St Mary, Rotherhithe (Rotherhithe or Redriff Church)

Another in the series on the historic churches of the out-parishes of London …

By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were over a hundred parish churches and other places of Christian worship within and immediately without the walls of  the City. There were a further twelve  in the out-parishes of Middlesex (north of the river) and Surrey (south of the river).

St Mary, Rotherhithe was originally built in the Medieval period, when there was comparatively little settlement in the area, apart from Edward III’s retreat on the river-front.

Watch House
Associated Free School

The church was subsequently rebuilt in 1715, by which time Rotherhithe had become an important maritime centre, with timber and ship-building yards, docks and wharves, where artisan mast-makers, coopers, anchor-smiths, and others plied their trades.

The memorials of a number of men associated with the maritime trade were salvaged from the old church. These include those of Captain Thomas Stone, who died in 1666, and Captain Anthony Wood.

Captain Christopher Jones was also buried in the church, in 1622. He had been the Captain of the Mayflower, which set sail from Rotherhithe  in 1620 for Plymouth and eventually the Americas. 

Rather remarkably, a South Sea Island Prince, Lee Boo, was also buried in the church, in 1784. The story of how this came to be is as follows. In 1782, three Rotherhithe men set sail on the East India Company’s packet the Antelope in order to round Cape Horn and cross the Pacific from east to west in search of trade opportunities. But after a year at sea they became shipwrecked on the reefs of the “Pelews” – Palau. Here, they befriended the local royal family, and, with their assistance, they repaired their ship, and renamed it the Oroolong. It was then agreed by both parties that they would take young Prince Lee Boo with them on their onward journey, that he might learn their ways, and become an Englishman. They first sailed to Macao and Canton, where Lee Boo began his “education” in the Western way of life, writing about it in a journal. Finally, in 1784, they arrived in England. Lee Boo then travelled from Portsmouth to London by coach, describing how he had been put into “a little house which was run away with by horses”, and how he had slept, but still gone on, and had gone on one way, while the fields, houses and trees went the other. On his eventual arrival, he was given a room in the house of a Captain Wilson in Paradise Row in Rotherhithe, where he lived as one of the family. He attended a local school, and, on Sundays, the local church, of St Mary. Sadly, on 27th December, 1784, Lee Boo died, of smallpox, and two days later, according to the parish register, he was buried in St Mary’s, on the other side of the world from where he had been born. He was twenty years old.

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