Updated: Mar 27, 2022
One of the most beautiful iconic sites to see on the River Thames has got to be Tower Bridge; the steel-framed bridge, cladded with beautiful portland stone and granite, proudly spans 244 metres between the London Boroughs of Southwark and Tower Hamlets.
On the north side of the river under this iconic bridge lies a gruesome bit of history - an area called ‘Dead Man’s Hole’, an alcove of death right next to the water’s edge with cascading steps down to the river. It is covered in shiny white tiles on the wall for easy cleaning and is also the location of Tower Bridge Mortuary, due to the volume of bodies which washed up there.
As the river is tidal, the dead would often end up at this particular place, who would then be hauled out and placed in the old mortuary located within the walls of the bridge, or outside in the alcove, waiting to be identified by loved ones. Today, Dead Man’s Hole is clearly signposted as part of the Tower Bridge Experience.
There are other places with morbid names, for example, in Deptford they had Dead Man’s Dock; bodies would wash up there because one of the wharves was built on the curve of the Thames. Wapping had Dead Man’s Stairs, which no longer exists, but is mentioned by Peter Ackroyd in his book Sacred River:
We cannot talk about body collecting without mentioning The Old Mortuary, St Marychurch Street, the home of our amazing society. The mortuary was built circa 1895 not only to serve the local community in Rotherhithe but also to assist with bodies which came to rest in the nearby Thames. It was becoming clear the local people were living in poor sanitary conditions, both due to its slum housing, sewage, and a number of mortalities arising as a consequence.
The place where bodies collected in Rotherhithe was called Church-Hole. If you had the courage you could be substantially rewarded by the mortuary on delivery of a corpse, one such person who collected bodies was Bill Phipps.
Bill Phipps was the son of a stevedore; growing up poor he and his friends would go swimming in the river at Church-Hole. Bodies would regularly turn up there due to it being a bend in the river. Bill would inform the police and help haul the bodies out at Church-Hole stairs and make his way round to the mortuary in St Marychurch Street after placing them in a sack and using a wheelbarrow to transport them, he would hand them over to Mr Mortimer the Mortuary Keeper who would give Bill a sixpence in old money, according to the late Rev. Nicholas Richards. It is believed Church-Hole was located next to or near the Mayflower public house.