St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe

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St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe

St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe is the local Church of England parish church in Rotherhithe, formerly in Surrey and now part of south east London. The parish is now within the diocese of Southwark and under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Fulham. The 18th-century church is in St Marychurch Street and is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, and it is particularly proud of its connections with the Pilgrim Fathers. It remains a living and working church, supported by local people and serving a broad community.


There is documentary evidence that a church has existed on this site since at least 1282. However, Roman bricks were found when the tower was underpinned in 1913, so it is probable that there were even earlier buildings on the site.

The area was eventually served by Catholic priests from Bermondsey Abbey. Following the break with Rome under Henry VIII in 1538, the vestments, silver and gold plate and other gifts of the cathedral were sold to provide money to repair the mediaeval church.

Some remains of the mediaeval building can still be seen, for example the stone blocks incorporated into the walls on each side of the organ. In the crypt, parts of the old church walls of chalk and flint are visible, and some later Tudor brickwork. A drawing made of this building in 1623 has survived. Although the artist had difficulty representing the perspective of the old church, this drawing is the only remaining evidence of its appearance. A few memorials from the old church have survived.

In 1710, the parishioners of St Mary's petitioned parliament for a grant to rebuild their church 'which standing very low and near the banks of the Thames, is often overflowed, whereby the foundation of the church and tower is rotted and in great danger of falling'. The petition was not successful but the parishioners went on to collect subscriptions and the local craftsmen, of which there were many, turned their hands and feet to church building.

It was rebuilt in 1714–15, to a design by John James, a major architect of his day (and an associate of Sir Christopher Wren). As money was short, the tower (above right) was not finished until 1747, when Lancelot Dowbiggin, a City joiner and surveyor, completed it, perhaps to his own design, following the general plan of James.

Since then, the external appearance of the church has remained almost unchanged. It is set in a narrow street close to the Thames, surrounded by former warehouses and facing the charity school house which was built in 1703.

In 1760, Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton wed his second wife, Anne, here. The two had journeyed far from home to evade ecclesiastical difficulties; she was his first wife's sister, and the marriage was forbidden by canon law, but not void if no one objected when the banns were read.

In 1838, when the well-known ship Temeraire was broken up, some of her timbers were used to build a communion table and two bishop's chairs in the Rotherhithe church.

The interior of the church was much altered in 1876.

Between 1996 and 1999, the bells were restored and re-hung, and essential repairs made to the spire. The bells are regularly rung by members of the Docklands Ringing Centre.

The organ

The organ dates from 1800 by England & Russell, but has had work done in 1829 by Hugh Russell, 1859 by Robson, 1870 and 1882 by Gray & Davison, 1946 by W.J. English, 1959 and 1975 by Noel Mander and finally in 1991 by Martin Goetze & Dominic Gwynn. The specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.

The organists
Maritime connections

As befits a church near the merchant activity on the river, there are several maritime connections. The communion table in the Lady Chapel and two bishop's chairs are made from salvaged timber from the warship HMS Temeraire. The ship's final journey to the breaker's yard at Deptford was made famous by Turner in his evocative painting The Fighting Temeraire, now in the National Gallery.

In the church a memorial marks the final resting place of Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower, which took the Pilgrim Fathers to North America in 1620.

It is also the burial place of Prince Lee Boo of Palau, a Pacific Island prince.

Nearby are some of London's Nordic churches and missions to seafarers.