Jacob's Island



Folly Ditch circa 1860   Watercolour by J.L. Stewart (1829-1911)


London 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: 

"Near 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.

'In 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 Jacob's Island."


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 place?


Jacob's Island - a Brief History

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 a 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 1745 (Fig 4a) It had become densely built-up, most of the open space within the "island" having been built over.


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 5) was still standing until the early years of the 20th Century.


Dirt and Pestilence


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.  Quote: "The 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 children.

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 ammonia.

'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 next gallery.

'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 gloomy place."


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 slum:


“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 on:


"The 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 maps).

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) who 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 no 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 Bermondsey) and 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 in 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, to the 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 elsewhere.

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 conjecture.  The author would be most grateful for any comments, corrections or elucidations.