Above: View from the beach at low tide, looking towards the land at Rotherhithe. The steps mark the northern extent of the original South Wharf. The red-building stands on land which was once South Wharf and is nowpart of Surrey Docks Farm.
The great joy of lecturing is that there is often someone in the audience who has a special knowledge of something that you have mentioned. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. I have conducted many walks in the Rotherhithe area and one day Lil Patrick was on the walk. Lil lived in Bermondsey all her life. In later years she lived in a flat off Tooley Street and knew the whole area intimately.
We were talking about some of the wharves in Rotherhithe and she mentioned South Wharf. It was a name I had never heard of, in spite of having studied many of the old wharf maps for that part of the river.
Lil remembered that in the bad old days, when smallpox was still a relatively common disease with no known cure, people had to be taken to isolation hospitals to prevent others in the community from catching it. To minimise the risk of the infection reaching other people while the patients were being transported to hospital, the journey was made by boat rather than by motorised vehicle. Patients were taken to South Wharf where a special ambulance boat took them to an isolation hospital at Dartford. Because there were many cases, there was a pick-up point at South Wharf, Rotherhithe, on the south side of the Thames, and a similar one at North Wharf, Isle of Dogs, for those living on the north side of the Thames.
Above: Picture of South Wharf, showing the huts for housing the patients awaiting the ambulance boats. [The copyright remains with Mary Evans Library who have published the image on the Internet].
Above: Part of the Ordnance Survey (OS) map for 1914 showing the layout of South Wharf. [This map remains the copyright of Ordnance Survey]. Notice the name ‘Metropolitan Asylums Board’ which was the organisation that ran the smallpox wharves and piers. The road with the right-angle bend on the left is part of Rotherhithe Street and it still has the same bend today. The jutting out wall above the walkway of the pier remains and can be seen on the far right of the photograph at the top of this article.
How long South Wharf was in use is not clear but it had ceased being used by the time of the Second World War when the land was used as an additional fire station. The Fire Service continued to use South Wharf right up until 1953, well beyond the end of the war.
Between 1955-60 most of the remaining buildings on the site were demolished, including the pier. The site lay empty and overgrown for several years, before being used as saw- mills and a timber yard in the 1960s. Then in the 1970s it was used by haulage companies to park lorries and store or repair shipping containers.
Surrey Docks Farm, established beside South Dock, move to the site of South Wharf, aided by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) and has been on the land ever since.
South Wharf was situated beside the Thames on land where the Surrey Docks Farm now stands. Sadly, apart from a very few photos, there is no evidence for the unusual ambulance pick-up point today. Nothing remains on that site that was in existence at the time of the ambulance service.
North Wharf, Blackwall
On the north side of the Thames, North Wharf stood between the narrow street called Coldharbour and the Thames, a short distance north of the Gun tavern. The area is at Blackwall. Nothing remains on that site either and there are no known photos of it. During June and July 1995 an archeological dig was carried out at North Wharf. There is further information about North Wharf in the form of a pdf on the Internet.