There is a mosaic mural of a swan in Rotherhithe that has an indirect link with the late entertainer, Max Bygraves.
The mural is made from 350,000 mosaic tiles and installed in 1992 by the artist David John based on a design that was chosen by local school children. The design was made in panels in the artist’s studio, then moved to site and installed on the wall.
That the mural of a swan is on Swan Road is sheer coincidence, as the brief had been to provide a design that reflected the area’s environment and at the time swans were making a return to the cleaned up River Thames.
The location is a side wall of a block of council flats, the Swan Lane Estate erected in 1907 by the London County Council as replacement housing for those demolished during the construction of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
What’s slightly peculiar is that the end of the block of flats is set back slightly from the road, where a fenced off paved garden and the mural now stand. Looking at old maps shows there used to be another building on this spot, and that the side-road, Kenning Street used to be much narrower than it is today as the missing building was wider than the garden and pavement is today.
At number 55 was an old pub, The Watermans Arms, which is probably why it survived as the rest of the land was demolished for flats. However, the pub closed in 1907, and was turned into a small corner shop.
And that’s where Max Bygraves comes in to the story – quite literally as he was born in the council flat buildings next to the shop.
This photo appears a fair bit online and was apparently taken in 1974, but I can’t trace the original source. It shows Max Bygraves outside a corner shop, and the street name on the side is Kenning Street, and the number above the door is 55, which was the address of the old pub/shop.
To be certain that this photo is of the shop, take a look at this photo, which while the shop front is obscured by the van, you can make out enough of the rest to be sure the photo was taken at the correct location.
Some reports suggest he lived above the shop, but that seems unlikely as that’s where the shop owner lived, and they might have misunderstood the placement next to the council flats. In the 2-bed flat, it’s said he lived with 4 siblings, parents and grandparents.
In 1954, flush from his success, Max bought a home in Welling for his parents and two sisters so they could move out of their cramped 2-bed council flat.
The corner shop was torn down sometime in the 1970s, probably having closed down with the collapse of the docks and the building no longer being of any use and costing more to maintain. Then in 1992, the mosaic appeared and the area cleaned up by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC).
Sadly, the fenced off paved garden now seems to be more a place to dump rubbish and the plants look a little sad. The pub has gone, the shop is gone, Max is gone, but the swan is still soaring away on the wall.