Above: Druid Street is hardly scenic, this view looks west along the wide railway arches leading towards London Bridge Station. These arches are a short distance east of Tower Bridge Road.
“Reminiscing the Past”
The story I am about to relate would be some time in the late 1970s. I was working at college as an electronics lecturer. We were re-organising the stores where we kept many electronic components. Most of the items were quite small, some of them were really tiny, and we decided to have a ‘visual store’ with all the components held in honey-jars on narrow shelves so that we could easily see when stocks of each component became low.
Building the shelves was easy enough but nobody at college seemed to know where we could obtain something like a thousand honey-jars in various sizes. My father was a pharmacist in a hospital and I knew he often ordered bottles for issuing his medicines. He soon came up with the name of a company – French Flint – which had a depot at that time inside several railway arches under the wide viaduct leading to London Bridge Station. The arches had an address in Druid Street.
My work colleague and I made an appointment to visit the warehouse and drove over to see the supervisor so that we could look for suitable sized honey-jars. We found the arches and later were to drive away with the jars that we required.
In the course of conversation, my colleague happened to mention that I had an interest in the history of London. The warehouse-man was a real Londoner by the name of Mr Keef. On hearing about my interest in London he started to talk about what he knew of the immediate area and also of where he had been brought up. It would be true to say that we spent more time talking to him about London than we did about the glass jars, even though our mission to obtain them had been entirely successful.
He told us he had been born and brought up in a small house in ‘East Lane’. It should be explained that no street by that name exists. Its actual name is East Street which is the site of a daily market with many stalls which runs east of Walworth Road but it is always called ‘East Lane’ by the locals. He was a genial character who obviously loved talking about the area in which he still lived. He explained (if you will pardon the rough talk) that his father as ‘a bit of a bastard’. He added that his father would get drunk on a Saturday night and had to be escorted home by two strong policemen. Mr Keef said that there was no lock on their front door because everyone was terrified of his dad and therefore nobody would dare to go inside to steal anything. East Street continues to be a relatively rough area in which to live, even now, but I doubt that there are such characters like his father to be seen in the neighbourhood.
Above: Modern street map showing: RED ARROW – Site of glass jar depot beside Druid Street. GREEN ARROW – Site of Bermondsey Spa, now a park by the same name.
Our conversation turned to where we were standing – in Druid Street. He asked me if I realised that nearby had been the famous Bermondsey Spa to which I replied that I knew some of its history. We talked about the fact that the springs of so-called healing water were nearby and that, obviously, there must be artesian wells in the ground.
Above: One of the few prints of about 1800 showing wealthy people visiting the spa to ‘take the waters’. We see several ladies in Crinoline skirts, there is a rather quaint horse-drawn carriage and, in the foreground, as two Sedan chairs. The land is now a park but all trace of the extensive Tap Room has gone.
I had followed his mini-history lesson about the spa but I had not realised why he had mentioned it. ‘Come over into the next arch’ he said, as he led the way through endless shelves of boxes, all full of glass bottles and jars. We stood looking at an open piece of floor on which was a large steel plate. It was about six feet square and it was at least one inch thick. It was so thick that it could even take the weight of a fork-lift truck, fully laden, driving over it. ‘You see that plate’ he said, pointing to the ground which it covered, ‘we have that there because underneath is a large hole. It is full of water and it sometimes overflows but even in very dry summers the water level hardly reduces at all’. It was all fascinating stuff because it meant that the hole in the ground at Druid Street was almost certainly connected to the springs of water which once supplied the spa in the gardens that were about half a mile away from the railway arches.
Mr Keef added ‘One summer, when we were not very busy, I removed the cover and took a long pole to push it into the hole to try and find out how deep it was. The pole was quite long and it still did not touch the bottom. I have never found out the depth of the water in that hole’. You did not need be an expert to determine how deep a hole was. It all meant that here we were standing beside contemporary evidence for springs in the ground and therefore evidence for the 18th century Bermondsey Spa that once occupied land nearby.
Our time with Mr Keef was beneficial on two counts. Firstly we had managed to buy the glass jars that we had come for. Secondly, I had received a ‘living’ history lesson on East Lane and the once famous Bermondsey Spa.