Until a few years ago and the rebirth of this part of Bermondsey, Shad Thames was a no go area for anyone not connected to the warehousing that once thrived here. These beautiful buildings, mostly ‘luxury flats’ these days or offices, were derelict and crumbling. They were merely a reminder of what was once a bustling group of wharves on the ‘Pool of London’.
There was a post apocalyptic or dystopian feel to the area. So much so that many films and TV companies used Shad Thames to portray this in their shoots, including Dr Who and the Daleks. The area has been gentrified and people live here now, where once commerce and industry prevailed, but at least many of the buildings were saved and are in use today.
There are various ideas as to where the name Shad Thames arose, but it’s probably either a corruption of ‘St John’s at Thames’ when the knights of St John owned the land here and built a church, or the name of the fish that was once abundant here called the Shad. Shad Thames is today the name of the street and the surrounding area.
Butler’s wharf, once the largest warehouse complex in London, still stands and takes up the riverside side of Shad Thames, and also the southern side where the complex continued up to Gainsford Street. These structures were completed in 1873, are now grade II listed, and were originally built to house a chocolate factory, but moved on to store tea, coffee, and an astounding array of herbs and spices from around the world.
Owner Mr Butler once advertised in the Times for interested parties to come and view exotic goods for sale aboard a stranded ship that had just returned from Jamaica. His advert included items such as Rum, loose cotton, ginger, Nicaraguan and mahogany wood. Next to Hay’s, Butler’s was the second most important wharf in London, and dealt in grain, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, rubber and tapioca.
Butler’s wharf was an incredibly busy and important place for nearly 100 years, but by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, along with all the wharves and docks, began to see a decline in their business practice. This of course was mainly due to containerisation and the enlarging of Tilbury Dock further east.
In 1972, Butler’s finally closed after 99 years, and for the next 15 years the area fell into rapid decline. Buildings crumbled and nobody came here, it was an inner city desert. This scenario ws played out on the north side of the Thames at Wapping, in what was a carbon copy situation.
Rents were incredibly cheap and eagle eyed property developers saw a chance to cash in on Thatcher’s ‘upwardly mobile Britain’. Spaces were bought for next to nothing, done up into warehouse flats, and sold at huge profit. The new owners/tenants were offered inner city living with amazing views of the river, and it is said that when the warehouses were converted, the aromas of the goods once stacked high, were always present in the old timbers used in the building.
Some of the first ‘new generation’ of Shad Thames residents included artist David Hockney, and filmmaker Derek Jarman. Designer Terrence Conran moved in and opened his design museum here, although he has since moved ‘back west’ to Kensington.
The regeneration of Shad Thames has continued for many years and it’s now possible to take the Thames Path along much of the river, allowing for amazing views upstream and downstream, and also to the equally regenerated Wapping on the opposite shore. It’s all restaurants and bars down here today, and of course most who live here have no connection with the past, but in my opinion the area has changed for the better, although I definitely wouldn’t want to live here.
The glorious connecting walkways above Shad Thames are remnants of London’s largest warehouse complex, and once rattled with barrels of rum, crates of coriander, and sacks of sugar passing continually over them between buildings.
It’s a lot quieter down here today than it’s been for a couple of hundred years, but tourists trickle down this far now, some even making it into Bermondsey proper, and that can’t be a bad thing!