September has come to an end, I’m back from a holiday in France and we’re well into autumn, “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as John Keats memorably wrote in his poem ‘To Autumn’. This has been the month of ‘Totally Thames’ Festival, an event that celebrates the life of the river with a wonderful calendar of activities, exhibitions and other events across the Capital.
It was therefore the perfect opportunity for me to go on my first ever TDP (Thames Discovery Programme) guided foreshore walk in a part of London I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited before – Deptford, and therefore an excellent topic for another blog. Deptford isn’t visited nearly as much as its more famous neighbour Greenwich, but it has an interesting history. Playwright, translator and poet Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death here, allegedly in a brawl over a tavern bill, in 1593. Sculptor and wood carver Grinling Gibbons, known as the British Bernini, was born in Rotterdam but moved to England and settled in Deptford in approximately 1667. Gibbons created exquisite wood carvings for churches and palaces, such as Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, also working in stone.
I arrived at Watergate Street early so took myself off to see the rather disturbing monument to Tsar Peter The Great, described as London’s ‘weirdest’ statue. It overlooks the foreshore at Glaiser Street and you can hardly miss it – the 6 foot 8 inches (2.03m) Tsar with his favourite dwarf and travelling throne. A reminder of this eccentric Russian monarch’s four month visit to Deptford in 1698 when he and his entourage stayed at the house of the writer, diarist and gardener, John Evelyn, in Sayes Court, and successfully managed to trash both house and garden with their drunken antics. Poor John Evelyn had already let out his precious house to Captain John Benbow, described as an ‘impolite tenant’, who further outraged Evelyn by subletting the house to the ‘right nasty’ Peter the Great, who was travelling incognito as Peter Mikhailov. One of the Sayes Court servants described the following carnage:
‘No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered in grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride and joy was ruined.’ (Ian Grey, ‘Peter The Great In England’, p229.)
When not vandalising Evelyn’s house and garden, the Tsar spent time in the Deptford shipyards learning the shipbuilding trade. A journeyman-shipwright employed there at that time noted that ‘the Tsar of Muscovy worked with his own hands as hard as any man in the yard.’ Peter eventually took the shipbuilding knowledge he’d acquired at Deptford back to Russia, thus laying the foundations for the Russian Navy and establishing the country as an emerging major European power.
As we walked down Watergate Stairs onto the foreshore it was easy to imagine the busy wharves and waterfront at the turn of the 19th Century but harder to envisage this area in Peter the Great’s time. What is now Deptford Creek was once the mouth of the River Ravensbourne, overlooked by what would have once been a relatively small fishing village. Our TDP foreshore guide, archaeologist Eliott Wragg, pointed out the stranded remains of a Lighter, a type of flat-bottomed boat, visible at low tide at the entrance to Deptford Creek. A Lighter would have been used to transfer goods and passengers to and from ships moored out on the Thames.
Henry VIII founded a naval dockyard at Deptford in 1513, a good location for the monarch due to its proximity to the Royal Palace downstream at Greenwich. From this moment on Deptford’s importance re the shipbuilding trade can’t be underestimated. LM Bates has said of the Deptford waterfront: ‘This was the ground from which , more than any other, grew the British Empire. In 1577, Francis Drake sailed from Deptford via Plymouth for a three year circumnavigation of the globe and on his return was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. His ship, The Golden Hinde, was moored at Deptford and became one of the biggest tourist attractions of the age with people frequently stealing parts of the ship to take home as souvenirs and talismans. (NB The Golden Hinde at Southwark is a replica.)
Along the Deptford waterfront we could see across the Thames to historic Burrell’s Wharf, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument (or S.A.M.) It was here that Isambard Kingdom Brunel watched over the ill-fated launch of his great new ship, the massive SS Great Eastern, on 31 January 1858. Brunel and his business partner Scott Russell were under tight financial constraints at the time of building the SS Great Eastern and there was no money available to build a brand new dock or launch site, hence the choice of Napier’s Yard at Burrell’s Wharf, next to the Millwall Iron Works. The soft peat and clay of the foreshore made it ill-suited for the launch of such a big and heavy ship and the foundations of the slipway couldn’t support the 12,000 tonne vessel, the first one of her time to be almost entirely constructed of metal. The ship was also far too long for a traditional launch into the Thames, which would have seen it in danger of shooting up Deptford High Street, so the decision was made to launch it sideways. Even so, when the moment of launch finally came, the ship refused to budge. Thousands of people had turned up to see this huge spectacle so it was a hugely embarrassing moment for Brunel who’d have preferred to keep the public away. It took another three launches over three months to finally get the SS Great Eastern into the river.
The Deptford dockyards soon became large centres of industry in their own right hosting a wide range of businesses supplying the local community and Navy, plus overseeing the building of important war ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. Hundreds of men were employed in the shipyards at Deptford both constructing and repairing warships. At the western end of the dockyard was once the Victualling Yard, which by 1742 was extremely busy providing supplies such as food and other vital provisions to the Navy. By Victorian times, such was the importance of the Navy to British foreign policy and the accumulation and governance of the Oversees Territories, the Victualling Yard had to expand to meet this need. This resulted in the addition of slaughter houses, a brewery and facilities for pickle production, biscuit making and milling pepper. The Victualling Yard eventually closed in 1961 when ships became larger and the Thames was found to be too shallow for them to navigate safely. The era of Deptford Historic Shipyard had therefore come to an end and ships began to head to Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth for repair. In the 1950s/60s when the London Docks finally closed, commercial shipping moved downstream to Tilbury and this part of the shipbuilding history on the Thames Foreshore fast became a distant memory.
However, even by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford was already in major decline. It had a brief respite in the 1840s and 1850s to accommodate the era of small steam-powered ships but this didn’t last long and Deptford Dockyard finally closed at the same time as Woolwich in 1869. While mudlarking a bit further upstream on the Thames Foreshore I’d found a sherd of pottery from a porcelain plate advertising the London, Leith, Edinburgh and Glasgow Shipping Company, a legacy of the small steamships, some of which had been built or repaired at Deptford and Woolwich. Picking up passengers at one of three Scottish ports of Leith, Edinburgh or Glasgow they then sailed to St Katharine’s Wharf in London. These steam ships would have once been deemed to be the height of luxury and passengers could eat off porcelain crockery with the company’s logo emblazoned across it.
It’s addictive pottering around on the Thames foreshore here and the maritime history of Deptford is fascinating. The cat and I are currently engrossed in a book TDP’s Eliott Wragg recommended to further our knowledge of this period in British History, called ‘Shipbuilders Of The Thames And Medway’ by Philip Banbury.
Totally Thames Festival is over for 2018 but the Thames Discovery Programme tours continue, an excellent and safe way of learning about many different parts of the foreshore. Check out their website (link is on the home page under ‘Advice’) to see what events they’ll be organising for 2019.
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