Above: Pickle Herring Street from Walter Bezant’s book ‘East London’ written about 1900. The view looks east from Pickle Herring Stairs towards the approach to Tower Bridge so the Thames is to your left. The catwalks seen in this drawing are also shown on the map of the street below.
Pickled herrings are an age-old method of preserving a very well-known fish. You may also know them as rollmops which are virtually the same – being pickled herring fillets, usually served these days rolled up with onions or gherkins inside – having been removed from a jar of vinegar. They are well-known and eaten in Britain as well as being even more popular in Europe and particularly Scandinavia. The idea of a pickled herring in London is known to go back to the days of the Domesday Book (1086) because they are mentioned in its text – as we shall see later.
Many people know the splendid walkway beside the Thames, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. About halfway along is the museum-ship called the ‘Belfast’. In the 1980s, before the walkway was created, this part of the riverfront was called Symonds Wharf. There was also a flight of river-stairs called Pickle Herring Stairs along with a causeway very close to this spot. in the days when large cargo ships moored alongside this piece of riverfront, there was also a street running behind the warehouses that lined the river which extended east from these stairs and eventually passed under the approach road to Tower Bridge. Much of that land is now a park called Potter’s Fields – used by tourists to stand and admire views of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The old thoroughfare was called Pickle Herring Street.
When the LDDC built a new river-wall, from London Bridge to Tower Bridge in the 1980s any vestiges of anything pre-1980 was cleared away. Apart from the fact that where the entrance gangway to the ‘Belfast’ is situated was the site of Symond’s Wharf, it is not possible to identify any other location from a 1960s Ordnance Survey (OS) map of the riverfront. Pickle Herring Stairs are long gone and there is not even a new set of stairs at the old location. In fact, there is only one flight of new stairs along the whole river wall (between London Bridge and Tower Bridge) and they are situated near the eastern wall of the old warehouse that was converted for use as London Bridge Hospital. No old stairs are shown on the 1896 OS map at the point where those new stairs have been built.
Above: Ordnance Survey map (1936-52) showing Symonds Wharf and Pickle Herring Stairs. Vine Street ran south from the stairs. A tiny part of Vine Street exists on the east side of today’s Unicorn Theatre but most of that street has been removed. The second warehouse to the right of the stairs is labelled Pickle Herring Wharf and has the catwalk with its name on it (shown in the drawing at the top of this article).
Many theories are to be found on the Web giving fanciful ideas about how the name of ‘Pickle Herring’ may have come about. One writer claims that the stairs are named after the Dutch pottery that was there in the 17th century ‘because the Dutch love pickled herrings’. Hopefully, we can do better than that flimsy explanation. A good place to start is the Domesday Book, published in 1086. English translations of the original text are now easily found. The Domesday Book probably has clues to the answer on one of its pages. The name of the original stairs is extremely old and may even go back to those early times.
One relevant fact that has not been mentioned is that the Vikings are known to have had a settlement in and around Tooley Street. The name of Tooley Street itself is derived from ‘St Olave’s Street’ – named after the church of St Olave that was so-named by the Vikings. Evidence for the Vikings being in the vicinity was found in the form of one of their long-ships whose remains were discovered on land during a dig in the 1950s. The site was being prepared for the erection of New Guy’s House. It was on land that is now part of Guy’s Hospital but in Viking times most of that land was marshes. The fact that the Viking ship was found there indicates that the land was wet enough for a long-ship to move inland that far. There is no doubt that the Vikings – who came from Denmark and Norway – were in the area before the time of the Normans and the Domesday Book.
We now return to the mention of herrings in the Domesday Book. There is a reference for the ‘Guildable Manor of Southwark’. This manor extended from the southern end of London Bridge, along the riverside, almost as far as Hay’s Wharf Dock.
One mention is under lands held by Odo the Bishop of Bayeux. Along with several pieces of land in England, there is a reference to ‘Oxted and Walkingstead, in Tandridge Hundred, land of Count Eustace’. Under this entry, it says ‘The Count holds Walkingstead himself … To this manor belong 15 dwellings in Southwark and in London, at 6s, and 2000 herrings’. The mention of the ‘six shillings’ and also the herrings indicates that taxes had been levied and were payable partly in money and the rest in herrings. Because fresh fish will not keep, it can safely be assumed that they were pickled before being handed over in payment.
Pickle Herring Stairs were actually east of Hay’s Wharf Dock but they are so close to land where rents were paid in ‘herrings’ that it could be that these stairs were where the herrings were landed and, in a world without a refrigerator, they would obviously have been pickled to preserve them. It’s too long ago now to be able to check on facts listed in the Domesday Book. The evidence deduced here is a long shot but it just possible that it could be the truth.