Throughout prehistoric times Rotherhithe was an uninhabited area of marshy land. It is first mentioned in an anglo saxon charter of 898. In 1016 King Cnut sailed up the Thames to attack London. Aware that the Londoners would be waiting to bombard him from London Bridge, his father Sweyn had been attacked there nearly 25 years earlier, he cut a canal around the bridge allowing him to bypass the ambush. It is believed that the canal began somewhere in the vicinity of Rotherhithe.
Rotherhithe was not mentioned in the Domesday Book but it is possible that it was regarded as a hamlet attached to Bermondsey. It is certain that Bermondsey Abbey had a large influence on life, the rights to the rectory of Rotherhithe lay with the Abbey Prior whilst the monks played a major role in building, and maintaining, the riverbank protection against the ever present danger of flooding.
Rotherhithe has had royal connections. Edward III had a palace at Rotherhithe, the remains of which have recently been excavated. In 1412 Henry IV stayed in the area 'whilst he was cured of leprosy'. It was hoped the sea air would help his complaint. He arrived by river, sailing down The Thames from the Palace of Westminster to Rotherhithe. The manor was owned by the monarch from William II until Henry I gave it to his son.
The village of Rotherhithe has a traditionally had a close relationship with the sea. Throughout history it was a favourite home for many seafarers, such as Captain Christopher Jones of The Mayflower, and it has a fine tradition of shipbuilding. Two local Master Mariners, Peter Hills and Robert Booth, founded a school to help the children of destitute sailors in 1613. Today the modern Peter Hills school is helping to educate the present generation of Rotherhithe children. The first church, St Mary, was present by the Middle Ages though it is thought a church may have been on the site in Saxon times. The first known rector was John de Tocqueville in 1310. The current church was built in 1715 after its predecessor was damaged in the flood of 1705. The church was designed by John James, who was much influenced by Sir Christopher Wren. To keep costs down the local shipbuilders employed their skills to help build it hence the church has wooden pillars not the more common stone pillars. The church is the burial place of three of the four owners of The Mayflower, Christopher Jones, Richard Gardner and John Moore.
Rotherhithe is perhaps best known its connections with The Mayflower however there are plenty of other interesting maritime links. Prince Lee Boo was another famous resident. Captain Henry Wilson, a Rotherhithe man, was sailing The Antelope near Coo-roo-raa, one of the Pelew Islands, with the East India Company when he was shipwrecked and forced ashore. The crew feared the natives who had a reputation as cannibals. In reality they found them to be very friendly, Wilson had a servant who spoke Malay as did one of the locals. Slowly the sailors, and locals, built a new ship and when the sailors left the King requested they take his son Prince Lee Boo with them so that he could be educated in England. Sadly six months after his arrival Prince Lee Boo contracted small pox and died in 1784, aged 20.
Rotherhithe has not only been known for its maritime connections though. In Stuart times Rotherhithe was famous for the Cherry Gardens. The gardens were a recreational area and Londoners often visited to spend Saturday afternoon relaxing there. Samuel Pepys records visiting the area to buy cherries for his wife in his famous diary. Whilst the Cherry Gardens have gone a recent initiative has seen cherry trees replanted in the area.
In 1838 HMS Temeraire was broken up at Beatson's Yard in Rotherhithe. 'The Fighting Temeraire' played a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar and her last journey up The Thames is the subject of a famous painting by Turner. As well as
housing many ship breakers, Rotherhithe was home to some of the best shipbuilders in the world. Some of the first steamships were built in Rotherhithe and the first iron ship, the Aaron Manby, was constructed in the local shipyards. Rotherhithe was also home to many associated industries, for example iron works and gun powder manufacturers. The names of the local docks reflect the days gone by, Greenland Dock is a reminder that whalers used to be based there. The dock was called Howland Great Wet Dock from its foundation in 1693 until 1763. The dock was the largest commercial dock in the western world at the time, able to handle 120 merchant ships. It was the major whaling base in London until the trade died in the 1840's , after which it was used for the importation of timber.
As the sea fairing era drew to a close the improving transport saw the population of Rotherhithe rise. In 1801 it housed 10,296, a century later it was home to 38,424. The housing tended to be mixed, the rich enjoyed good housing conditions but the poor suffered some poor housing conditions. Subsequent redevelopment has seen an end to the worst housing conditions
and some very attractive housing has been built in the area over recent years.
Rotherhithe contains the last pub built in London before World War Two. The Ship actually dates back to 1865 but it moved to new premises in 1939. As with all of South London the area was affected by the war, indeed Mayor Henley was killed by a bomb fragment whilst on duty at the Town Hall in 1941. Whilst the River Thames may have less commercial influence on Rotherhithe than previously it is still a major influence on life in the area. As late as 31st January 1953 The River Thames flooded Rotherhithe leaving a deposit of black mud on the streets.
The days of Londoners visiting Rotherhithe on a Saturday afternoon to spend the day in the Cherry Garden have finished however Rotherhithe remains a very pleasant place to visit. Unlike many parts of South London its village origins are still visible, indeed the fierce local community spirit continues to this day.