History of the church

Rotherhithe lies near the heart of London’s Docklands, part of inner London which has seen massive changes in the past few years, with new housing, offices, printing works and shopping centres springing up almost overnight. However, it was not always like this.

The earliest hints at the human occupation of Rotherthithe lie in the Saxon origins of the name – Rothra – a mariner or oarsman, and Hythe – a landing place. Here, on a gravel island, surrounded by marshland and tidal rivulets, a village grew up. The earliest known record of a church is in 1282, when the Abbot of Westminster and the Rector became embroiled in a law suit over fishing rights. In 1913, during the underpinning of the tower, Roman bricks were found. We can only conjecture that, because of the usefulness of the river, coupled with a secure patch of ground in the midst of the marsh, human beings have probably lived and worshipped in Rotherhithe at least since Roman times.

A past rich in seafaring history

Rotherhithe has many seafaring connections and was noted for shipbuilding, ship repairing, ship breaking, and for the loading and unloading of cargoes of all sorts.

Prince Lee Boo, from the Pacific island of Pelew, came here in 1784: although dying after only five months, his story became a best seller for many years. He is buried in the churchyard. In the church, the two episcopal chairs, and the altar in the sacrament chapel, are made of wood from the Fighting Temeraire, broken up in 1838, and immortalised in the famous painting by J.M.W. Turner.

The modern memorial to the Captain of the Mayflower establishes the links between St. Mary’s and the historic voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. Three of the ship’s four owners are buried her – Christopher Jones, Richard Gardener and John Moore. John Clarke (second in command) and Richard Gardener were married here, and the ship returned to Rotherhithe to be broken up.

The present church

Some of the medieval church remains in the present building. Internally, old stones are exposed on each side of the organ. In the crypt are fragments of the old church walls (chalk and flint) and rubble from the demolition carried out in 1714. The only known picture of this building was drawn in 1623, and is preserved in the Minet Library, Lambeth.

We know that a great deal of money was being spent on the medieval building during the last years of the seventeenth century. Eventually it was decided to rebuild the church, and despite the lack of a grant from Queen Anne, the people of Rotherhithe went ahead and paid for the building themselves.

The “Surveyor” was John James, who also rebuilt the church of St. Mary, Twickenham, at the same time. He was a major architect of his day, and was also responsible for building St. George’s, Hanover Square. Money being limited, John James did not rebuild the tower, which remained in the space now occupied by the organ until rebuilt by Lancelot Dowbiggin in 1747. St. Mary’s cost £4,000 to build, and lists of bills, craftsmen, and subscribers, are preserved in the Southwark Local Studies Library.

The appearance of the church has remianed almost unchanged, externally, since 1747. Its setting in a narrow street near the river, surrounded by the surviving warehouses, and opposite the charity school house, built in 1703 for the educating the orphaned children of mariners, still points to the strong maritime past of the area.

The church interior

Internally, the church has changed a great deal since 1715. Built to seat 1,000 persons, there were galleries, box pews and a large three-decker pulpit. In 1876 William Butterfield carried out a thorough re-ordering of the interior of St. Mary’s, influenced by the Oxford Movement. Marble steps were built and choirstalls were created from the old gallery fronts. The box pews were cut down to size, and the three-decker pulpit dismantled. The present pulpit is the surviving “top deck”. Butterfield designed and altar worthy of being the focal point of the building, and painted the church in vivid colours.

Above the reredos, the east window is filled with sixteenth-century German stained glass, depicting the Assumption of Our Lady. The glass was brought to Rotherhithe in the early nineteenth century – it has been suggested that it fell off the equivalent of “the back of a lorry” during the Napoleonic wars, being looted as a prize of war.


One of the great treasures at St. Mary’s is the organ, built by John Byfield the younger, in 1764. It is one of the most complete English eighteenth-century organs, and although it has been enlarged and renovated, the tonal effect is now exactly as it was over two centuries ago.

St. Mary’s has an interesting and valuable collection of church plate, spanning the years each side of the church’s rebuilding. The oldest piece is a silver salver, possibly of the fifteenth century, ornamented with repousse work, and probably Spanish or Portuguese in origin. In the south aisle is a painting of King Charles I. How the picture came to St. Mary’s, and how old it is, are mysteries. In 1979, however, it was stolen from the church, and was returned seven years later by its new owner!

Article by Roger Booth