History of the Farm’s Site

Surrey Docks Farm occupies a riverside site with a rich and dramatic history ‒ and some surprising former uses. Read about it here, or follow the History Trail when visiting the Farm.

The site, a former wharf, has had at least seven different uses over the last 300 years – most of which have left something behind that we can see at the Farm today, from physical structures to artefacts found on the foreshore.

The history trail starts on the Farm’s riverside, on the noticeboard by the Dye Garden.

Or you can follow it online here, click on each title to view:

The earliest known major development on this land was a shipyard, where wooden sailing ships were constructed throughout the 1700s and beyond.

When the shipyard was broken up, the site that we know today as the Farm was formed. It first served as a timber wharf, and many dramatic stories survive from those 65 or so years.

The next occupant of the wharf was a smallpox receiving station, run by the Metropolitan Asylums Board, who used it as a transfer wharf and base for their River Ambulance Service.

This panel tells more about the smallpox (and fever) receiving station, and how it developed over 56 years on the site. See also below for further information on the receiving station.

This tells how the Auxiliary Fire Service started sharing the site when war broke out in 1939, leading to the wharf becoming a full-time river fire station in WWII and beyond.

This panel describes a series of heroic rescues and amazing escapes in which dozens of people were saved when the receiving station went up in flames on the first day of the Blitz. You can also see a mosaic on the farm’s riverside that illustrates these events, made by young people from the Farm’s youth clubs.

Surrey Docks Farm moved to this site in 1986; this panel tells of its beginnings 11 years earlier downriver at Greenland Dock and how it subsequently developed on this site.


South Wharf Receiving Station: the full history 1883 – 1940 

This year-by-year account of events at South Wharf Receiving Station was compiled by Farm staff and volunteers using the original records of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, London County Council etc. It also includes the names of staff mentioned in these records, which may be useful to those researching their family history. If searching for a particular person or subject, use the search box to search by surname or keyword. And please get in touch if you know about anyone who worked at or passed through South Wharf.

Click here to download the 300-page document 

More information on the Metropolitan Asylums Board and River Ambulance Service is also available online; we recommend Dartford Hospital Histories.


The Farm also has a large collection of objects found on the foreshore that come from the history of the site – in particular the receiving station, from which we have hundreds of crockery fragments, and some partially reconstructed items. Most of these pieces of china from the Metropolitan Asylums Board and London County Council can be seen in a display cabinet on the Farm’s riverside. A second display cabinet shows other artefacts found on the foreshore; this cabinet can be seen inside the entrance of the Farm Produce/toilet block, access is currently limited here – please get in touch if you’d like to arrange a visit.

If you’ve found anything similar on the foreshore that may be related to the site’s history, please do get in touch.


Bringing our Thames Heritage to Life

This project in 2013-14 involved researching and creating the history trail, and surveying and documenting the historical remains on the foreshore and Farm site with the the help of the Thames Discovery Programme. This was a Shared Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and involved the work and contributions of dozens of volunteers and local people.

This short film, made by Peter Gazey and Rose Ades, documents the archaeology sessions with Thames Discovery and the foreshore sessions to find objects to illustrate the history trail.

Piecing Together Our Past

This subsequent community project in 2017 involved piecing together the fragments of receiving station crockery, researching the full story of events here in the Blitz, making the Blitz mosaic, and compiling the document South Wharf Receiving Station: the full history 1883 – 1940. This project involved dozens of volunteers and the Farm’s youth groups, and was also funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This short film about the project, made by Peter Gazey of Rope Films, shows the processes of finding and matching up the crockery fragments, and the making of the mosaic. We hear from some of the researchers about their findings, and meet some of the relatives of the men who rescued people from the site in the Blitz.


The information presented here is only a summary of our full research findings. If you’d like to know more about any aspect of the site’s history, please do get in touch and we’d be happy to help. We can also offer history tours or talks.

We’d be delighted to hear from you if you have any additional information, or if you have any memories of the site before it became the Farm.

Contact: Germander Speedwell, heritage@surreydocksfarm.org.uk



All the volunteers and participants who made the discoveries and put in the work to make the projects such a success.

The staff and volunteers of the Thames Discovery Programme for teaching us how to read the foreshore.

The following libraries and archives for making available to us their excellent collections: Southwark Local History Library and Archive, Rotherhithe Picture Library, London Metropolitan Archives, Wellcome Library, Museum of London Docklands Sainsbury Study Centre, Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, Bishopsgate Institute Library

Those who contributed specialist information or memories, including: Francine Payne (Dartford Hospital Histories), William Frank Hickin (fire service historian), Neil Bright (Blitz historian), Arthur Lockyear (author), William J. Brenland, Eileen Smith, Vicky Green, and all the relatives of the Blitz heroes.

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