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Deptford Strand

The Meeting Place of Kings Queens, and Sailors

In south-east London it is Greenwich that is most talked about. As well as being the centre for international time-keeping it houses the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark and the Royal Naval College. As far as the business of shipping is concerned, however it is Deptford that has historically been the centre of attention. As the site of the first Royal Dockyards, and the founding place of the Corporation of Trinity House in the early 1500s, suppliers of safe navigational aids around the English coast and bearers of the guild's responsibility for looking after the charitable interests of sailors, the area surrounding Deptford Creek has always been the centre of attention for any true seafarer of the south, even into the twentieth century.

Cook, Drake and Peter the Great visit

Deptford's nautical connections can be traced back to at least the fifteenth century, but to the west of Deptford Creek is the Church of St. Nicholas, which has been on this site since at least the twelfth century, if not before. As the patron saint of sailors, St. Nicholas was a crucial figure, not only for the Corporation of Trinity House, but for such great travellers as Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook who been visited the church before their world-wide expeditions. It is even suspected that the church became the possession of Sir Francis Drake's descendants sometime in the eighteenth century.

To the north of the church along the south bank of the Thames was land owned originally by the Bridge House Estates, which was set up for the maintenance of the original stone London Bridge. At first in the fifteenth century, the Deptford shipyards area would have been used for little more than shipbuilding and repairs, but early in the sixteenth century Henry VIII set up the Royal Dockyard, at the same time as Thomas Spert was forming the Corporation of Trinity House. This was the beginning of a royal connection that includes Queen Elizabeth I's visit to the Golden Hind in 1581 in order to knight Drake, and the infamous visit of Peter the Great of Russia in 1698 to learn the art of shipbuilding from the English. It is said that the Russian Tsar was one of the hardest workers in the shipyard, despite his drunken destruction of Sayes Court, rented to him by its owner, the diarist John Evelyn. Although this was the administrative centre of the area, the Tsar and his aides, over many alcoholic nights, wrecked the interior of the house and ruined its gardens by riding wheelbarrows through the hedges!

Trinity House

Although the headquarters of the celebration of Trinity House finally left Deptford for Stepney in 1618, its Almshouses remained well into the nineteenth century, and the annual Trinity Monday meetings effectively maintained its close links with the area. These meetings brought such figures as Samuel Pepys, William Pitt the Younger and the Duke of Wellington to Deptford, and to this day, the Corporation's Royal connections are intact, its present Master being Prince Philip. The Trinity Monday meeting of 1853, at which Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was appointed as Master of the Corporation, was the last time such a ceremony was to be held in Deptford, but Trinity House returned to Deptford in 1958 for the rededication a St. Nicholas' church. This was necessary after the church was closed for major internal rebuilding due to incendiary bomb damage in 1940. It was at this event that the Duke of Gloucester, then the Master a Trinity House, presented the church with a Bishop's Chair.

Formation of the East India Company

The Royal Dockyard at Deptford was more than simply a symbol of England's naval superiority, however. Whilst the Admiralty and Navy board was set up in the area in 1520, the early seventeenth century saw the rise of the Honourable East India Company, whose occupation a the west side of the Creek represented the rapid expansion a the shipping trade. With exclusive trading rights in the East Indies, and an Indian Empire which was to be passed on to Queen Victoria in 1858, the East India Company had built 10,000 tons a shipping in the first twenty years of its tenancy of the Bridge House lands. Even the Company's departure in 1643 did not prevent it using the site, on a contractual basis, for a considerable amount of shipping manufacture until the nineteenth century. After the eventual decline of the East India Company, however, the land was still able to avoid becoming an industrial ruin. In 1820 the General Steam Navigation Company was set up alongside Deptford Creek, challenging the Clyde Shipping Company as the first steamship company to enter commercial trading, with the advantage that the G.S.N.C. were to employ ocean-going steamships. By 1840, the Company owned forty of these ships, and it continued to prosper well into the twentieth century, despite the shift of emphasis in the area from shipping to the production of electric power.

The World's First Power Station

Since the sixteenth century, Deptford had provisioned all vessels associated with pioneering voyages. Sir Francis Drake departed from its banks in the Pelican, and James Cook set sail with the Endeavour in 1768 to chart the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. In 1889, however, it was Sebastian de Ferranti who became Deptford's latest pioneer, with the first ever large scale power station in the world. Ferranti's Power Station on the west side of Deptford Creek was the original building from which the modern power station of Deptford East grew. The Ferranti building was eventually decommissioned in 1957. The remaining buildings were closed in 1983, and finally demolished four years ago, in 1992. After this, and for the first time in several centuries. there was little left to symbolise the greatness of Deptford's success.

Chaucer, Marlowe and Pepys

There is a fascinating history behind Deptford which incorporates many aspects of our past. Chaucer's pilgrims crossed Deptford Bridge in The Canterbury Tales and the playwright Christopher Marlowe is buried somewhere in the churchyard of St. Nicholas'. The story of Marlowe's death, commonly put down to a mythical pub brawl, is more complex than it would seem at first, and hints at the Elizabethan centrality of Deptford in the business of monarchs, sailors and politicians alike. Marlowe, probably government agent for the Walsingham family, is said to have had close connections with Sir Walter Raleigh, who was in conflict with the Earl of Essex. Accused of heresy and atheism, an accusation which was likely to have been planned as an attack on Sir Walter Ralegh, Marlowe was killed before he had the opportunity to discredit such claims. The killer was Ingram Frizer, an employee of the Earl of Essex, but also an associate of Walsingham, implying that Marlowe was perhaps a liability as much for his outspoken nature as for his loyalty to Raleigh. Even today these events are shrouded in mystery, but whatever the truth behind these fables, the fact that Raleigh was later beheaded suggests that the death of this playwright, on May the thirtieth, 1593, was down to more than just an argument over a bill.

The legends of Deptford are still hidden on the south bank of the Thames, where kings and queens mixed with pioneers and sailors. The Deptford Steps, removed for the construction of the Pepys estate, and only returned in 1991, albeit without their original pillars and gates, are associated with the knighting of Francis Drake as well as being the place where it is thought that Sir Walter Raleigh laid down his cloak for Elizabeth I. The shipyards themselves impressed Henry VIII enough for him to set up the Royal Dockyard there, and Peter the Great admired the shipbuilding of the site so much that he was prepared to work as hard as those whose livelihood depended on their trade, just to learn from them. Throughout history, the Deptford shipyards have been the residence of colourful and dynamic characters. This is still true today and, with the approach of the Millennium, this area is on the verge of another great step in its revitalisation. The present developments in Deptford promise to return to local residents a pride and prosperity that has been richly deserved, both through history and in the 1990s. As a historical location, Deptford has great significance. Now it is time once again for this location to have great significance in the present day.

We are indebted to Greenwich Reach for permission to reproduce this article.

We shall developing further some of the themes and characters contained within this historic chronicle

 

 

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