In the 17th century Bermondsey was home to a significant community of Nonconformists – Christians who wanted freedom from the established church in England. This movement is strongly bound to the story of the Mayflower, which we introduced in part 1. Some of Bermondsey’s more unusual street names are clues to this aspect of its past.
Potters Fields and Pickle Herring Street
Potters Fields is so called because of the Dutch potters who came to work here having fled religious persecution in Holland. It was the site of the earliest Delftware kilns in England, established around 1618 and the area became famous for producing a particular variety of Delftware called ‘Pickle Herring pottery’. The theory that the Dutch fondness for pickled herring gave the street and the nearby river stairs their name is unfounded. The precise origin is not known, but is much older.
Just as the Pilgrim church in Bankside was inspired by the Dutch merchant community across the river in Aldgate, so the Baptist, Brownist and Quaker meeting-houses in this area were probably inspired by the Dutch pottery community. As a further symbol of this connection, the Mayflower went on to join the Speedwell, which was hired in Holland, on its voyage to America.
St Saviour & St Olave Grammar School (now Lalit Hotel), Tooley Street
St Saviour’s School was founded in 1562. One of its pupils was Southwark’s most famous Puritan pilgrims to America, John Harvard. St Olave’s School was founded in 1571. This building dates from the late 19th century when the two schools merged, but it incorporates some architectural features that show a Nonconformist interest in science and philosophy, including Isaac Newton. Much of the building remains in its original state, with the headmaster’s study intact and the guest rooms being referred to as ‘classrooms’.
Robert Browne founder of the Pilgrim (Brownist) Church was the headmaster of St Olave’s from 1586 to 1589. Browne has been hailed as the ‘Father of the Pilgrim Fathers’ but the Brownists disowned him after he defected. His other title – the ‘Father of the first independent church in England’ – has held up better. The manuscripts signed by Robert Browne, binding him to good behaviour while he is headmaster can be viewed at Southwark Local History Library and Archive.
James Janeway was a charismatic Puritan minister and renowned author. A congregation of up to two thousand came to attend his services at the Jamaica Barn in Cherry Garden Street, mainly form the neighbouring parish of Rotherhithe. He was succeeded by another celebrated minister, Thomas Rosewell, who was found guilty of treason, allegedly for delivering a sermon that was highly critical of the King and his religion. In the 19th century the church had for its Pastor the Reverend John Farren, father of Eveline Lowe, who was one of Britain’s leading educationalists and the first woman to be in charge of London as Leader of the London County Council.
Fountain Green Square
This is one of two locations where the Mayflower is likely to have been broken up at the end of its life. The other being Surrey Lock in Rotherhithe.
This article was written by historian Graham Taylor and first published on the Southwark Heritage Blog.