The station was built by the East London Railway Company and opened on 7 December 1869; it was originally known as Deptford Road. On 17 July 1911, it was renamed Surrey Docks in reference to the nearby, now closed, Surrey Commercial Docks, and further renamed Surrey Quays on 24 October 1989, following the construction of the nearby Surrey Quays Shopping Centre. This was a somewhat controversial move as some of the local community felt that their heritage was being eroded. However, the name stuck, and the Surrey Docks part of Rotherhithe is now often referred to as Surrey Quays. The sparsely populated Rotherhithe peninsula was originally wet marshland alongside the river. It was unsuitable for farming, but its riverside location just downstream from the City of London made it an ideal site for docks. The area had long been associated with maritime activities: in July 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers' ship the Mayflower sailed from Rotherhithe for Southampton, to begin loading food and supplies for the voyage to New England, and a major Royal Navy dockyard was located just down the river at Deptford. In 1696, Howland Great Wet Dock (named after the family who owned the land) was dug out to form the largest dock of its time, able to accommodate 120 sailing ships. By the mid-18th century the dock had become a base for Arctic whalers and was renamed Greenland Dock. However, by the 19th century an influx of commercial traffic from Scandinavia and the Baltic (principally tinder) and Canada (foodstuffs for London's population) led to Greenland Dock being greatly expanded and other docks being dug to accommodate the increasing number of vessels. Eventually, 85% of the peninsula, an area of 460 acres (1.9 km²), was covered by a system of nine docks, six timber ponds and a canal. Several of the docks were named after the origins of their customers' cargos, hence Canada Dock, Quebec Pond, Norway Dock and Russia Dock. The Grand Surrey Canal was opened in 1807 to link the docks with inland destinations, but proved a commercial failure and only 3½ miles of it were ever built.
The docks evolved a distinctive working culture, quite different from that of the Isle of Dogs across the river. A characteristic sight of the docks were the "deal porters", dockers who specialised in carrying huge baulks of deal (timber) across their shoulders and wore special headgear to protect their heads from the rough wood. For much of its history, the station's importance lay in its proximity to the Surrey Commercial Docks; it was at the south end of Canada Dock (now Canada Water) and a few hundred yards from the principal entrance to the docks. Its usage fell considerably after the docks closed, but revived following the redevelopment of the London Docklands in the 1980s and 1990s. The service was closed between 1995 and 1998 due to repair work on the East London line's Thames Tunnel. The East London line closed permanently as an Underground line on 22 December 2007. It reopened for preview services on 27 April 2010 to New Cross and New Cross Gate and 23 May 2010 for full service to New Cross, West Croydon and Crystal Palace, becoming part of the London Overground system. On 9 December 2012, Phase 2 of East London line extension opened to the public, launched the next day by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. It provides services to Clapham Junction via Peckham Rye, thus completing the London Overground Orbital link. The station is in Travelcard Zone 2 and has wi-fi, payphones and help points but no toilets.
Connections: London Buses routes 1, 47, 188, 199, 225 and 381 and night routes N47 and N381 serve the station.