The sights, sounds and smells of Bermondsey

Walking to St Olave’s was a longer version of the walk to my primary school, Snowsfields. So I must have walked the route every school day for ten years or more till we moved to a new maisonette (a flat on two levels with internal stairs, on the Old Kent Road). Along the way, certain sights, sounds and smells became very familiar to me.

Just a few hundred yards from the flat was The Leather Market.

“The New Leather Market, situated in New Weston Street, Bermondsey, is a large and lofty quadrangular building, with a fine open area and other conveniences, and is well adapted to the purpose for which it was erected. The skin and leather trade, heretofore carried on entirely in Leadenhall Market, has since been in a great measure removed here.” (Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to it Sights, 1844)

This picture of the main building was drawn in 1879.

This is how the main building looks today.

The complex of buildings, which extends along both Weston and Leathermarket streets, is now home to a variety of different firms but when I was a kid a lot of leather-related activity was still going on and very strong smells wafted out on to the street. At Stogs, Geography “O” Level included a special paper on Bermondsey and we visited sites of local industries, including the Leather Market.

I found this very interesting short guide to the leather industry of Bermondsey by Peter Marshall. The leaflet dates from 1992 but most of the information still applies. It can be printed out and I intend to use it to take the short tour myself next time I’m there.

Tanner St. and Morocco St. (as in Morocco leather) took their names from the trade as well but many buildings in other streets were also involved in different aspects of the industry. This Web page is full of interesting information about the leather industry, and Bermondsey in general. (For example, it turns out that what may have been the largest hat factory in the world was at one time located in Bermondsey St., with up to 1500 workers. And the expression “mad as a hatter” originates from unfortunate workers who suffered the effects of inhaling the fumes of sulphuric acid, used in large quantities in the manufacturing process).

In Roman times, the area was marshland. The name Bermondsey itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase for “Island of Beornmund.” Dicken’s description of the area through which Bill Sykes is pursued in Oliver Twist was based on Jacob’s Island (around St. Saviour’s Dock). So the neighbourhood and the River Thames literally intermingled, and it was the existence of many freshwater tidal streams running in to the river that facilitated the growth of the leather industry, which required large amounts of water and a means of disposing of waste. If the neighbourhood still assaulted the senses when I was child, I can’t imagine what it would have been like at the turn of the century, when thousands of people lived and worked in the most insanitary of conditions and horse-drawn vehicles were used to haul all sorts of raw materials and products into and out of the area.

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4 Responses to The sights, sounds and smells of Bermondsey

  1. Hello Peter:

    Thank you for your several posts today. It seems you have more time to yourself then before. Us bloggers are happy. 🙂

    “The New Leather Market,” building of 1879 looks almost the same as today. Excellent for London’s building conservation policy. We are losing our old buildings in Panama due to a construction fever.



  2. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Omar. Actually, I had trouble with the program and it took me a long time to do the post. I nearly gave up for the day until – not for the first time – Don saved the day. I have lots I want to write but it takes time to research the topics and put it all together. Progress may be slower than we’d both like… I still have to make a living!

  3. Fabulous reading …. & amazing to look at all the new buildings etc , been 3 yrs since I have been back “over ” ( from florida ) and having grown up in Rotherhithe (nr. St. Olaves Hos) I know all the area’s very well … so to see all the changes , i wonder if i will recognise some of the streets & places ? Tooly St, & Nr the London Bridge ….?
    I have been in the process for the past 18 mths , sorting 7 selling “stuff” for the big move back to the UK (Maidstone ) late spring /summer … I love the sun here , But for 25yrs missed the seasons !! & culture I am a LONDON BIRD .. so cant wait to meander down memory lane like yourself & see all the changes .
    Thankyou so much this has been really wonderful to read & see some of the changes you have shared today .. to this “Cockney Sparrow ”
    Cheers & thanks again well done !!

  4. thebarrowboy says:

    Thanks, Christine. Hope to be back there soon as well!

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