All Our Stories

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A Tranquil Waterway leading to the Uttermost Ends of the Earth”

The title is from ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, and Rotherhithe was once a sailor’s town where adventures began. Today Brunel’s Thames Tunnel is used by London Overground, but was built for the East India Company. People from all over the world helped build this community and today many languages & cultures again walk down the longest street in London. Our project tells their story, ending with performance and celebration inside and above the Thames Tunnel. We have recreated the Fancy Fair of 1852: the story of the first underwater multi-cultural festival.

We organised guided heritage tours of Old Rotherhithe, including St Marychurch with its monuments to The Mayflower and Prince Lee Boo from Coo Roo Raa. We found out about the bravery of other Rotherhithe mariners and those involved in the spice trade. We organised guided boat trips for local children and local families to discover this stretch of the River Thames.
More about our Guided Boat Trips.

Trade with the World & Crossing the river

In Brunel’s day the river was crowded with shipping, and his Thames Tunnel was built to move ships’ cargo. Huge tall masted ships brought cargo up the river from all over the world. Every day there were 3,000 tall masted ships and 10,000 little boats, all in a chaotic jumble of masts and rigging, with just a narrow channel in the middle of the river for passage up and down. The Museum tells the story of the East India Company tunnel that is now the oldest tunnel in the London Underground.

Voyage of Adventure and Friends Homecoming

Monument & carved tablet in St Marychurchof Rotherhithe mariners.

‘To the memory of prince Lee Boo, a native of the Pelew or Palaos Islands and Son of Abba Thulle, Rupack or King of the Island Cooroora, Who departed this Life on the 27th December 1784, aged 20 years.’
‘This stone is inscribed by the Honourable United East India Company as a testimony of Esteem for the humane and kind treatment afforded by his Father to the Crew of their Ship, the Antelope, Captain Wilson which was Wrecked off that island on the Night of 9th August 1783.’

The Antelope was on a secret mission for the East India Company, making charts to bring the spices safely home.

She hits a reef in the Pacific and led by Prince Lee Boo, canoes come from the island, and rescue them. The islanders help them repair the ship, and The Antelope limps in to Shanghai where the sailors get a safe passage home. The young Prince joins them and contemporary pictures show a handsome young man, dressed as an 18th century gentleman. Intelligent and charming, but he has no immunity from disease, and he dies of smallpox.

Monument to Christopher Jones, Captain of the Mayflower and Mayflower Steps

Christopher Jones, a Rotherhithe man, is buried in this churchyard. People think the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, but she sailed from here. Crewed by Rotherhithe men, the ship called at Southampton where she met up with another ship, the Speedwell. More pilgrims joined them from the Low Countries, escaping religious persecution in mainland Europe, and 90 puritan adventurers sailed for the New World. Half way across the Atlantic, they discovered the Speedwell was leaking badly and the ships turned back and made port at Plymouth. They abandoned the Speedwell as unseaworthy, and some of the pilgrims elected to stay in England. The bravest board the Mayflower which finally lands at Plymouth Rock and the rest, as they say, is history. On a suitably ship- shaped plinth the words: In memory of Captain Christopher Jones, captain of The Mayflower, who landed 102 planters and adventurers and founded the first permanent settlement in Massachusetts. This is really a monument to migrants.

Cherry Gardens Pier: Ship building & salvage.

Here Turner painted the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. HMS Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. She fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner painted the ship in flames and being towed up the river for salvage. The ship is being towed up the river by a steam tug, and we see in the picture death of the age of the sailing ship and the birth of the age of steam. To double underline it, Turner painted the ship being towed up the river against the setting sun.
Turner also painted Temeraire at the Battle of Trafalgar, a more conventional picture where she is next astern to Nelson’s flagship Victory which she saved from capture. The first Temeraire was a French ship, taken at the Battle of Lagos in 1759. The British navy named newly commissioned ships after recently captured enemy prizes. So raw and inexperienced French sailors might fight against a better equipped, experienced British ship, and named after a French defeat. In St Marychurch there is an altar table & bishops chairs carved from wood from the Temeraire.

Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair:

In 1852 they launched the world’s first underwater fairground in the Thames Tunnel. There were sword swallowers, fire eaters, magicians, tightrope walkers, Ethiopian serenaders, Indian dancers and Chinese singers. There were dancing and performing horses, and one section of the tunnel was decked out as a ballroom, and a steam powered musical organ played dance tunes under the Thames. People filed down the staircase in their millions, and we have the permission of Transport for London to re-create the fairground and organise public walks through the arches where entertainers from all over the world once performed.

We visited the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library. We viewed in St Marychurch the collection of items from three Rotherhithe ships: Mayflower, Temeraire and Antelope. We found out about hanging knees, ships that were ‘weak at the knees’, the bishop’s chairs, the storyboard from Coo Roo Raa.  We talked to Father Mark at St Marychurch about the spice trade and Eric Kentley an expert on shipping and the East India Company. We also arranged East India concerts and workshops and discussions with Adraino Adewale, Hibik & Akari, Namvula and Jyotsna Srikanth -musicians from the east and now settled here.

We were especially excited to have Conservation students from University College London survey the underground chamber where Brunel nearly drowned. There were once frescoes as well as entertainments in here. Sadly the frescoes are lost: u/v and infra red scans found no trace of them. However, investigations tell us a great deal about the layers on the walls and the use of the structure. These investigations have also informed our Planning Application to convert the Entrance Hall, and the decision about location of the new access doorway. These ambitious plans are part of a major grant application to the National Heritage Landmark Partnership Scheme, and we hope to begin work on converting the historic chamber in 2014. Know more about our investigations.