Playground, Rotherhithe. © David Secombe 1988.
From The Lancet, August 23, 1884:
Burying Cholera Patients Alive
It is not so much undue haste as inexcusable carelessness that must be blamed for the premature burying of persons who are not really dead. Such heedlessness as alone can lead to the commission of this crime is not a shade less black than manslaughter. We speak strongly, because this is a matter in regard to which measures ought to be at once taken to render the horrible act impossible, and to dismiss all fear from the public mind. If it be a fact, as would seem to be indisputable, that during the last few weeks there have been cases we will not attempt to say how many or how few of burying alive, a scandal and a horror, wholly unpardonable in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, have to be faced; and the sooner the full truth is known and rules of safety established the better.
Let it be once for all decided that measures shall be taken to ascertain the fact of death before burial. Why not revert to the old practice, and always open a vein in the arm after death, or pass a current of electricity through the body before the coffin is finally screwed down? It may be held that these unpleasant resorts are unnecessary. We do not think they are. In any case enough is known of the possibilities of ‘ suspended animation’ to render it unsafe to bury until the evidences of an actual extinction of life are unmistakable ; and, as it is impossible to wait until decomposition sets in in all cases of death from infectious diseases, it would be prudent to adopt what must certainly be the least of evils.
Brunel Road, Rotherhithe, London, July 1979. © Geoff Howard.
The rest is silence by Charles Jennings:
This car is following me. No, either it’s following me – dark blue Golf – or it’s as lost as I am and just happens to emerge and re-emerge round corners and at the ends of roads and roll silently past me, the driver painstakingly not looking my way but screwing up his brow as he lunges off up another sidetrack which I know will bring him out twenty yards ahead of me. This is paranoia all right, and I’ve only been here 15 minutes.
Another thing: after a lot of ducking and weaving, I shake the car get onto the street that runs down by the river, two apes start following me, cropheads, bomber jackets, you know the sort, bouncers. Didn’t say anything, mark you, just kept their distance 30 feet behind. Nice sunny day, but I still felt that unease. So I jinked behind a litter bin, doubled back round a newbuild block of flats, nipped out on Salter Road, turned round a couple of times, lost them. Close though.
I don’t normally act this way, but Rotherhithe is not on the level. It was a perfect day, breeze blowing, sun shining, operatic clouds billowing up from the south-west, and yet such is its emptiness, the untenantedness, the shortage of humanity around Rotherhithe a lot of the time, that I can’t remember the last occasion I felt so alone in the big city except when I was last down the wrong stretch of Wapping, the sister city across the Thames. Here they were, of course, Wapping and Canary Wharf, I could see them standing golden in the sun on the north side, while kids combed the shingle beach for pounds.
Alone and lost. Just me and ranks of newbuild properties – little three-bedders with oak-effect doors, new wave flatlets topped off with pointless metal triangles and overturned D’s; refashioned warehouses on the river; fake Georgian tenements – once in a while interrupted by a canal or dead creek with tide heights marked in Roman numerals up the side, all doubling back on themselves, leading in and out of nowhere.
Not even any shops to get some sort of bearing, apart from a pair of bolted and shuttered takeaways next to a Stop ‘n’ Shop and the The Compasses pub. I clung to this last for a bit, going round in circles, afraid to lose it and myself again – before I realised that I had to be somewhere else in an hour and a half and that if I didn’t start looking for a way out, I’d never leave in time.
So it was off to the Dan Dare tube station where I thought I’d arrived a lifetime earlier, and back over the scrap of wasteland – where I finally saw a couple of people, trudging into the distance, carrying bags. And then a terrific racking cough, like a bomb going off, and this wrecky old geezer lurches out from a bush and makes for a bench. I was going to hail him, winkle out the secret of Rotherhithe, the two worlds. V-reg cars penned in behind security fences (“Specialist Dogs and Tactics” it said on a notice on one) versus the tough old estates left behind, but then another of those blokes appeared – no. 1 crop, Crombie, pit bull on a string. I thought “Hallo,” like you do, and bunked off quick.
© Charles Jennings.
[Charles’s copy was originally written for The Guardian‘s ‘Space’ supplement and was published in April 2000. As such, it is almost as much of a period piece as Geoff’s photos. D.S.]
Go-go dancer, The Lord Wellington, Rotherhithe, London, June 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Smut by Tim Wells:
much of it
catches my eye.
the bar top,
in her drink.
© Tim Wells.
Carnival, Southwark Park, London, July 1974. © Geoff Howard.
I photographed the people and places that caught my attention, shooting from an interest in, and a curiosity about, what was there and what was happening, happy to be working without the restrictions which often accompany commissioned projects. People have asked why I shot with flash – in those days, most photographers would only use available light – shades of Cartier-Bresson – but in the disco pubs, it was really dark – and I wanted to see, to show more clearly, what it was like, what was happening; less atmosphere, but more information. I stopped photographing there so intensively when I felt I had done the things which demanded to be photographed, and I didn’t want to make the same pictures over again. Then the whole area, the whole character of the area, changed – with redevelopment, new building, the yuppyfication of docklands; there were lots of photographers documenting the new docklands, and if I had continued, it would have been a different story, so it seemed like a natural end, a natural place to stop. I have been back, a few times – I was there last year, to try and check some locations when I started putting this book together; it was interesting, frustrating, indeed perplexing trying to identify places I used to know well, and now so changed.
[Rotherhithe Photographs was published in 2008, although images from the project had previously appeared in the legendary Creative Camera magazine in 1975, and a selection of pictures was also exhibited at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1978. Seen from the vantage point of 2012, Geoff’s photos capture the half-forgotten ‘interzone’ between the dock closures and Thatcherite redevelopment and demonstrate, yet again, that there is nothing quite as remote as the recent past. D.S.]
Corner shop, Brunel Road, Rotherhithe, London, July 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Gentrification by Charles Jennings:
Two geezers in overalls flicking litter into a truck (‘Could’ve bleeding stayed in bed, didn’t know it was only this one’). Keeping their ends up against the taggers and bomb artists on the main road. ‘That shouldn’t be allowed ’cause they laid out a lot of money’. You’ve got your haggard local shops, giving out, giving in, ‘Houses & Flats Cleared, Apply Within’, a stupidly optimistic fingerpost. The coughing of the birds, the single, muted noise of a car driving along in first a block away. ‘Big Reductions on Room Size’, with a tiny old lady picking at some cream-vinyl dining chairs stuck out on the pavement as if they were poisonous, a dysfunctional boy pulling at the hair of a girl in a newsagent’s doorway, the sullen rumble of a train. Who’s going to be passing through? Dead cars, living cars, stuff you do to your car, garages. Those jaded avenues of small houses, nervy pre-dereliction, the effort to keep up. The midget shops, the kebabs, the roaming crazies (woman in a tank top scouring the bins: ‘Fucking said to him, “Fucking listen”‘). This tomb of obscurity: drowning in toxins, grimed-up, catching screams from the estate on the west side, the traffic barrelling to hell on the roundabout. Sort myself out a nice K-reg Astra. It’s shy of life, but only because it’s keeling over.
… for The London Column. © Charles Jennings 2012.
Ship and Whale, Rotherhithe. © Geoff Howard 1975.
From Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, 1966 ( revised 1988):
Mostly a terrible disappointment, with the dock buildings low and mean, and the horrible pre-war flats along Rotherhithe Street meaner still. But just once the conglomeration of utilities cracks into poetry, and it takes a bit of finding. In Gulliver Street, off Redriff Road, is a pub called the Ship and Whale. Beside it, a walled alley leads south. Walls give way to wooden slats with intermittent views of barges – if you run fast enough they coalesce like a movie strip. The slats in turn lead to a swing bridge, just a few feet higher than the rest, and the whole place suddenly unfolds. This is the main entrance to the dock, the Thames is only a few feet away, and the view all round the clock is water and ships, with the domes of Greenwich inflecting the horizon.
From the forward to Rotherhithe Photographs, 1971-80 by Geoff Howard:
Rotherhithe was a riverside village to the east of London in medieval times, but the real development of the area started with the major dock building in the first half of the 19th century; these docks were amalgamated into the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1864. Surrey Docks are only a part of Rotherhithe, but people tended to use the two names almost interchangeably. Surrey Docks underground station is at the south end of the docks; Rotherhithe Street itself follows the bend of the river Thames around the north side of the docks. Rotherhithe Street – the longest street on London – or was it in England – bordered by high walls hiding the docks, with just occasional gaps at a gate or bridge, with glimpses of water or warehouses, and like all the surrounding streets mostly deserted, a ghostly, uninhabited feeling, broken by small estates of council flats, a few pubs, some newsagents or little corner shops. The river on the other side of the road, often just a few steps down to the water.
While these photographs date from 1971 to 1980, the majority were taken between 1973 and 1975. It was the time after the closure of the docks in 1969 but before the complete redevelopment of the whole London docklands area, north and south of the river Thames, during the 1980s.
In 1978 Sally Williams of the Whitechapel Art Gallery put on a small exhibition of my work entitled Rotherhithe Photographs in the front gallery, and it is from those pictures that this book originated. The exhibition felt like a sort of completion to my project; I had done the things which had originally struck me and had made the area special. However, I continued to photograph from time to time, and in 1980 Tony Garrett of New Society magazine asked me to photograph the Downtown area for a story entitled Closedown in Docklands. When the London Docklands Development Corporation got round to the area south of the river, everything changed. What I had found there was gone, and I stopped photographing Rotherhithe. If I went there, I got lost; there were new roads everywhere. The mysterious passage which started beside The Ship and Whale pub and ran alongside the river, which had been for me the secret heart of the area, now no longer existed. And I still wonder, whatever happened to Dave and Carole? But the painted wall on which they marked their years together is gone too.
The lives here were more than 30 years ago. So much has changed and vanished. Time really is the strangest thing.