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24 September 2014

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St Mary's Church

St Mary's Church

A Thames Tour of Rotherhithe

Find out about St Mary's Church in Rotherhithe and the fascinating prince who is buried there

St Mary's Facts

  • The islands are in the North Pacific Ocean, southeast of the Philippines
  • Palau was formerly known as Pelew
  • Rotherhithe had the last case of the Great Plague in 1679 and it is thought the last victim is buried at St Mary’s Church
  • The church organ, built and installed by John Byfield in 1764, is a superb example of 18th century English organ building
  • A wood carving charting the story of Lee Boo was presented to the church by the islanders


St Mary’s Church dates back to the 12th century and was re-built by local shipbuilders in the Georgian era. The barrel roof was made to look like an up turned ship and the supporting pillars are complete tree trunks encased in plaster. The communion table and two chairs are made from wood from the 98 gun ship the Temeraire, second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar.

St Mary's Church

First built in the 12th Century

The graveyard holds some interesting stories. Three of the four owners of the Mayflower ship are buried here including Christopher Jones, captain when the ship sailed to America with the Father Pilgrims in 1620. A statue by Jamie Sargeant for Christopher Jones was unveiled on July 2nd 1995 and paid for by The Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims.

You will also find the tomb of Prince Lee Boo.

In September 1782 three Rotherhithe men sailed to China aboard the East India Company’s ship the Antelope. It took Captain Wilson and his men nine months to reach China before returning a different route north east of the Philippines. They passed a group of unknown islands, later called the Palau Islands, where they were shipwrecked after a storm.

Lee Boo Tomb

The tomb of Lee Boo

They took refuge on the Island of Ulong and a friendly relationship was born with the chief, Abba Thulle. Food was given to the English sailors and local trees were used to build a new boat to get them to China. The King watched as the ship was built using grindstones, anvils and other tools. Abba Thulle was so impressed by the skills he had witnessed, he hoped that his second son, Lee Boo, would learn what they knew. Three months later the English set sail with Prince Lee Boo onboard.

Eighteen days later they reached China before the long voyage back to England. The ship, Morse, arrived back in England on 14 July 1784 where Lee Boo was taken to the home of Captain Wilson in Paradise Row, Rotherhithe. He settled in London where he attended church services, school, learned the language and dressed as an Englishman.

Wood carving

Wood carving of the Lee Boo story

In mid-December, only months after arriving in London, Lee Boo contracted smallpox. He died on 27 December and lies buried to the left of the church entrance.

Memories of Lee Boo are ongoing. In 1892 a memorial plaque was placed in St Mary’s and in 1912 part of Neptune Street was renamed ‘Rupack Street’ after the Islanders word  for King. More recently in 1984 a festival took place in Rotherhithe celebrating 200 years since the arrival of Lee Boo in England. Greetings were sent from the High Chief of the Republic of Palau and many pacific websites carry this amazing story.

last updated: 12/03/2008 at 10:14
created: 08/07/2005

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