Monday, August 5, 2013

Daniel Defoe's view of 1720s Rotherhithe and Deptford

Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe (born Daniel Foe c.1660-1731) was one of the singular characters produced by the political upheavals of the 17th and early 18th Centuries.  Born in Stoke Newington (London), he was, at various times, a merchant, tax collector, factory owner, a participant in the Monmouth Rebellion, an agent of William III, a prisoner under Queen Anne (for libel), and he was always in debt. But Defoe is best known as a writer, one of the first English novelists, his most famous titles being Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.  He also produced political pamphlets, contributed to journals and is considered to be one of Britain's first journalists. His interests were eclectic, and in the mid 1720s he published A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, which was one of his greatest achievements.

A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain was published in three volumes between 1724 and 1726, its purpose to introduce his readers to the social and economic world in which Defoe was travelling. There are no descriptions, for example, of the country's Medieval past.  Defoe was interested in how Britain was developing and where its immediately releavant heritage was to be found. He described a living world, not a dead one. His perspective is therefore quite unique and historically very valuable.  Defoe was not afraid of airing his opinion, either positive or negative, and this is clearly reflected in his description of London's suburbs.  He disliked London's suburbs, seeing them as a violation of the core identity of the city:

It is the disaster of London, as to the beauty of its figure, that it is thus stretched out in buildings, just at the pleasure of every builder, or undertaker of buildings, and as the convenience of the people directs, whether for trade, or otherwise; and this has spread the face of it in a most straggling, confus'd manner, out of all shape, uncompact, and unequal; neither long or broad, round or square; whereas the city of Rome, though a monster for its greatness, yet was, in a manner, round, with very few irregularities in its shape.

During this tour, Daniel Defoe visited Redriff (Rotherhithe) in 1722, and the above description perfectly complements his response to the area.  He was not impressed,and his description gives a very vivid impression of what the stretch of the river between Rotherhithe and Deptford was like in the mid 18th Century.  He viewed the building of docks and associated buildings, and the resulting population increase, as leading to the fusion of Deptford and Rotherihthe, which were once discrete settlements.

"We see several villages, formerly standing, as it were, in the country, and at a great distance, now joined to the streets by continued buildings, and more making haste to meet in the manner; for example, Deptford, this town that was formerly reckoned, at least two miles off from Redriff, and that over the marshes too, a place unlikely ever to be inhabited; and yet now, by the increase of buildings in that down itself, and the many streets erected at Redriff, and by the docks and building-yards on the riverside, which stand between both, the town of Deptford, and the streets of Redriff, or Rotherhith (as they write it) are effectually joined."

Even at this early stage, Depftord and Rotherhithe were meeting in the middle, and whilst Defoe might have been be dismayed by the degree to which this has reached its logical conclusion, I am sure that he would have been unsurprised. 

The marshes to which he refers must have been drained, and river walls improved to reduce flooding.  Rotherhithe was certainly marshy in prehistoric times, and continued to suffer frequent flooding for centuries afterwards. Repeated floods largely destroyed the foundations of St Mary's church, which had to be rebuilt in 1715. 

An interesting point in the above is that Defoe seems to imply that Redriff, a name also used by Samuel Pepys and other writers, was the name used for the area by those who did not live there.  Defoe indicates that "they" (presumably Rotherhithe residents) write it "Rotherhith" rather than Redriff.  I always assumed that it was the other way round.  UPDATE:  Since I wrote this, I've found a map that showed both Rotherhithe and "Redriffe" (you can see it on the blog here).  Rotherhithe is the village itself, whereas Redriffe is the marshy interior area.  It looks as though, at least at the time when the map was produced in 1805 and possibly before, Rotherhithe and Redriff referred to two different parts of the peninsula.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I just want to send you this link of a painting

Andie said...

Dear Anonymous
This is excellent. I have been collecting images of Rotherhithe's past but hadn't seen this one. Thank you very much for bringing it to my attention - it is a really fine painting of Cuckold's Point (where the Hilton is now located). It is particularly valuable as it shows 18th century Rotherithe - I have quite a few from the 19th century but few from the 18th.
Best, Andie.