We were lucky with the weather. It was completely dry - not a rain drop in sight. And we even had some sunshine! Given that this followed a night of torrential rain and thunderstorms and was followed by yet more torrential rain from around 6pm onwards and I consider it a minor miracle that we didn't get soaked.
We congregated at the foot of Deptford Bridge DLR station where the remains of a former gin distillery are still in evidence.
Please also see the comment added to this post, with some corrections and additional information.
Jackie Stater is an excellent guide, with a good clear speaking voice, a head full of fascinating knowledge and a welcome sense of humour. Her guided tour of Deptford showed a number of sides of the place of which I was simply unaware and I now understand why Deptford inhabitants become so fed up with people being so negative about it. Jackie is a Blue Badge Guide who has done tours in Greenwich and other areas of London.
A quite unexpected upside was meeting up with some people who are part of a mutual local web world, all of us with different types of web presences. It was particularly great to catch up at long last with Caroline who originally brought this walk to my attention - we have been exchanging odds and ends of chat for ages now. But local people were not the only ones in attendance - tow of the party had come from much further afield.
Being a guided walk, our tour was organized on a geographical basis, but on this page I've taken Jackie's key themes and organized them chronologically, to form something of a narrative.
The name Deptford means "ford over the creek". The creek concerned is the River Ravensbourne (a rather unprepossessing entity which passes Deptford Bridge DLR station in a concrete culvert). The river is a Thames tributary and is known as the Deptford Creek in its tidal section, becoming a river for its non-tidal part.
What we now think of as Deptford was two different settlements - Deptford Town and Deptford Strand (sometimes written Strond). Deptford Strand is probably the older of the two areas in terms of continuous habitation, located along the Thames and the centre of the ship building industry. Deptford Town is the area now covered by modern Deptford High Street.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence for the Romans having passed through Southwark. As Jackie pointed out, if Watling Street, roughly following the current line of the A2, were to pass over the creek a bridge would have been required. The earliest record for a bridge dates to 1345 but apparently archaeological data suggests an earlier date, which is not unexpected.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
Small communities were dotted throughout these areas during the Medieval period are well documented.
At the church of St Nicholas tt is thought that the west tower, built of ragstone and not, as the more recent parts of the building, of brick, may date back to the fourteenth century at least as far as the small south window. The tower that extens above the small window may haev been a 17th century restoration.
The church would have been a big local landmark, becoming more important as the Deptford Strand community expanded and the ship building industry, with its associated trades and supply requirements, evolved over the decades.
Henry VIII and Elizabeth I
The troublesome sovereign established the Deptford Royal Docks here in the 16th century, and Deptford was suddenly very much on the map. We went and stood next to a road sign which said "The Stowage" and Jackie joked that she had brought us all the way from Deptford Bridge to look at a road sign! But history is embedded in strange places, and in this case a road name was an indicator of a piece of important history in Deptford Strand. Jackie explained how The Stowage is where two institutions originate.
The first was Trinity House which was established by Henry VIII in either 1513 or 1514. The Guild of Master Mariners was based here lead by Thomas Spurt. The role of Trinity House was to train mariners but their scope expanded to include dredging the river, issuing licenses to river pilots and also to allocate buoys, lighthouses and other river markers. It was also responsible for almshouses which were once located behind the area where our group were standing by the road sign. Masters from Trinity House were regular visitors to the adjacent St Nicholas Church and then went to visit the almshouse residents. The almshouses remained there until 1877 but were demolished. Jackie says that etchings and paintings of them survive, which will be worth hunting down. Trinity House survives but moved in 1660 to the Watergate Street in the City and in the 18th Century to its present location by Tower Hill tube station.
The second establishment of note for this location was that of the East India Company. They were given a charter by Elizabeth I to trade with the East Indies. They had both a shipyard and warehouses here. They remained here until the 18th Century but then moved later.
On a more trivial front, Francis Drake was knighted here by Elizabeth I while his ship, The Golden Hynde, was moored here. The ship was eventually left here, moored up on the Thames at Deptford, and disintegrated here. A sorry end for a strong ship, but it was the traditional way for breaking a ship in the area. There is a replica today in dry dock near Southwark Cathedral.
Deptford was clearly a very lively place during the time of Shakespeare. It was still a thriving ship building centre and was home to all sorts of people both permanent and transient. It was here that Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant poet and playwright, met an untimely and unfortunate end. There are all sorts of stories surrounding his death and some of these are connected with a well-known idea that he may have been an Elizabethan spy. He is thought to have been buried in the Churchyard of St Nicholas but this has now been lost. A commemorative plaque has been erected on the eastern wall of the churchyard (apologies that my photograph is slightly out of focus).
The Seventeenth Century
Deptford in the Seventeenth Century is probably best known for the famous diarist John Evelyn and the visit of Tsar Peter the Great. John Evelyn's diaries are fascinating to read because he lived through both Oliver Cromwell and Charles I, saw the Fire of London and experienced London during the plague, but he was also a great horticulturalist, an intellectual, and a prominent contributor to the court of the day. Jackie gave us a fascinating fact - Evelyn highlighted the problem with the shortage of timber which was about to consume the ship building industry. he encouraged landowners with great parks to restock with suitable timber. It is thought this had a direct impact on the fact that there were enough ships for the Napoleonic wars. He established wonderful gardens at his wife's semi-rural estate of Sayes Court in Deptford, importing plants from abroad to make it a real landmark garden of its day. Now there are few remains of the estate recognizable.
Tsar Peter I of Russia, Peter The Great, came to stay at Sayes Court when he traveled to the ship yards of Deptford. Russia had no navy and therefore had none of the skills that were required - including ship building, navigation and general seafaring. As Russia needed a navy these skills needed to be acquired and with the permission of William III Peter came to England and intended to stay in Deptford for two to three years - a remarkable thing because no Tsar had left Russia in peacetime for over 100 years. Peter apparently worked in the dockyards himself, gaining hands-on experience. He was unable to stay Jackie explained that he was hoping to travel incognito but that with a retinue of 250 people and being 6ft 7ins tall he stood out more than somewhat. Although he was here on a serious mission to learn a trade, he was only 25 years old and something of a party animal, enjoying wine, women and riotous behaviour. One of the funniest accounts in Evelyn's diary is his disgusted account of the wheelbarrow races held in his beloved gardens. The damage was appalling and cost a fortune to repair. On the east side of Deptord High Street, above what is now a charity shop, there is a plaque that commemorates a former Quaker place of worship where Peter The Great was thought to have worshipped. In the event he was only able to stay here for four months but he took back a large team of specialists from England who helped him to form an efficient Russian navy.
Two ship building families stand out at this time in the ship building world, named Pett and Shish. The Pett family are first recorded in the reign of Edward VI in the late 1500s but continuing into the early 1600s. The Shish family are first known from the latter 1600s but continue into the 1700s. Between them they dominated the local shipyards. The Petts had extensive woodlands in Kent for their ship building activities - now known as Pettswood. Upriver of the docks remains all that is left of the Shipwright's house, which Jackie says is best seen from the river. It was rebuilt in the seventeenth century when it became rather endearingly known as the "Shipwright's Palace". The Shish family were the subject of one of a disapproving comment by Samuel Pepys - he referred to one of them as low, illiterate and overly pious - apparently he knelt in his own coffin for his night-time prayers!
There is a plaque on the north wall of the St Nicholas churchyard to John Addey who was a master shipwright at the Royal shipyard and a local benefactor (1550-16 April 1606).
In 1697 the Church of St Nicholas we rebuilt in red brick by C. Stanton but not much of the original construction survives today due to damage inflicted in the Second World War.
The charnel house at the Church of St Nicholas dates to the late 17th and early 18th centuries. it is an inoffensive looking building, more like a large brick-built shed than a mausoleum. Burials had to be made on consecrated ground, which meant churchyards, but these had limited space. The solution was to exhume older burials to make way for new ones. But the bones of the older burials still needed to be kept on consecrated grounds so they were stored in buildings called charnel houses, of which this is one. At St Nicholas it is surrounded by a beautifully perfumed rose garden. It once had a Grinling Gibbons carving set up over the door, and this is now sensibly kept inside the church itself. It depicts the Vision of Ezekiel and shows the prophet by the Valley of the Dry Bones, which as Jackie said is rather appropriate for the context. It is told that John Evelyn discovered Gibbons, who became a renowned master wood carver. The church was closed but Jackie told us that other examples of his work can be seen on the inside of the church (open Weds to Sat 9.30am - 12.30pm).
The Eighteenth Century
Albury Street was built in 1707 and was the work of Sir Thomas Lucas who also did work on St Paul's. These buildings were designed for well off shipwrights and other skilled workers. Although there are modern buildings on the south side of the street, the wonderful houses on the northern side used to flank both sides of the street. Albury Street was former Union Street, named for the recent union with Scotland. The buildings are wonderful in their own right but the most remarkable features of each are the carved porches. Sadly many are copies. Following the decision to list the decaying buildings to preserve them the former London County Council took many of the valuable furnishings and store them until after redevelopment. Tragically many of these stored features were stolen from storage (sounds very like the Cairo Museum!) and many of the present examples are copies or features taken from elsewhere. As Jackie pointed out, this side of the street is a reminder of the former prosperity of the area including St Paul's. Apparently Deptford Church Street, now a ghastly dual carriageway, was an elegant shopping street.
The church of St Paul's is one of the surprising jewels of Deptford and is listed in England's Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins. It dates to 1723 and is one of 50 new churches financed during the reign of Queen Anne under the 1711 act to meet the needs of an expanding population into areas which were semi-rural and only lightly populated. Churches were required by people moving into new areas so they were built to attract new residents to new homes. St Paul's was the design of architect Thomas Archer who was also responsible for St John's in Smith Square, London (well worth a visit). It is a truly remarkable structure, owing much to the Roman Baroque, with pedimented porticos, a tall tower over a massive portico which includes a semi circle of columns over a semicircular staircase leading to the front door. The interior was not open when I went back to look at it later, but it is apparently spectacular, with the original pews and galleries in tact.
At St Nicholas there were yet more things going on. The small tower at the east end of the building, with its tiny green domed roof, is thought to date to the 18th century and was an addition to the original design. The wonderful stone skulls which surmount the gate posts at the eastern end of the churchyard probably date to this period. Jackie pointed out that as well as being a reminder of our mortality the laurel leaves that surmount the skulls are a symbol of renewal. It has been suggested that they were the inspiration for the pirate skull-and-crossbones flag but who knows? A nice thought. Jackie also pointed out that on either side of the gateposts at the east end of the churchyard there are three golden balls, each arranged in a pyramid. This is because as well as being the patron saint of sailors, St Nicholas was the patron saint of pawnbrokers - as well as being the St Nicholas we know as Santa Claus. St Nicholas was a 4th Century Bishop living Asia Minor. The three balls of the pawnbrokers are supposed to derive from the fact that late one night he threw three bags of gold into a house in order to save save the three girls within from a career in prostitution, a destiny ensured by the extreme poverty that prevented them acquiring husbands through lack of dowry. There are other versions of the story, needless to say.
The growth of industry
Deptford contains many echoes of the old industries which occupied the areas bordering the creek, and which Jackie says gave the area the name "Dirty Deptford" because of the nature of the industries that grew up here - beer brewing, a gin distillery (founded 1770) flour mills (for example the Mumford Mills founded in 1790, the paintwork of which is still visible on the now-converted building). Jackie explained how gin had become such a problem. Water being hazardous to the health the main public drink was beer. When gin became available it was untaxed and inexpensive but was consumed in the same quantities as beer - and by being so much more potent had a much greater impact on the public, as depicted so memorably in Hogarth's sketches and paintings.
London's first railway
We turned briefly off Creekside to walk onto the blue footbridge that crosses the Creek. The original footbridge was built in the 1830s and was known as the Ha'penny Hatch because there was a halfpenny toll to cross it. The one we were standing on is a modern replacement. It sits parallel to the railway, which runs along a brick-built viaduct.
The railway was first built in 1836 and was London's first railway line, extending from Bermondsey Spa Road to Deptford. It was a magnificent feat of engineering, the largest brick structure anywhere in the world with 878 arches made of 19 million bricks. The viaduct was necessary to prevent the need for dozens of roadway crossings and to avoid the marshy land of Bermondsey, southern Rotherhithe and Deptford. By December of the same year the railway was extended from Bermondsey to London Bridge, and the modern section of the viaduct that leads into London Bridge is original.
The extension to Greenwich to the east followed 2 years later. In 1878 it was extended even further to the west. The delay was due to the issue of how to get the line through the middle of Greenwich park. Local residents were up in arms about it but the final blow was perhaps dealt by the Astronomers Royal who said that vibrations from the trains would cause errors in their calculations. In the end it was decided to tunnel beneath the park. 120 trains a day operated on this line, which is remarkable. Apparently there was a plan to enable horse drawn carriages to go up onto trains, and there is a ramp at Deptford Station, if you know where to look, to accommodate this plan. Sadly it was not considered to be commercially viable and never happened.
The railway arches were intended to be developed as homes for those displaced by the building of the railway line. Jackie showed us drawings of the show houses and they looked quite lovely. Apparently they were state of the art with gas cookers, lighting and heating - but they were never built because not only did they leak but the noise from the 120 daily trains was intolerable! But they were used for businesses of the day, mainly rag and bone men who Jackie says were still around in the early 1980s.
Through the railway arch one can see a view up the Creek towards the remarkable multi-coloured Laban building.
The huge scaffolding type frame above the railway is the derelict remnant of a lifting mechanism which lifted the railway track so that tall boats could pass down the Creek. The current road bridge that extends from Deptford to Greenwich can still be lifted when required for the same purpose.
In 1889 the Ferranti Power Station was built. Photographs of Greenwich Reach from this period always show a power station in the background. this was the Ferranti Power Station, the first high-pressure high voltage electricity power stations in England. it was named for Sebastian de Ferranti who was a pioneer of electricity production and was the chief engineer at the London Electric Supply Corporation. The power station increased the capacity of electricity generation in London and powered much of the west end of London. It went out of use in 1957, the main power station was destroyed in the 1960s and the associated buildings were demolished in 1992.
The early 1900s
At the end of our walk Jackie told us the a piece of history associated with 34 Deptford High Street. It is a landmark in the history of forensic evidence. In 1905 shopkeeper Thomas Farrow and his wife Anne were murdered. Their killers were tracked down by the newly developed science of fingerprinting. The Stratton brothers were the first people to be convicted of murder by fingerprint testing in the UK. Alfred Stratton had left his thumb print on the cashbox of the shop.
Macmillan Street, and the Rachel Macmillan Nursery in that street, were named for a socialist reformer of infant education.
Sisters Margaret and Rachel Macmillan were instrumental in the passing of the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act in order to promote health as a contributor to education in children. In 1910 a clinic to promote health for impoverished children was established in Deptford, serving local schools. Later infant schools were established in which the training of teachers for infant aged children was a primary consideration. Rachel, pictured left, died in 1917 but her sister Margaret continued with their work and published two books on nursery education.
Although Rotherhithe took the brunt of the wartime damage in the immediate area Deptford was not unscathed. The Church of St Nicholas was almost entirely destroyed by bombing and what survived was further damaged by local kids who used the ruins as an unofficial playground. Shades of The World My Wilderness! It was rebuilt after the war by T F Ford & Partners in 1958, and the brick built building is mostly part of that reconstruction.
As industry moved out of the area, many of its premises were converted to housing (either demolished to do so, or with original buildings converted) or taken over by artist communites. Jackie told us that the February 2001 edition of Italian Vogue "discovered" Deptford a few years ago, describing it as the new Monmartre. Not inapproriate in many ways because when Montmartre in Paris was a centre for impoverished artists it was not unalike Deptford. In deptford the abandoned industrial buildings had large floor spaces with big windows which let in lots of light. They were cheap, and there was cheap accomodation in the vicinity. This allowed the growth of art and craft collectives which are very much in evidence today. The New York Times simialry suggsted that Deptford was the "real" London, where visitors could come to eat in the pie-and-mash shops which are lost in other areas, and where independent stores and ethnic variety lived in harmony with the artists. There's a short article on the subject on the This Is London website and another on The Times website, which quotes the New York Times article.
The Birds Nest public house on Deptford Church Street once had a theatre incorporated into it. It has a somewhat tatty exterior but Jackie told us that while today it is a good and inexpensive hostel for backpackers but still has theatre in the round and highly rated musical performances that have put it at the centre of Deptford's revival as an edgy cultural centre. If it has a website I couldn't find it.
On Creekside the APT Gallery, which stands for Art in Perpetuity Trust, is a co-operative which looks very inviting and is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday 12noon to 5pm. Examples from their current exhibition can be found here.
Further up Creekside we passed Cockpit Arts - a modern building which looked 60s to me, built on the site of former industrial buildings. Over 100 artists work there producing mainly craft works and working with big retail groups. Most of the artists are young and highly innovative. A mural painted on the outside of the building shows various aspects of Deptford life and was featured on a Dire Straits album.
Passing up the Creekside towards the Laban contemporary dance academy we passed the Ferranti Park, a modern and lovely children's play park which was named for Sebastian de Ferranti, of whom more later.
The Laban contemporary dance academy is an extraordinary building, designed by the same architects, Herzog and de Meuron, responsible for Beijing National Stadium designed for the 2008 Olympics and the conversion of a power station into the Tate Modern. Even the surrounding landscape is wonderful with an angular amphitheatre made of grass steps and a wonderful artificial grass topography which everyone can explore and enjoy. There are performances open to the public at the centre.
The Creekside Centre which looks to improve local environment and ecology. It is approached through wonderfully designed metal gates designed by APT Studio sculptor Heather Burrell, more of whose work can be seen on a dedicated page on the APT website here. Remember the Leaf Cycle in the middle of Rotherhithe Tunnel roundabout? That is one of Heather Burrell's. Surrounding the wooden building, which is the heart of the centre, there is display of things pulled out of the Creek itself. Walks are organized to go and clear the creek and view the Creek at close quarters. The land occupied by the centre is the former railway gasworks which illuminated 200 lamps along the railway line.
The modern Deptford High Street is rather different from the elegant shops which would have lined Deptford Church Street in its more prosperous ship buildng times, but it is still a subject of fascination if you look hard enough. Not only are the buildings above shop level still often very attractive, but the shops themselves are interesting. Nearly all the stores on the High Street are independent retailers. A Peacock's at one end and two Cost Cutters are probably the only chain stores present. As to the rest - fascinating fishmongers, butchers and exotic vegetable shops are worth a viewing in their own right. And there's a terrific market on a Saturday.
The most obvious sign of late Twentieth Century developments in the area in the 1990s are the modern buildings of Lewisham College and the DLR extension. The Deptford Church Street branch of Lewisham College was probably built during the early 90s. The DLR extension passes from north of the river, through Deptford and heads out to Lewisham. It seems amazing to me that it opened as long ago as 1999, which was ahead of schedule.
The building programmes that mark today are housing projects. Housing is going up like nothing I could have imagined when I came to live in Rotherhithe in the mid 80s. It began even before Britian won the Olympic contract, but it has been expanding at a rare rate ever since. Obviously most of the investment has gone into developing the Thames-side land between Rotherhithe and Greenwich, but the investment in new homes will hopefully benefit Deptford and its uniqueness rather than undermining it.