Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rotherhithe Heritage 1 - The background to the dockland heritage

This post is designed to put a short series of posts about the area's heritage into a broader historical context. It is impossible to explain the heritage represented by Rotherhithe without reference to the history of the stretch of the Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich. In this post I’ve started with Henry VIII and worked my way up to the date of the establishment of Rotherhithe’s Howland Great Wet Dock, the predecessor of Greenland Dock. This is a highly selective and cheerfully superficial sprint through history, but I hope that it provides a few foundations for the posts that will look at specific details about the area. I'll pick up on some of the things that I mention in passing below in later posts.

The area along the southern banks of the Thames was employed only sporadically until the reign of Elizabeth I. Henry VIII had established the Royal Dockyards at Deptford (and at Woolwich) in the early 1500s. The Thames had been used for storing warships and a series of storehouses had been built to enable fitting, maintenance and repair work to take place. By 1520 a wet dock for 5 large vessels had been built which considerably improved access to these vast ships for essential work to take place. The dock expanded at a considerable rate and this area became established as one of the most important ship building centres of the country.

The first royal ship to bear the name of Tiger (HMS Tyger) was built at Deptford docks in 1546. She had a crew of 120, and 4 brass and 39 iron guns. In the year that the Spanish Armada attacked, 1588, Lord Henry Seymour's pursuit of the Armada up to around the level with Newcastle included the Tyger. She was broken up in 1605.

The dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 effectively put an end to the mediaeval period, and introduced a new era of religious, social and economic behaviour St Saviour's Abbey in Bermondsey was dissolved in 1540. It was first acquired by Thomas Pope (who was the founder of Trinity College, Oxford) and the stone of the Abbey was used to build Bermondsey house, which was completed in 1550, complete with an ornamental summer house. It was later became the property of the Earl of Sussex. A Southwark News article says that the last upstanding Abbey building, the inner gatehouse, was destroyed in the 19th Century, by which time much of the site was covered in poor houses and factories.

Water mills were first recorded in Rotherhithe in 1554, by the area now known as the Surrey Dock Stairs (known as the King’s Mill stairs up until the 1860s). The water mill recorded at that time was owned by the crown and was employed in the manufacture of gunpowder. It may have been established and maintained by the monks of Bermondsey Abbey.

Following the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, Elizabeth I came to power in 1558. Her reign was an innovative and expensive one. An important proportion of the country’s national income was derived from London alone, from customs revenue. In order to regulate this income a Royal Commission was established to appoint twenty “legal quays”, which were controlled by the Corporation of London. These were created to handle all dutiable goods. They were located on the north banks of the Thames between London Bridge and the Tower of London but when they quickly became inadequate for the task they were supplemented by “sufferance wharves” which were established in Bermondsey. These wharves had a similar function but only had a temporary status - but they had effectively established a food in the trading door for the area south of the river.

In the winter of 1564-65 the Thames froze solid and many events and entertainments took place on the ice. the freezing process was considerably aided by the fact that the Thames was full of rubbish, including sewage, and that its flow was often considerably reduced. Today it is clean enough to be a suitable habitat for wild fowl and fish, it flows freely and is most unlikely to freeze - particularly given the effects (dare I say it) of global warming. Having ice-skated throughout my childhood and teenage years this comes as a vast disappointment!

In 1587 the Queen granted the right to Thomas Brickett to hold a gunpowder mill for 31 years. The warhf occupied land formerly owned by Bermondsey Abbey, which seems slightly ironic. Only a year later it was actually ceded to new owners who built water mills on the site.

Under James I (who reigned from 1603 to 1625) the waterfronts of Rotherhithe continued to thrive as ship building and repair yards, and a close community of riverside workers and their families became established in the area.

In 1605 the shipwrights of Egnland were incorporated, in order to make them more transparently accountable for their ship building activities.

In 1612 the Rotherhithe (Redrith) shipwrights were awarded a Royal Charter, which was a particular honour and indicates how important the Rotherhithe ship building industry was considered to be. A charter is a grant of authority – a type of contract made between people of unequal status. A Royal Charter was only granted by the monarch on the advice of his advisory committee, the privy council, in order to establish or formally recognize an incorporated enti
ty, like a company. It was required for the establishment of any limited body.

In 1613 two local Master Mariners, Peter Hill and Robert Booth, founded a school for the education of impoverished sailors. The building still stands in Rotherhithe village, near to Saint Mary’s church, although its role has changed many times since the Seventeenth Century. Master Mariners were sailors who are qualified to captain a ship, whether or not they did actually take on the permanent role of a captain.
Rotherhithe’s Shippe Inn (later The Spread Eagle, then The Crown and from 1956 the Mayflower) was the departure point, in 1620, of the Pilgrim Fathers. The Pilgrim Fathers were not local people, but they departed from the Shippe Inn to Portsmouth en route to the New World in The Mayflower. They returned to Rotherhithe in the May of 1921. In fact, none of the crew or the passengers were from Rotherhithe, but Christopher Jones, the captain of The Mayflower and one of her owners, was buried at St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe when he dies on 5th March 1622. Sadly his grave was destroyed when St Mary’s was rebuilt in 1715, following the floods of 1710, but a memorial was erected to him that still stands.
In 1621 two water mills were recorded near the Surrey Dock Stairs, run by Henry Grindley.

In 1642 the rift between Charles I and Parliament developed into Civil War. As part of the London suburbs, Rotherhithe became one of a string of defences that were built by ordinary people as part of the attempt to repulse the Royalist army. Twenty six forts and ditches were constructed. The Redriff fort was constructed near Paradise Street and left the village itself completely undefended. Fortunately for Rotherhithe the defences were never put to the test, and the Royalists were defeated.

In 1647 a second ship named HMS Tiger was also built and launched at Deptford Docks. She had 38 guns and saw exciting service for nearly 100 years. Because it gives quite a good snapshot of some of the remarkable history of the times, here's a brief review of her career, courtesy entirely of the HMS Tiger website:
"Her first captain, James Peacock, brought her fame when, during the Civil War, he commanded her during the siege of Colchester. She was with Admiral Blake in his pursuit of Prince Rupert in 1650, when he took Rupert's Guinea and Charles as prizes. In 1652 she took a Dutch ship, the Morganstar without a single British casualty. After taking part in the battle of the North Foreland under a new captain, Gabriel Sanders, she recommissioned for service in the Mediterranean. In 1666, early in the Second Dutch War, the Tiger, under the command of Phineas Pert, met a Zeeland privateer of 40 guns and although Pett was killed by the enemy's first broadside, his Lieutenant continued the fight for a further six hours, by which time the Tiger was too heavily damaged to catch the escaping enemy ship. Later that year Sir Robert Holmes flew his flag in the Tiger and sailed into the Terschelling Roads. With fire ships and a number of smaller vessels he raided the Dutch Fleet, destroying 170 vessels and severely damaging some shore installations. In 1672 Captain Thomas Harman took over the Tiger from John Turner under whom she had fought in the Battle of Solebay, and Captain Harman's first action was in defence of a fleet of colliers he was escorting along the east coast to the Thames during which he fought off eight Dutch privateers.

On 22 February 1674 the Tiger entered Cadiz Harbour close on the heels of a Dutch ship, the Schakerloo (Captain De Witte). Having been criticised for not having attacked the Tiger, De Witte borrowed 70 officers and men from his flagship and set sail, and soon he was engaged by Harman at close quarters. Each ship repelled boarders and after a long battle the Schakerloo was boarded by the victorious 'Tigers' as she began to sink. The Dutch had suffered 50 killed and 70 wounded, while the British suffered nine killed and 15 wounded, including Captain Harman who was hit below his left eye by a musket ball."

The famous diarist Samuel Pepys
was a frequent visitor to Rotherhithe which, in his diaries, he refers to as Redriff. He was usually on his way to the Royal Docks at Deptford but liked to watch Rotherhithe ships being launched and frequented the local public houses. One of his diary entries records that it was too dangerous to walk alone through the streets. In 1664 he records that he visited Rotherhithe’s Cherry Gardens to buy cherries for his wife. The Cherry Gardens doesn’t exist today, except in the form of a small public gardens in Rotherhithe, which extends from Jamaica Road. It was a popular place for Londoners to visit during the first half of the seventeenth century. But by 1665 he was too afraid to venture into Rotherhithe because of the dangers of the plague.

The slightly less famous diarist John Evelyn, who used to have a home next to the Royal Docks at Deptford, is a major resource for information about the area during the 1600s. He lived through the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the death of Cromwell, the restoration of Charles II to the throne, James II, the revolution of 1688 and the reign of Mary II. He was closely associated with Charles II, and lived through the London Plague and the Great Fire of London. His diaries are fabulous records of London as a whole, but also offer almost unique insights about life on the southern edges of the river. His wife’s father sold him Sayes Court, a manor house and land on the edge of the Deptford Royal Docks. He turned the land into fabulous formal gardens, in which he planted rare and exotic plants, shrubs and trees – a bare handful of which actually survive today. And his personal association with the areas neighbouring his land make him a tremendous resource for the areas south of the river.

Evelyn records that in 1662 a massive fire took hold of a shipyard at Deptford, and it caused considerable panic both locally and in London itself. Rumours has spread on the instant that the Dutch fleet had sailed up the Thames, landed their men and set fire to the town. It was a time of serious and probably not unjustified paranoia.

The plague of 1665 wiped out nearly a fifth of the population of London. In Evelyn’s diarly entry for the 1st July 1665 he wrote as follows: “To Hampton-Court againe, hearing a judgement of a sermon here by Dr Turner: There died of the Plague in Lond. This Weeke 1100”. He next says: “There perished this weeke above 2000, and now there were two houses shut up in our parish”. By September of the same year 7000 individuals a week were dying, according to the records of the time. Many decades later, when digging the lock entrance to South Dock, workers found the skeletal remains of 100s of plague victims who had been buried in mass graves – just some of the 1000s who had perished.

Although at the time it was rumoured that the plague had spread from France, it now seems more likely that it arrived with trading ships from the Netherlands. Certainly, the first areas to succumb were dock areas in 1664, and it only spread to the City of London in the summer of 1665. The precise form of plague has never been determined, if indeed it was a plague in the strictest sense of the term.

In early September 1666 Evelyn described the Great Fire of London, which he watched from the other side of the river, in Southwark, from his coach. It horrified and amazed him. It devastated the buildings of London, much of it closely built housing, but it also effectively wiped out the lingering remains of the plague. Although this devastation was initially seen as an opportunity to rebuild London as a model city, the opportunity was lost. A number of fine buildings were created, but the vast avenues and the coherent structure envisioned by Evelyn and others was lost to time. Thatched roofs were
banned at this time and remain banned today – one of the few exceptions is the modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, completed in 1998, which required a special permit for its thatched roofing.

None of Evelyn’s children were taken by the plague, but three of them died and were buried in the church of St Nicholas in Deptford of different illnesses. The church still stands today. One died of convulsive fits (1654), another of liver disease (1658) and he doesn’t say what afflicted his youngest child, who died in 1658. His adult daughter Mary, of whom he was considerably proud, died from smallpox, which appears to have been prevalent, and her epitaph remains at St Nicholas’s. Another of his children also died of smallpox. It is an indication of just how harsh life was in England at this time, even for a wealthy family. It must have been infinitely harder for the poor.

Another famous (or infamous) visitor to the area was Judge George Jeffreys. In 1681 at the age of only 33 he became Lord Chief Justice of England. Two years later he was appointed Lord Chancellor and later he was created Baron Jeffreys of Wem. He is known as Hanging Judge Jeffreys because of the punishment he handed out at the trials of the supporters of the Duke of Monmouth, who attempted to take the throne in 1685. He sentenced around 200 to hanging and a further 800 to transportation to the West Indies. In 1688 when James II fled the country, Jeffreys was placed in protective custody in the Tower of London. He died there in 1689 at the age of 44 from a kidney disease. It is said that he attended the Prospect of Witby on the north of the Thames and the Angel at the edge of Rotherhithe from where to watch some of the hangings to which he condemned those whom he had judged. A grizly thought.

Evelyn’s diaries make it perfectly clear that the Deptford Royal Docks continued to play an immensely important role in English ship building, retaining both the physical resources and the human skills necessary to produce and repair vast wooden ships. His diaries record two ships in particular. In 1668 the vessel HMS Charles I was launched from Deptford. A second-rate ship of the line, it had 96 brass cannons. It was rebuilt at Portsmouth in 1701 when it was renamed the HMS St George. It was built by a Master Shipwright of the King’s Yard named Jonas Shish whose company had been building ships for over 100 years and whose monument remains today in the nave of the Church of St Nicholas in Deptford. HMS St George was rebuilt again in 1733, and relaunched on 3 April 1740. She was finally broken up in 1774.

Jonas Shish died in 1680 but was succeeded by his son who, as a Master Shipwright, built H.M.S Neptune which was launched on 17th April 1663. The HMS. Neptune was the last of 30 ships built by order of an Act of Parliament. She was another second-class ship of the line. She was rebuilt at Blackwell with 90 guns, and was relaunched in 1710. In 1724 she was ordered to be again rebuilt, this time at Woolwich and was relaunched in 1930. She was renamed HMS Torbay and reduced to a third-rate 74-gun ship in 1750. She was apparently sold out of the navy in 1784. There were other ships named Neptune and Torbay, but this ship was the first to hold the name in each case.

In 1698, the same year that England formally recognized the slave trade, Evelyn’s Deptford home, Saye’s Court, was leased to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who came to the area for four months to learn about ship building and naval wartime strategy at the Deptford Royal Docks. He upset John

Evelyn considerably by holding wild parties and holding wheelbarrow races through the immaculate hedges and gardens of the property.

Evelyn moved away from Sayes Court in 1696 and died in 1706 at his family home. His wife Mary died three years later. Both Evelyn and his wife were buried in the family chapel in St John's Church at Wotton. In 1992 their skulls were stolen and have been recovered. Evelyn’s original diary is held at the British Library in London, U.K..

In 1684 the second Duke of Albermale, Christopher Monck was granted permission to form a market at Rotherhithe every Thursday and Saturday. The market sold a broad range of goods including cattle and pigs. He was also given permission to hold two annual fairs on the first Thursdays of April and in October, both of which lasted two days. He also established a ferry at Rotherhithe. He died in 1688 at the age of thirty five, and the market and the annual fairs appear to have ceased in 1792.

One of the information boards that was put up in Rotherhithe when the new developments were first put up, probably commissioned by the LDDC, is still standing next to the Ship and Whale public house on Gulliver Street, marking the presence of Randall's Rents. Randall's Rents is a slender alley leading up towards the Thames. It is the only remaining survivor of a whole network of similar passages which connected the dockers' homes with their dockland workplace. It was originally named Wet Dock Lane when it was laid out by local shipwright John Wells in 1698. The name was changed to commemorate the owner of a local shipyard who owned houses which he rented to the workers at his yard. I would love to see what it looked like in those days.

The next major date in the diary of the area was the construction of Howland Dock, which once occupied the area now covered by the much larger Greenland Dock. That will be the subject of my next Heritage post in a few days time.

Rather endearingly a 17th century Bellarmine/Bartmann jar was found in Platform Wharf in Rotherhithe in 1986. These are sometimes known as witch bottles and wer e sometimes used to ward off evil spirits. This example was owned by Pieter Van Anken, and bears the motif of an anchor. Filled with various objects, including personal items, the witch bottles were either buried or thrown into water.


Jilly McLaren said...

I have had difficulty sending an e-mail to the address you quote on your blog.
I have a question about Randall & Brent, and am a descendant of S Brent.
Jilly McLaren

Andie said...

I'll post here with a link when the Randall and Brent post is complete. There's quite a lot of work to do on this, so it may be a couple of weeks.