Bermondsey has an Abbey Street and a Spa Road, but at one time it had an actual abbey and an actual spa.
Bermondsey Abbey stood where Bermondsey Square now is. Henry VIII seized it from the church when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538. Bits of the old building still survive under the Lokma Turkish restaurant, which has a glass floor to view them, although it’s a bit hard to see through nowadays (there’s talk of re-laying it).
As for Bermondsey Spa, that was set up by the painter Thomas Keyse in 1770 as a tea garden around a natural mineral-water spring. After Keyse died, it was built over, but the Luftwaffe flattened much of the area during the Blitz, and in 1954 it was made into a park, Bermondsey Spa Gardens, which you can still enjoy today.
In Dickensian times, the area around Jacob Street by St Saviour’s Dock was one of London’s most notorious slums. In Oliver Twist, it was Bill Sykes’s manor. On a brighter note, Bermondey had the world’s first commercial canning factory, and Peek Frean’s – inventors of the Garibaldi, the bourbon and the chocolate digestive – were based here until 1989, giving the neighbourhood a sweet smell, and the nickname “Biscuit Town”.
Bermondsey itself was really only one half of the old metropolitan borough. The other half was Rotherhithe, which boasted the first ever tunnel under any river in the world. Engineered by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard in 1843, originally as a foot tunnel, it now carries the London Overground’s East London Line from Rotherhithe to Wapping. There’s also a local Scandinavian maritime connection thanks to the crews of Scandinavian ships which used to dock here, and Rotherhithe has Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish churches to this day.
Just on the bend in the river at Rotherhithe, at Cuckold’s Point, a gibbet once stood that was used in the eighteenth century to hang pirates and leave their bodies to rot. One of the characters can be seen pointing to it on an engraving from a Hogarth series called Industry and Idleness. Behind it on the engraving are four windmills, and Rotherhithe really did have windmills back then, although Hogarth probably also means them as a reference to the Netherlands.
Bermondsey was amalgamated with Southwark and Camberwell in 1965 to form the modern-day borough of Southwark. Its old town hall, on Spa Road, was sold off in 2012 and converted into “apartments” (as opposed to plain old flats).