Bermondsey 1850 to 1939

Bermondsey’s Old English name meant ‘Beornmund’s island’ and indicates that this originally was habitable ground amid the marshes. Evidence has been found of Roman and Saxon occupation. Until the Reformation, St Saviour’s Monastery – Bermondsey Abbey – which was founded in 1089 was the main feature of the area.. Nearby St Mary Magdalene’s was built as a parochial church in the 14th century and rebuilt in 1680. Bermondsey’s plentiful supply of water and strong links with the City of London favoured the growth of its leather industry, with tannery pits dotting the area.

Jacob’s Island, a riverside slum depicted by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, in Bermondsey. The island lay east of St Saviours Dock and south of Bermondsey Wall. There were industrial plants, docks and immigrant housing. Dickens provides a vivid description of what it was like:

"... 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 to be 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 Jacob's Island."

1832. Reform Bill made Bermondsey part of the parliamentary borough of Southwark.

1842. The wealthier residents had left the parish and the place had acquired a bad reputation. A thickly populated district along the waterside was inhabited by coal porters, whippers, longshore labourers and jobbers, corn porters, costermongers, watermen and sailors, whose earnings were irregular. The rest of the parish was occupied by working tanners, fellmongers, leather-dressers and other labourers. Four to five persons, on an average, slept in one room, standards of cleanliness and temperance were low, and the population subsisted chiefly on bread and potatoes.

1850. After the outbreak of cholera the streams which surrounded Jacob's Island were built over..

1881. Bermondsey Town Hall was built on Spa Road.

1888 it was included in the county of London, and in 1899, the metropolitan borough of Bermondsey was created.

The borough’s population grew rapidly from 27,465 in 1851 to 136,660 in 1891.This must have been due in part to the erection of many-storied tenement houses. But by 1900 the population was declining, the living conditions were awful and the local council began to act. There were known examples of 9 people living in one room and one tap serving 25 houses with no sanitation

The continuing importance of the leather trade was illustrated by the building of the Leather Market on Weston Street in 1833 and the ornate Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange on the corner of Leathermarket Street in the late 1870s, when St Crispin’s Church was dedicated to the patron saint of leather and shoes.

Hartleys Jam Factory c.1902
Hartleys Jam Factory 2007

Southwark was once a major centre of Industry hosting large scale industries such as: shipbuilding, rope-making, engineering, carriage, haulage, shipping, victualling, food-processing industries. It had Europe’s largest leather industry, the largest hatters and largest brewer in the world.

It was the home to many household brand names such as: Jacobs Cream Crackers, Cross and Blackwell, Hartley's Jam, Courage Beer, Sarsens Vinegar, Pearce Duff, Spiller's dog biscuits and Peak Frean Biscuits. Apparently a tannery near Bricklayer's Arms became hartley's jam factory. And another one in Rouel Road passed to Lipton's. MaryAnn Lyons, wife of Stephen Lyons, 1859, was working in a jam factory in 1901C. Joan White said: I know there were some relatives that lived in the Bermondsey area as they worked in the Peak Frean Biscuit factory. This probably around 1940-50. Peek, Frean and Co was established in 1857 in Bermondsey by James Peek and George Hender Frean. In 1861, the company started exporting biscuits to Australia and later to other overseas destinations. They moved to a larger plant in Bermondsey in 1866 where they continued baking until the brand was discontinued in 1989.The company was founded at Dockhead in 1857. Nine years later they moved to Clements Road where the factory remained until 1989.
They are now virtually all gone - but the memories can still be found, in the street names, the preserved warehouses, the geography of the streets.

The Bermondsey wharves brought food processing as an industrial spin-off. Hartley’s Jams established a factory on Rothsay Street in 1902 and employed over 2,000 people.

Life was hard in Victorian Bermondsey. Sweated labour may be defined as (1) working long hours, (2) for low wages, (3) under insanitary conditions. Although its victims include men as well as women, women formed the great majority of sweated workers. During the strike of Jam makers in Bermondsey the wages of the girls only just sufficed to provide them with food, and left no margin whatsoever for the purchase of clothes, for which they were entirely dependent on gifts from friends. Chief among these evils of sweated labour was the exploitation of child labour. Children of six years and upwards were employed after school hours, in helping to add to the family output and even infants of 3, 4 and 5 years of age work anything from 3 to 6 hours a day in such labour as carding hooks and eyes to add a few pence per week to the wages of the household.

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. She and her fellow councillors were active in replacing slums with ‘modern’ tenements, planting trees and turning open spaces into playgrounds.

A housing estate- Ann Moss - now stands on the site of the St. Olave’s Union Workhouse.

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.

The area suffered greatly in World War II and post-war rebuilding did not treat it kindly. Industries such as leather died away but the Leather Market and the neighbouring Exchange were saved from demolition in 1993 and converted into workspaces.


Cumming Museum, all about Southwark history: need to visit this one day.

Lyons Homes in Bermondsey

Social History page for the Lyons family