THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Neckinger (part 4) Neckinger Mills
Where there's a river, there's often a mill. The Neckinger had several, mostly on the tidal stretch close to its mouth, with some dating back to Tudor times. Only one survives, although it's a rather more recent 19th century building resembling more the dark satanic mills of the Industrial North. Neckinger Mills were originally owned by papermaker Matthias Koops - reputedly the inventor of recycled paper. In 1805 he sold up and handed the keys over to the Bevington family, who continued their leather-making activities on site until 1950. Their tannery was typical of Bermondsey's light industry, all long since swept away (along with the river that powered them). The mill buildings live on as office space with "character features", and half the ground floor is currently available for rent at very non-Victorian rates. [photo]
The river's name lives on in several guises nearby. To the south is the Neckinger Estate, home to more than 300 fairly anonymous post-war apartments. The road alongside goes by the unusual single-word name of "Neckinger", and runs down to the elegant old Town Hall on the corner of Bermondsey Spa Gardens[photo]. The river was once fed by a chalybeate spring here, to which fashionable Londoners flocked in the late 1700s to drink the waters. The only fashionable waters here today are those thrown into the gutter by runners on the London Marathon, who would have crossed the Neckinger close to the modern Bermondsey Spa development on Jamaica Road [photo]. Close by there's even a Neckinger Street, now reduced to a stubby sideroad on the Arnold Estate and lacking even a nameplate to remind passers-by of its watery past. [photo]
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Neckinger (part 5) Jacob's Island
And finally, quite the most complicated ending of any of London's lost rivers. A series of tidal ditches ran towards the Thames, dug courtesy of the monks upriver at Bermondsey Abbey, and forming a roughly rectangular grid. Originally the surrounding land was taken up with orchards and market gardens, but by the late 17th century a dense commercial area of factories, warehouses and mills had grown up. The area became known as Jacob's Island, a 'rookery' where the poorest folk lived side by side with polluting waste in slum conditions. By Victorian times the lower Neckinger was nicknamed "The Venice of Drains" and "The Capital of Cholera". Dickens immortalised the place as the final refuge of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist ("dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch"). If you'd like to know more about Jacob's Island, Howard has the definitive webpage.
The old slums have been wiped away, more than once, and the latest development on Jacob's Island is a gated community called Providence Square. Even the central water feature is pristine, supporting waterfowl and lush vegetation rather than puddles of pathogenic bacteria [photo]. Dickens might still recognise a few of the surrounding wharves along Mill Street, whose lofty brick façades tower above the uglier modern infill alongside [photo][photo]. Where dockers laboured and urchins crawled, now Ocado delivers and suited businessmen pop out for a fag. Beyond the line of wharves is the Neckinger's original outfall [photo], later diverted to feed a Thamesside watermill. This stumpy inlet is St Saviour's Dock, first widened by the medieval monks of Bermondsey Abbey for convenient off-river mooring [photo][photo]. Today a hydraulic cable swing bridge crosses the mouth [photo], close to a cluster of riverfront houseboats which dip in and out of the mud twice a day [photo]. The ancient Neckinger marks the eastern tip of London's South Bank, beyond Shad Thames, beyond the Design Museum, beyond which tourists rarely venture. [photo]