Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
St Olaf House, the Art Deco building set back at the London Bridge end of Tooley Street, gets its name from St Olave’s Church which had stood on the site since the time of the Norman Conquest. St Olave was a prince of Norway who came to England to help Ethelred overcome and expel Danish invaders at the beginning of the 11th century. Some Nordic sagas tell of how the Danes stood guard on London Bridge, ready to repel any boats of the English or their allies that sailed up the Thames and that Olave, disguising his boats, tied cables around the bridge piles and pulled the bridge down, bringing the Danes down with it. Returning home, he became king of Norway and, as a zealous Christian, set about converting the people of Norway. This was unpopular with his subjects and led to them complaining he had altered their laws and customs. As a result he was assassinated in 1029 but was canonised as a martyr. He was a popular saint in London and there were three churches other than the one in Southwark dedicated to him with only one remaining today in Hart Street.
Not much is known about the early church (or churches) on the site in Tooley Street but by 1736 it had become unsafe and had partly fallen down as a result, it is said, of graves being dug too close to the foundations. A new church was built, mainly of Portland stone, and consecrated in 1740. Originally designed to have a spire, it was built with a three-stage square tower that contained eight bells with an interior described as very grand. In 1843, the church suffered severe damage caused by a fire that had started in the premises of a nearby oilman and had caught the roof of the church. It destroyed the interior of the church, including the bells, and only the tower and the bare walls remained. The building was insured and the church quickly rebuilt to very much the same design.
But with the building of the railway and London Bridge station, and as the demands of local industry and commerce encroached, the local population was displaced and the congregation had dwindled. Having served the community since the 11th century, the church was declared redundant in 1918. The main part of the church was demolished but, by Act of Parliament, the tower of the church had to remain as a heritage monument and the churchyard which ran down to the river was refurbished as a recreational space for the people of Bermondsey.
A few years later, Bermondsey Council who had acquired the site, 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 which they considered to be more suitable than the churchyard site which was surrounded by tall buildings and suffered the noise 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 as their new headquarters. The turret from the tower of the church was rescued and installed in the new Tanner Street Park and converted into a water fountain which still remains today. There is more information regarding the sale of the former St Olave’s site to Hay’s Wharf on the Tanner Street Park page.
Other than St Olaf House, little remains in the area to remember the church and parish. There is an inscription on the art deco building that describes the history of the site and a little further away, the Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe, consecrated in 1927, is dedicated to St Olav. At the time the church in Tooley Stret was demolished, a new parish was established in Mitcham where the dedication to St Olave was transferred. The school, founded by the parish in 1571 by royal charter and named after St Olave, moved several times before relocating to Orpington in 1968.