Above: The present Norwegian church, looking splendid at the end of its newly opened garden. The approach road to Rotherhithe Tunnel is on the far left and Albion Street is to be seen on the far right.
Although there was a Norwegian church in Rotherhithe from 1871, it was rather ‘tucked away’ within the Surrey Commercial Docks, beside Rotherhithe Street, towards the eastern end. The Norwegian Mission Society opened a mission in Rotherhithe in 1868, originally in a temporary church until a permanent building, called the Ebenezer Church was opened. It stood at the area called Downtown – at Rotherhithe Street, near Odessa Street. On the corner of the church nearest the pavement, the foundation stone was inscribed ‘Laid by Prinds Osgar on 26 July 1871’.
Above: Photograph (in 1981) of the old Norwegian Church (in Rotherhithe Street) and the house beside it, once used by the Norwegian pastor. At that time the Dockland Settlement as a young people’s club.
The countries of Norway and Sweden had united in 1814 so the Ebenezer Church ministered to both Norwegian and Swedish sailors. The Union between the two countries was dissolved in 1905 and a separate Swedish Seamen’s Mission was then founded. The old building remained in use until the 1920s when the new church (described below) was opened. The old church remained standing for many years and was used as a Dockland Settlement Community Centre. The old church was taken down about 2013 and its foundation stone was carefully removed. A new development has now been built on the old site.
Above: The foundation stone, dated 1871, on the wall of the old church in Rotherhithe Street.
In 1926 a new plot of land was purchased just next to the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel for a new church in a more central location. The foundation stone for that building was laid by Norwegian Crown Prince Olav. The new church was consecrated in June 1927. In front of the church were a few streets which had very little use because they were beside the approach to Rotherhithe Tunnel and there was limited access. Part of the area was known as St Olav’s Square, which was at one end of the adjacent Albion Street. The street layout did not contribute to the surroundings of the church in any way.
In March 2016 planning permission by Southwark Council was granted to transform St Olav’s Square into a flexible, safe and attractive public space that could be used by all of the community throughout the year as well as the potential for accommodating street markets and community events. The square was officially opened on 9 July 2017 and it has greatly improved the look of the front of the church. The new open space has been planted with shrubs and also contains a few wall plaques and statues. The foundation stone, once to be seen on the old Norwegian church, has been mounted on the wall of the new garden.
In the days of the Surrey Commercial Docks, one of the main imports was timber – of which large quantities arrived from many parts of the world, including Norway. The church acted as a seamen’s mission. With time, some of the seamen married English brides and the church took on an additional role as a focus for Norwegian people resident in London. With the closure of the docks, the church has continued to fulfil its role as a church for the Norwegian community right across London and even some places outside London.
In passing, it should be mentioned that a Scandinavian Christmas Market is held every year in the Norwegian Church. This year (2017) it will be held on 24–26 November 2017.