The Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe

If you know where to look London still has evidence that once it was a great maritime port.

Anne-Marie Nankivell author of The Londonphile writes in this Guest Post, not of the iconic cranes standing unused outside the expensive flats in Docklands, but of a building that has survived against all the odds even though it has a list when all its neighbours were demolished.

[I]t stands in supreme isolation, alone along this little stretch of the river, like a mouth with but a single tooth. How many travellers along the Thames must have wondered about this funny, narrow little building in Rotherhithe? In fact, the Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe – as it is apparently known locally – was one of several buildings in the area owned by Braithwaite & Dean, a barge company. They were a lighterage firm – lighters being flat-bottomed barges – and their lightermen moved goods between ships and quays (not to be confused with watermen, who carried passengers). This building was their office – and already tilting back in those days – where lightermen would pull up in their boats to collect their wages.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-2Once this whole stretch of the riverside was covered with buildings, they mostly related to shipping, with a few public houses thrown in for good measure. You can see a Museum of London photograph of the area (commissioned by the Port of London Authority as part of their ten-mile panoramic documentation of the river) from 1937 here. The buildings to the west of our leaning tower were purchased in 1939 by Bermondsey Council, who planned to demolish them to build a garden. The Blitz then finished off any work that they had begun to this end.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-3To the east of the building stood what has been described as ‘a once absurdly picturesque row of largely wooden tenements…seedy in the extreme but vibrantly populated in the 1950s by a bohemian set of artists and writers’. Lord Snowdon lived along this row in a former coal store and is said to have met with Princess Margaret here, as well as hosting celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward (who entertained him on the piano in his studio flat). In around 1960 he lent his room to John Betjeman (as you do) when his house burnt down.

Betjeman described his time here as ‘the most restful few months I had ever spent in London’, during which he enjoyed the ‘tremendous view’, including that of ‘the wharves and Georgian brick buildings of Wapping’ across the way. He moved the bed to the river-side of the room, going ‘to sleep to the solacing sounds of water’. At low tide he would listen to the sound of the waves rippling over the pebbles below, and described how at high tide ‘after a tug had passed the water made a plopping sound right against my bedroom wall as thought I were in a ship’s hold’. Until the Thames Barrier was built this whole area was of course subject to the risk of flooding; Braithwaite & Dean’s offices were flooded in 1953.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-4 The remains of Edward III’s manor house nearby

Despite a campaign by both Betjeman and Snowdon, the rather romantic-sounding row of buildings to the east was also pulled down by the local council after being condemned as a health hazard during the 1960s. It’s not known exactly why this particular structure was allowed to remain. It is not of any particular architectural value, though perhaps it was its brickwork that saved it, as many of the other buildings were wooden so arguably less sound structures. The King’s Stairs Gardens were then created here, and contain the remains of what is thought to be King Edward III’s manor house, circa 1353, uncovered by a Museum of London dig in the 1980s. Braithwaite & Dean stayed on in the leaning tower until the early 1990s, and it is now a (very) private residence.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-5

The house is located at the very end of Fulford Street (you can’t miss it!), roughly equidistant between Bermondsey tube station and Rotherhithe Overground station. The photograph taken from across the river was shot (with a zoom lens) from Wapping’s Waterside Gardens.

Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-6 Leaning Tower - Rotherhithe-7 Note from CabbieBlog: To get some perspective of how the riverside looked in its heyday this picture taken in 1937 shows Braithwaite & Dean with properties on either side used by lighterage and barge-building firms. Their appearance with steep-pitched mansard roofs with pantiles above would indicate 17th century construction. A hithe in Old English was a landing-place on a river, while Rother was the old term for oxen. So this was the river port for landing cattle.

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This wonderful example of our maritime past is available to rent. Now converted into luxury accommodation it boasts of a one bedroom private penthouse, sleeping six with stunning views of Tower Bridge directly on the river [see above]. Located one mile from Tower Bridge along the Jubilee Thames path and an easy commute from Gatwick and to the city. Your may contact Helena here to make a booking.

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