In Old Deptford
This is the final story this week by Novelist & Historian of London Gillian Tindall as guest author in celebration of the publication of her new book, A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey by Chatto & Windus.
In Albury St
It is rather a shame Crossrail will not reach Deptford, for the lucky break of a brand new Underground station on a fast route to Central London is something Deptford could have done with. Rotherhithe, on the next bulge of the shore, has acquired the new ‘Ginger’ line straight into the City with handsome stations at Canada Water and Surrey Quays. Admittedly, the Docklands Light Railway now comes down through Deptford Bridge on its way to Lewisham, but it by-passes much of central Deptford which continues to be a poor relation by comparison with the glittering Isle of Dogs on the far side of the river.
In my distant childhood, Deptford, with its unfair resonance of ‘debt,’ figured to the outside world as a place of sinister poverty. On that south side of the Thames, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe sounded faintly exciting, with overtones of putting out to sea. Greenwich, just downriver, with its park, Palace and College, was a different world. But Deptford, lost in between, lodged in many people’s minds, and in children’s stories, as a classic London slum. Nor, of course, was this image helped by the severe bombing it suffered in World War Two nor by the dreary estates built by post-war planners.
Yet Deptford, long ago, was a place of fertile green water-meadows, facing the Thames and adjacent to a creek. Here Henry VIII established his Royal Dockyard, in the days when he was a popular young sovereign rather than an obese tyrant. Ships built in Deptford went out all over the world for the next three-and-a-half centuries. By Shakespeare’s time, the scattered country village that had been medieval Deptford had expanded into a riverside settlement. Well-to-do Londoners came down by river to drink there on summer evenings. The fact that one such evening ended in the mysterious death of Shakespeare’s fellow playwright ‘Kit’ Marlow gives a false impression – Deptford was the Maidenhead or Henley of that time, a gentlemanly place to reside, and remained so for the next two centuries.
Marlowe lies buried somewhere in the flowery churchyard of the ancient parish church of St Nicholas. Two generations later, a regular attender at the church was John Evelyn, land owner, man of letters, diarist and courtier (the equivalent of a modern high-ranking civil servant). Through marriage, Evelyn had acquired Sayes Court Manor House, the largest house in Deptford, and from here he went back and forth to visit Charles II in Whitehall palace, often on naval business. Yet wealth and privilege could not protect against an all-too-common grief, also buried in St Nicholas churchyard are three of Evelyn’s children who died young, including one particularly bright little boy over whom his father mourned much. Evelyn wrote in his diary of ‘our extreme sorrow,’ and that ‘This evening, after the service, was my baby buried near the tower with his brothers. All my dear children.’
Evelyn, a great horticulturalist, laid out a splendid garden at Sayes Court, with evergreen and hawthorn hedges and new tree-species imported from abroad. He was one of the first to understand the role of trees in keeping the environment clean and he advised a mass planting operation across London – advice which, unfortunately, was not taken. Late in life, when he and his wife had retired to the Evelyn family country seat at Wootton, in Surrey, he rented his house and gardens at Deptford to a series of tenants, most notably to Peter the Great, the Russian Czar, who wanted to study English ship-building in particular and English life in general. Peter the Great, in spite of some brutally medieval habits towards his enemies, real or supposed, saw himself as a great innovator and the one who was going to drag Russia into the West and the modern age. He was responsible for founding St Petersburg on the western edge of his vast country, and employed European architects to design its palaces.
A statue of Peter the Great, looking oddly elongated in a heavy European coat and a tricorn hat, stands today on an elevated platform on the Thames path not far from the site of Sayes Court, beside a new estate overlooking the river and Deptford creek. Inexplicably, he is flanked by a dwarf and an ornate empty chair in which passing walkers love to sit. The inscription states that he arrived in England in January 1698 and stayed in Evelyn’s house for four months - ‘This monument is erected near the Royal ship-yard where Peter the Great studied English science of ship-building. The monument is a gift from the Russian people and commemorates the visit of Peter the Great to this country in search of knowledge and experience.’
But exactly what experience? It is not mentioned that, during the months he was at Sayes Court, Peter confirmed the common British perception of Russians as a barbaric, backward people by doing a great deal of damage both to the house and the garden. In particular, it is recorded he trashed a number of Evelyn’s carefully tended hedgerows by driving through them for fun in a barrow. The Russian oligarch as hate-figure is clearly not a new phenomenon in this country.
The Royal Dockyard declined in importance in the nineteenth century with the advent of large new warships too big for the Thames, and was closed in 1869. Various uses were found for it and by the twentieth century, when its Tudor vestiges were gradually destroyed or buried, its final use was as a paper-wharf for International Newspapers. Today, under the name ‘Convoys Wharf,’ it is scheduled for redevelopment with high tower blocks, in which few of the flats will be ‘affordable’ in any real sense.
A vestige of the Sayes Court garden does remain. In the mid-nineteenth century, when Deptford was being covered in small terrace houses for dockers, the Evelyn family, who still owned the land, gave a piece of it to the local authority to create a public garden. It survives today, though a refuge for drunks now. Better tended than it was a few years back when I first discovered it, the garden is currently on the World Monument Fund’s list of endangered spaces – presumably because of the looming Wharf development. In the centre of the garden, surrounded by railings, stands a giant mulberry tree, its knotted limbs trailing on the ground. I am sure it dates from John Evelyn’s own high summer of planting, and is another for the Gentle Author’s short list of ancient London mulberries.
Towards the end of Evelyn’s life, the old church was substantially rebuilt, and a new, more elegant one, St Paul’s, just off Deptford High St, offered extra space for the district’s expanding population. A few rows of fine town houses went up also, including Albury St which was built on land belonging to the Evelyn family and was called after their country retreat. Fine brick, and an elegant variety of porches decorated with cherubs, angels, fruit and flowers, made these houses fit homes for the sea-captains, ship-builders and Honourable Company men who were the new affluent middle class of Deptford.
One side of Albury St alone remains as a precious survival in a district that has seen so much destruction through war and bone-headed planning decisions. This enclave at least is now being carefully looked after, while what were once the wastelands of abandoned dockside uses are filling up with tall buildings. Like it or not, regret it or not, Deptford is being hauled into twenty-first century London.
Deptford Dockyard, 1775
Entrance to the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford, where Christopher Marlowe is buried
St Nicholas, Deptford, dates from the twelfth century
Door to St Nicholas
Charnel House at St Nicholas
Graves at St Nicholas
St Paul’s church by Thomas Archer, c.1720
Manze’s in Deptford High St
Wellbeloved, Butcher & Grazier
In Deptford High St
In Deptford High St
In Deptford High St
In Deptford Market
In Deptford Market
In Deptford Market
Peter the Great by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Peter the Great at Deptford Creek by Mikhail Shemyakin
John Evelyn, engraving by T. Bragg after Sir Godfrey Kneller (Courtesy Wellcome Library)
John Evelyn’s Mulberry at Sayes Court Garden
On Thursday 15th September at 8pm, Gillian Tindall discusses her work and reads from ‘The Tunnel Through Time’ at Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, E1 5JP, which is positioned – appropriately enough – directly over a Crossrail tunnel. In her new book, Gillian explores the history of the new Crossrail route which turns out to be only the latest scheme to traverse an ancient path across London’s buried secrets and former fields. Click here to book your free ticket
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