Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The ships that sailed from the Baltic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to the Surrey Commercial Docks in the 19th century brought not just the sought after timber and deal but the men who sailed and worked on the boats. Whilst the boats were in dock, which could be for several weeks, the seamen spent time on shore, and to cater for their needs, primarily with regard to their religious and moral welfare, the churches in the Scandinavian countries established seamen’s missions. The first Baltic Church founded in London was in Wapping at the very end of the 17th century for Danish seamen but as the Surrey Commercial Docks grew in prominence, especially with regard to the import of timber, the Baltic churches opened Missions in Rotherhithe.
The Norwegian Mission Society opened a mission in Rotherhithe in 1868, originally in a temporary church until a permanent building, called the Ebenezer Church, was opened in July 1871.
To one side of the church there were community rooms that were used as reading rooms, for meeting with compatriots and for entertainment. The Church provided both a home from home for the Norwegian sailors to keep them away from temptations of the bars and brothels, and a parish church for Norwegians living in London.
The countries of Norway and Sweden had united in 1814 so the Ebenezer Church ministered to both Norwegian and Swedish sailors. The Union between the two countries was dissolved in 1905 and a separate Swedish Seamen's Mission founded. The lease and later the freehold of the former library in Lower Road was acquired and converted into a place of worship with mission facilities. These were altered and extended to provide a hall, refreshment bar and reading room with flats for permanent staff above and a new church and parsonage was built at the rear. The building, having suffered bomb damage during World War II, was demolished in the mid 60s and a new church and mission built which is now Grade II listed. Despite the closure of the Surrey Docks, the work of the Swedish Seamen's Mission continued until 2011 when the decision was made to close the Mission.
By the 1920s it was felt the Ebenezer Church was a bit remote, not the least for those Norwegians resident in London permanently as some travelled to attend services there who lived in Blackheath and North London. A plot of land was purchased just next to the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The foundation stone was laid by Norwegian Crown Prince Olav in 1926 and the new church consecrated in June 1927. This ceremony was also attended by Crown Prince Olav, together with prominent members of the Norwegian community in London and clergy from Danish, Finnish and Swedish churches in London. Before the service there was a procession from Rotherhithe Town Hall in Lower Road to the church which was headed by the clergy and followed by the officers and men of the Norwegian warship Tordenskjold and the cadets of the training ship Tordenskjold, both vessels visiting the Port of London at that time.
The church was dedicated to St Olav, the patron saint of Norway. This maintained the presence of the saint in the area as the Anglican church dedicated to St Olav next to London Bridge that dated back to before the Norman Conquest had been declared redundant and closed the previous year. There is a Norse longboat on top of the weather vane mounted on the steeple, perhaps this represents the longboat St Olav, helping Ethelred the Unready defeat the Vikings, is said to have tied to London Bridge and so pull the bridge down.
Since the closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks, St Olav’s has become the parish church to the Norwegian community living in London and the rest of the UK. It is a centre for religious services, cultural and social events and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2002 when a service was attended by the King and Queen of Norway. Every year, a Scandinavian Christmas Fair is held in Rotherhithe with St Olav’s and the neighbouring Finnish Church in Albion Street playing a leading role where stalls sell a wide variety of tempting Scandinavian arts and crafts and food.
The site had been donated by the Surrey Commercial Dockyard Company and located in Bickley Row which became a part of Rotherhithe Street. It was on the eastern side of the peninsular, north of Greenland Dock and close to Norway Yard and Norway Dock.