The area that now makes up Jacob's island has changed greatly over the last 200 years. From marshy, boggy wasteland, to a Den for thieves, to an area of industry and now residential area.
To quote David Saxby of the Museum of London:
"Life on Jacob's Island had once been good. It was originally the location of a Medieval St Saviour's mill, owned by the Cluniac monks of Bermondsey Abbey. During the 17th and 18th centuries trade and employment were flourishing there, with much of the local employment focused in the timber and boat building industries.
However, by the turn of the 19th century much of the trade had moved down river to Rotherhithe where the existing docks were deepened and enlarged. Becoming part of the Surrey Commercial Dock System they took much of the trade, especially the timber trade. This had a damning effect on the lives of the inhabitants of Jacob's Island: with employment prospects crippled, the pay was poor and jobs insecure. By the time Dickens visited Jacob's Island it had become a notorious slum."
Below are a few quotes from historic publications that show how the area has moved on over the years.
"The striking peculiarity of Jacob's Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping-rooms at the back of the houses, which overhang the dark flood, and are built upon piles, so that the place has positively the air of a Flemish street, flanking a sewer instead of a canal; while the little rickety bridges that span the ditches and connect court with court, give it the appearance of the Venice of drains." Morning Chronicle, 1849
The same writer observes that "in the reign of Henry II. The foul stagnant ditch, which now makes an island of this pestilential spot, was a running stream, supplied with the waters which poured down from the hills about Sydenham and Nunhead, and was used for the working of the mills which then stood on its banks"
"On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere. Not only the nose, but the stomach told how heavily the air was loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you crossed one of the crazy and rotten bridges over the reeking ditch, you knew, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once white lead paint upon the door posts and window sills, that the air was thickly charged with this deadly gas. The heavy bubbles which now and then rose up in the water showed you whence at least a portion of the mephitic compound issued, while the open doorless privies that hung over the water-side, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls, where the drains from each house discharged themselves in to the ditch were proofs indisputable as to how the pollution of the ditch occurred.
"The water was covered with scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it floated large masses of rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges were swollen carcases of dead animals, ready to burst with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores were heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which told you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster-shells were like pieces of slate from their coating of filth and mud. In some parts the fluid was as red as blood from the colouring matter that poured into it from the reeking leather dressers' close by."
Jacob's Island was immortalised by Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, in which the principal villain Bill Sikes meets a nasty end in the mud of 'Folly Ditch'.
Dickens provides a vivid description of what it was like:
"... crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it - as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob's Island."
Dickens was taken to this then-impoverished and unsavory location by the officers of the river police, with whom he would occasionally go on patrol. When a local politician attempted to deny the very existence of Jacob's Island, Dickens gave him short shrift, describing the area as "the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London".
"To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman's door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river"
One of the missionaries of the London City Mission, in 1876, furnished a report on the district as it was when he entered it twenty-one years ago, and as it now exists. Many of the horrors, he admits, have passed away "The foul ditch no longer pollutes the air. It has long been filled up and along Mill Street, where ' the crazy wooden galleries' once hung over it, stands Messrs. Peek, Frean, and Co.'s splendid biscuit bakery. The ditch which intersected the district along London Street served as a fine bathing place for the resident juveniles in summer-time. I have seen," continues the writer, "many of the boys rolling joyously in the thick liquid, undeterred by the close proximity of the decomposing carcases of cats and dogs". London City Mission 1876
The ditches were filled in the early 1850s, and the area later redeveloped as warehouses.
John Lockie's 1810 "Topography of London: Giving a Concise Local Description Of, and Accurate Direction To, Every Square, Street, Lane, Court, Dock, Wharf, Inn, Public Office, &c. in the Metropolis and Its Environs" lists Providence Buildings. In 1868, Weller's map of London also shows "Providence Buildings" on the site, with Springalls Wharf located on the riverfront.
This aerial photograph from 1922 shows Mill St, St Saviour's dock, and warehouses on the site of Providence Square:
Jacobs Island was extensively bombed in the Second World War, and development of the current estate started in the mid-1990s by Berkeley Homes. Some pictures during the construction can be seen in the "Digging Jacobs Island" article (registered users only)
In the 1980s, the site was added to the St Saviours Dock conservation area - this report from Southwark Council provides a more detailed description of the conservation area, and additional history.