Above: The old shot tower (on the far left of the picture) seen above the neighbouring buildings at the western end of Tooley Street. This is part of a very large print by the celebrated illustrator George Scharf (Elder) in July 1830, showing work on Borough High Street in progress to re-align the street to meet the new London Bridge – being opened in 1831. Scharf was a highly talented artist who went on to become Director of the National Portrait Gallery.
Sadly, the name of Topping’s Wharf has been consigned to history but the story of its development in the 18th and 19th centuries is really quite interesting.
Its site today would be on land on the western side the old Art Deco building on the north side of Tooley Street, once the head offices for Hay’s Wharf. The old London Bridge (the one with the houses on it) was once on the west of Topping’s Wharf. In the 1830s, when the old London Bridge was taken down, a new bridge was built on a new site – which was up-stream (further west) of the original stone one.
What is unusual about Topping’s Wharf is that, although it was no different from hundreds of other wharves, we know so much about it.
In the 1830s there was an old shot tower on the site. It was 100 feet (30 m) high and mainly built of timber. That tower can be seen on numerous prints of the western end of Tooley Street which means we have a visual record of the wharf.
Above: Topping’s Wharf in use by Watson’s Telegraph to the South Downs. The view looks north towards the River Thames with the tower of St Olave, Tooley Street to the right of Watson’s tower.
In 1841 Barnard Watson decided to use the old tower on which to mount his ‘Watson’s Telegraph to the South Downs’. Using two 20 feet (6 m) high masts, he sent signals to One Tree Hill, on the Camberwell border with Forest Hill. The site is now a small park. The signals were sent over a distance of about four miles (6.4 km). The route was chosen to avoid fog on the Thames. One Tree Hill signalled to Knockholt Beeches with the eventual destination being Manston and the North Foreland on the Kent coast near Broadstairs.
The telegraph had a short life of only two years because the wooden tower burned down on 19 August 1843 and the service was discontinued.
Above: Topping’s Wharf from a print in the Illustrated London News. Notice that the top of the building carries the sign ‘Rebuilt 1844’.
The wharf continued to be used to unload goods and store them in warehouses on the site. An excerpt from ‘Illustrated London News’, for 1893, has the following entry: ‘Messrs Culverwell, Brooks & Co, Brokers, Colonial & Foreign Hides, Skins, Leather, Furs, Talow &c, Sunn & Toppings Wharves, Bermondsey. ‘This is one of the most important businesses of its kind in London and it is still steadily growing in extent and importance. The partners are businessmen of sound judgement and marked enterprise, and are worthy representatives of the important branch of commerce with which they have been so long associated.’
This means that, once again, we have another visual record of the wharf. Quite what happened to the Culverwell business or how long they were there is not known.
In the 1960s the site was still in use as warehouses but their use was in rapid decline. The 1980s saw the development of the site, as part of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) area when they took over the rejuvenation of the land beside the Thames. On this particular site was erected ‘One London Bridge’, a very large overbearing office block with one strange ‘leg’ supporting the building next to today’s London Bridge.
That meant that the wharf was swallowed up by the enormity of the new building and its name was lost for ever.