Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
In the middle of the seventeenth century, Alexander Hay purchased a small wharf close to London Bridge and today, over 350 years later, his name is still celebrated in tall gold letters at the top of a riverside building in Tooley Street. He gave his name to the company who at one time owned all the warehouses on the southern stretch of the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge and developed other highly profitable businesses connected with warehouse operations such as shipping and distribution services. The Proprietors of Hay's Wharf came a long way and today the company lives on as Hay's plc, a specialist recruitment firm.
Riverside elevation of St Olaf's House
The wharf purchased by Alexander Hay had previously been used as a granary. He set himself up as a brewer and wharfinger, but finding the warehousing side of the business was the more profitable, he rented out the brewery. He initially dealt with tallow and fats from East Anglia and hides and skins for the already thriving tanning industry in Bermondsey. As the City of London became the commercial centre of the world, importing and exporting goods and produce from all over the world, the Pool of London, extending from London Bridge to Cherry Garden Pier, became more and more congested with ships waiting to discharge their loads and take on new loads. It became so crowded, it was said to be possible to walk from one side of the river to the other just by walking over ships berthed there. To ease this congestion, commercial docks were built further down river, initially at the north of the Isle of Dogs and at Rotherhithe. Though some ships still came all the way into the Pool of London to unload their goods directly into warehouses, freight that was discharged at one of the docks downriver was loaded onto barges, or lighters, for transporting to the warehouses in Bermondsey. Theodore Hay was a pioneer in the system of lighterage and at the end of the 18th century was Master of the Watermen’s Company and King’s Waterman, and from this began the company’s activities in shipping services. When the Theodore Hay died in 1838, the company came under control of John Humphery Jr, an Alderman for the City of London whose family were already established wharfingers to the west of London Bridge where they had built warehouses in the area surrounding Clink Street.
In 1856, Humphery commissioned William Cubitt to design and build new warehouse accommodation. A small inland dock was created so barges could gain access from the river. On each side of the new dock a five storey warehouse was built. Disaster struck within a few years when, despite the new buildings having iron fire doors, the warehouses were destroyed by the Great Fire of Tooley Street in 1861.
The warehouses designed by William Cubitt, rebuilt after the fire, now Hay's Galleria with an additional storey built on top.
It appears the buildings were insured but nevertheless Alderman Humphery had to call on his bank. As a result he acquired two new partners and the company began trading as “The Proprietors of Hay’s Wharf”. With these two new partners on board, the company began to expand, broadening from dealing mostly in British goods to handling goods and produce from all over the world. Tea clippers began to arrive from China and India and Hay’s Wharf became the leading handler of tea in the Port of London. In 1867 cold storage was installed and they began to handle shipments of butter, cheese, bacon and canned meats from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Denmark and Holland. Though Hay’s Wharf handled all kinds of freight, it specialised in provisions, and Bermondsey became known as “London’s Larder”. They acquired more wharves and warehouses along that stretch of the river, rebuilding and equipping when needed.
Between 1928 and 1932 a new headquarters was built on land where previously the parish church of St Olave had stood. As the area had become more and more commercial and many people displaced by the building of the railway, the congregation had dwindled. Having served the community since the 11th century, the church was declared redundant. The main part of the church was demolished but, by Act of Parliament in 1918, the tower of the church had to remain and the churchyard which ran down to the river also had to remain as an open recreational space for the residents of Bermondsey. A few years later, Bermondsey Council sought to amend the Act, asking that the tower be demolished and allowing for the churchyard to be sold and built upon. With the proceeds from the sale, Bermondsey Council would open a recreation ground on the former site of the workhouse in Tanner Street. They considered this to be more suitable than the churchyard site which was surrounded by tall buildings and suffered the constant passing of traffic. In addition, the Tanner Street site was larger.
Parliament agreed to these changes and the church tower was demolished and the churchyard cleared in 1928. Hay’s Wharf bought the land and built St Olaf House, a rare example of art deco architecture in Southwark. On the riverside elevation are a series of relief sculptures by Frank Dobson entitled Capital, Labour and Commerce which depict scenes from dockland life.
Right: Ship berthed beside Olaf House and Chamberlain Wharf (now London Bridge Hospital) in 1937.
The area suffered terrible bombing during the second world war but the company recovered and by 1960, the company handled 2,000,000 tons of foodstuffs within its wharfs and had 11 cold and cool air stores. They had many subsidiary companies that provided the ancillary services of lighterage, barge building and repair, bottling of wines and spirts, transport and shipping and forwarding. A marvellous film shot at Mark Brown's Wharf in 1968 can be found here. But in October 1969, the company announced the wharves in Bermondsey would close. There had been a bitter labour dispute with the dockers and business had been lost as Hay’s Wharf were unable to guarantee enough manpower to unload shipments. This was made much of in the media as the main reason for the closure and only at the very end of the news item in the Times that announced the closure came the sentence “Apart from labour difficulties there had also been a change in trading patterns and containerization.”
New deeper dock facilities had been built at Tilbury and Felixstowe that could accommodate the larger container ships and this affected all the London Docks and associated industries. Indeed, Hay’s Wharf themselves were aware of the impending changes as in 1968 they had set up a cold storage facility in Dagenham not far away from Tilbury Docks. Over a very short period of time, the docks in London closed and what had been thriving centres of commerce were now deserted. It affected those industries connected to the docks, “the wharfingers, merchants, salesmen, factors, and agents; outfitters, biscuit-bakers, store-shippers, ship-chandlers, slopsellers, block-makers, and rope-makers; engineers, and others, together with the usual varieties of retail tradesmen” that Edward Walford had referred to in 1878 when describing the bustle of the Bermondsey wharves.
St Martin’s Property Corporation acquired the land at Hay’s Wharf and the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed in 1981 whose purpose was to regenerate the now silent and derelict London docks. The redevelopment of the stretch of riverside between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, now renamed London Bridge City, was to be in 2 phases, Phase I was between London Bridge and what is now Southwark Crown Court and Phase II was from there to Tower Bridge. Phase I was achieved reasonably quickly: One London Bridge and the Cottons Centre were completed
in 1986. London Bridge Hospital took over the Chambers Wharf building and St Olaf’s House. Hay’s Dock, renamed Hay's Galleria, was filled in and paved over and a glass barrel vault installed to join the two warehouse buildings at roof level to create an atrium like area with shops and stalls on ground level with offices in the upper levels. Southwark Crown Court was erected on Wilson’s Wharf. (see photo caption at bottom of page for full list).
Phase II was not so straightforward and development stalled. The area, which included social housing, had mostly been cleared by 1987 and proposals had been submitted. Three schemes were designed and it seems the scheme nicknamed Venice by the Thames was going to be constructed when the architect pulled out of the project. And then it all went very quiet, the site bare and neglected.
In 1998, St Martin’s Property Corporation sold the site to London Bridge Holdings and in the same year it was announced that City Hall, home for the new elected body the Greater London Assembly presided over by the Mayor of London, would be built on the cleared site where Mark Brown's Wharf had previously stood. The concept of More London was developed to replace the now out-moded London Bridge City Phase II and Foster and Partners, who designed City Hall, created a masterplan.
Now completed, the area is busy and lively with 7 office blocks, a Hilton Hotel, the Unicorn Theatre, Potters Fields Park, walkways, public sculpture, water features, pedestrian walkways, shops, offices, restaurants and an amphitheatre. Many financial services firms are based in More London reflecting the hub of London’s economy in the 21st century just as 100 years ago the warehouses and wharfs reflected the hub of London’s economy in the early 20th century.
15 years after selling the Phase II site, St Martin’s Property Corporation bought it back for a reported £1.7 bn in 2013.
From left to right, east to west:
City Hall (2002), formerly Mark Brown's Warehouse
More London (2003), formerly Symon's Wharf, St Olave's Wharf and Pickle Herring Wharf
Southwark Crown Court (1982), formerly Wilson's Wharf
Hay's Galleria (1987), formerly Hay's Wharf and Dock
Cotton's Centre (1986), formerly eight bonded warehouses at Cotton's and Depot Wharf
London Bridge Hospital (1986), formerly Chambers Wharf
London Bridge Hospital - St Olaf House (1986), formerly the headquarters of Hay's Wharf Ltd
One London Bridge (1986), formerly Fenning's Wharf, Sun Wharf and Nestle Anglo-Swiss Wharf