far from the Tunnel there is
a creek opening into the Thames. The entrance to this is screened by the tiers
of colliers which lie before it. This creek bears the name of the Dock Head.
Sometimes it is called St. Saviour's, or, in jocular allusion to the odour for
which it is celebrated, Savory Dock. The walls of the warehouses on each side of
this muddy stream are green and slimy, and barges lie beside them, above which
sacks of corn are continually dangling from the cranes aloft. This creek was
once supplied by the streams from the Surrey hills, but now nothing but the
drains and refuse of the houses that have grown up round about it thickens and
swells its waters.
'On entering the precincts of the
pest island, the air has literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of
nausea and heaviness comes over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the musty
atmosphere. It is not only the nose, but the stomach, that tells how heavily the
air is loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you cross one of the
crazy and rotting bridges over the reeking ditch, you know, as surely as if you
had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once the white-lead
paint upon the door-posts and window-sills, that the air is thickly charged with
this deadly gas. The heavy bubbles which now and then rise up in the water show
you whence at least a portion of the mephitic compound comes, while the open
doorless privies that hang over the water side on one of the banks, and the dark
streaks of filth down the walls where the drains from each house discharge
themselves into the ditch on the opposite side, tell you how the pollution of
the ditch is supplied.
'The water is covered with a scum
almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it float large masses of
green rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges are swollen carcasses
of dead animals, almost bursting with the gases of putrefaction. Along its
shores are heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which
tells you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster shells are like pieces of
slate from their coating of mud and filth. In some parts the fluid is almost as
red as blood from the colouring matter that pours into it from the reeking
leather-dressers' close by.
'The striking peculiarity of
Jacob's Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping-rooms at the back
of the houses which overhang the dark flood, and are built upon piles, so that
the place has positively the air of a Flemish street, flanking a sewer instead
of a canal; while the little rickety bridges that span the ditches and connect
court with court, give it the appearance of the Venice of drains, where channels
before and behind the houses do duty for the ocean. Across some parts of the
stream whole rooms have been built, so that house adjoins house; and here, with
the very stench of death rising through the boards, human beings sleep night
after night, until the last sleep of all comes upon them years before its time.
Scarce a house but yellow linen is hanging to dry over the balustrade of staves,
or else run out on a long oar where the sulphur-coloured clothes hang over the
waters, and you are almost wonderstruck to see their form and colour unreflected
in the putrid ditch beneath.
'At the back of nearly every house
that boasts a square foot or two of outlet - and the majority have none at all -
are pig-sties. In front waddle ducks, while cocks and hens scratch at the
cinder heaps. Indeed the creatures that fatten on offal are the only living
things that seem to flourish here.
'The inhabitants themselves show
in their faces the poisonous influence of the mephitic air they breathe. Either
their skins are white, like parchment, telling of the impaired digestion, the
languid circulation, and the coldness of the skin peculiar to persons suffering
from chronic poisoning, or else their cheeks are flushed hectically, and their
eyes are glassy, showing the wasting fever and general decline of the bodily
functions. The brown, earthlike complexion of some, and their sunk eyes, with
the dark aureole round them, tell you that the sulphuretted hydrogen of the
atmosphere in which they live has been absorbed into the blood; while others are
remarkable for the watery eye exhibiting the increased secretion of tears so
peculiar to those who are exposed to the exhalations of hydrosulphate of
'Continuing our course we reached
"The Folly," another street so narrow that the names and trades of the shopmen
were painted on boards that stretched, across the street, from the roof of their
own house to that of their neighbour's. We were here stopped by our companion in
front of a house "to let." The building was as narrow and as unlike a human
habitation as the wooden houses in a child's box of toys. "In this house," said
our friend, "when the scarlet fever was raging in the neighbourhood, the barber
who was living here suffered fearfully from it; and no sooner did the man get
well of this than he was seized with typhus, and scarcely had he recovered from
the first attack than he was struck down a second time with the same terrible
disease. Since then he has lost his child with cholera, and at this moment his
wife is in the workhouse suffering from the same affliction. The only wonder is
that they are not all dead, for as the man sat at his meals in his small shop,
if he put his hand against the wall behind him, it would be covered with the
soil of his neighbour's privy, sopping through the wall. At the back of the
house was an open sewer, and the privies were full to the seat.
'We then journeyed on to
London-street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this
street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with
fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down
it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun
shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the
colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in
the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we
were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As
we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy
contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road,
common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth
splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure
force of contrast, white as Parian marble. And yet, as we stood doubting the
fearful statement, we saw a little child, from one of the galleries opposite,
lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In
each of the balconies that hung over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen
in which the inhabitants put the mucky liquid to stand, so that they may, after
it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of
filth, pollution, and disease. As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently
as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil was poured down from the
'In the next house, the poor inmate was too glad to meet with
any one ready to sympathise with her sufferings. We were taken up into a room,
where we were told she had positively lived for nine years. The window was
within four feet of a high wall, at the foot of which, until very recently, ran
the open common sewer. The room was so dark that it was several minutes before
we could see anything within it, and there was a smell of must and dry rot that
told of damp and imperfect ventilation, and the unnatural size of the pupils of
the wretched woman's eyes convinced us how much too long she had dwelt in this
Thomas Beames, author
of 'The Rookeries of London' and
writing in 1852, said “There is nothing particularly quaint and interesting
about them; hovels they were, and hovels will they remain as long as they
exist.” He quoted a contemporary
article from the Morning Chronicle in his book, which was equally damming of the
“The striking peculiarity of Jacob’s Island
consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping rooms at the back of the houses,
which overhang the dark flood, and are built upon piles, so that the place has
positively the air of a Flemish street flanking a sewer instead of a canal;
while the little rickety bridges that span the ditches and connect court with
court, give it the appearance of the Venice of drains.”
One of the biggest problems for the residents of Jacob’s Island
was the poor state of the water supply. Beames noted that the reservoirs
remained stagnant until they were moved by the tide – something that only
happened two or three times a week. What was “the common
sewer of the neighbourhood” was “the only source
from which the wretched inhabitants can get the water which they drink – with
which they wash-and with which they cook their victuals.” In the summer
children were seen bathing in the dirty water. The Thames, which was “not
far distant, would have offered a cleaner bathing-place". He goes
floors of the houses being below the level of the foot-path must be flooded in
wet weather; the rooms are mouldy and ill savoured; dark, small, and confined,
they could not be peopled as the alleys of St. Giles's, because their size would
not admit of it. There is the usual amount of decaying vegetable matter, the
uneven footpath, the rotten doors, the broken windows patched with rags, ash[sic] heaps in front
of the houses, dogs, etc. housed there, ragged children, and other features well
known to those conversant with such neighbourhoods. But here the parallel ends:- there are peculiar nuisances in this spot which go far to justify the language
used by the writer of the articles in The Morning Chronicle, and which he
describes technically as perhaps a surgeon alone could do."
Beames, in his
fervent condemnation of the "abominations" of Jacob's Island, and the
"Infamous neglect of the landlord on the one hand, and.
the grasping avarice of the trader on the other" that he blames for its
condition, goes so far as to wish that some wasting fire would
"Swallow up this Jacob's Island in its ravages. Such
a fire, such wholesale conflagration, would be a blessing". His
wish was partly to be granted nine years later, in 1861, when a fire destroyed
London Street and neighbouring streets and all the wonderful, "very ancient
houses" (his words) in them. Victorian busybodies like
Beames, in their righteous zeal, thought only of the present.
St Saviour's dock is shown as 'Savory
Dock' on the 1682 map, when it was surely less malodorous than in 1849; perhaps
the name has another derivation. "The
Tunnel" referred to is Brunel's Thames Tunnel, Rotherhithe,
built in 1843, actually a mile to the East.
Some, at least, of the houses on
Jacob's Island had
cesspits and privies, unlike much working-class housing in those days, but
with no running water, they were unlikely to have been kept very clean. But according to Dr John Snow, writing in 1849, neither sulphuretted hydrogen in
the air (unless in extreme concentrations) caused illness, nor even the drinking
of sewage-contaminated water, except during Cholera or similar epidemics.
The ditches were
dug, originally, to provide water to the tanneries built in the area (see
below), which used it in large quantities.
The River Neckinger
The Neckinger is one of the 'lost' rivers of
London which now runs entirely underground, probably merging
into the present drain or sewer systems. It rises in
Southwark and originally entered the Thames at the tidal
inlet now called St Saviour’s Dock ("Savory Dock" on older
The river is believed to have got its name from the term
"Devil's neckcloth", a hangman's noose. Until the 18th
century, Thames pirates were executed at Neckinger Wharf,
near the mouth of the inlet. The corpses were placed on display as a deterrent further
downstream on the Thames.
St Saviour's Dock was created in the 13th century by the
Cluniac monks of Bermondsey Abbey (founded 1082, ¾ mile to the south-west,
Figs 7 and 8)
enlarged and embanked the inlet, naming the dock after the
abbey's patron, and built and ran
a windmill on its East bank, The Mill of St Saviour.
Around 1536 (after the dissolution of the monasteries) the
windmill was converted into a water mill and "water machine"
to supply local inhabitants with water. It later became the first
gunpowder factory in England to be powered by water, and
later still it was rebuilt as a paper mill, becoming one of the first
mills in England to make paper from straw. By Dickens'
time, lead mills occupied the site.
It was a tidal mill, and the flow of water was two-way.
At 12-hourly high tides (the Thames could rise as much as 12' at this
point) water, controlled by slice gates, flowed into the
mill pond south of the mill. The sluices were closed
and re-opened at low tide to allow the water to flow out again via the
mill races and drive the mill wheels.
The lower reaches of the Neckinger had always been tidal. According to ecclesiastical records, it had originally been navigable from the Thames to Bermondsey Abbey
at high tide. Around 1536, when the first water mill was
constructed, the Neckinger was diverted to enter the Thames via the mill, 100 yards east of St
Saviour's dock. The original mouth of the Neckinger
then became a
blind-ended creek, as it remains to this day. It is
possible that the dock was built this time. Once diverted, the Neckinger would
longer have been navigable from the Thames.
The man-made tidal ditches which created Jacob's Island were
dug in the latter 16th Century, when the main channel of the
Neckinger was diverted far to the east of its original route
to the Thames (Fig 8: site of Bermondsey Abbey
outlined in red). The new watercourses provided a
water supply for
new tanneries (a growing industry; by
1792 a third of England’s leather was processed in
factories as the area was developed, and prepared
the ground for
large-scale building - Bermondsey was
originally marshland; soil excavated from the ditches was
used to embank and raise the level of the adjacent ground to
provide firm, dry foundations. Parts of these ditches
were later filled in (Fig 6). The whole network of
watercourses acted as
an extended mill pond, and although fed from the South by
the Neckinger (a relatively small stream), its main water
source was the Thames, the inflow and outflow of which was
controlled by the sluices of the mill at its mouth.
Tanners, upstream, complained
that the Thames-side mill's owner was 'shutting off the tide when it suited his purpose
to do so, to
the detriment of the leather manufacturers'. The conflict
came to court
and 'the ancient usages of the district were brought forward
evidence, and the result was that the right of the
inhabitants to a supply
of water from the river, at every high tide, was confirmed,
discomfiture of the mill-owners', wrote Sir Charles Knight
in 1842. Nevertheless, ten years later, the sluices
were opened only 3 times a week.
For all its unhealthiness, Jacob's Island was
a human place, and unique. Every building was sui generis.
The brutal, dreary industrial and housing estates that have
replaced such localities are more depressing to the human
spirit than what they replaced. A time
traveller to Jacob's Island would, in utter fascination, rush to
explore and record its every nook and cranny.
If the dice of history had fallen differently, might Jacob's Island have survived to the
present day? Venice and Bruges were once decayed and
pestilential, but were saved and restored. 17th Century
streets, whilst rare, still survive in York, Chester and
Or were the destructive zeal of do-gooders and town
planners, the greed of developers, fire, natural decay,
infestation and the Luftwaffe irresistible forces
that no such special place could ever have withstood?
Much of this article is based on secondary sources and
The author would be most grateful for any comments, corrections or