Friday 29 March 2013

Early powered road transport in Greenwich

(this is the first of a series of articles which originally appeared in Bygone Kent)
Mary Mills

I have written in the past about both Frank Hills and Joshua Beale both of whom had factories on Greenwich Marsh in the nineteenth century. Both were involved with the development of powered road transport. In the early 1840s at least two cars were made at Beale's Greenwich works at the end of today's Mauritius Road. They were the not the only experimental road transport which trundled round the roads of North Kent in the nineteenth century. From the 1820s onwards some Kentish roads were - well, almost - buzzing with newly invented vehicles. Most of them were steam powered and were developed as the same time as railway locomotives but they were lighter and smaller and, perhaps, more sophisticated.

Greenwich became a focus for some of this activity. Several attempts to provide an omnibus service to Greenwich using steam vehicles took place at around the same time as the first railway in London - the London and Greenwich - was opened in 1836. Greenwich was somewhere to which a transport link might be profitable - local residents would want to go to London, perhaps some of them might even commute. It was also a resort to which Londoners would want to go on a day out. It was on the main Dover Road and there was a need to supplement passenger transport on the river Thames where accidents were becoming ever more frequent.

Some steam carriages were manufactured in Greenwich by inventors or by manufacturers who working under contract to the inventor. Some other steam car experimenters owned factories north of the river but lived in Greenwich - presumably they commuted by ferry to Millwall. One such example is John Seaward who developed a steam carriage in 1859. He lived in Greenwich for a while although his factory was the City Canal Ironworks on the Isle of Dogs

Inventors needed publicity for their carriages and it was a very good advertisement to be seen taking the new vehicle over a difficult piece of public road. Shooters Hill was a firm favourite. It was on the Dover Road, near London and notoriously difficult. Anyone who wanted to see new cars out on their first run would have been well advised to live there! It is also worth remembering Dickens's description of Shooters Hill in Tale of Two Cities - although the novel was written in 1859 and set in 1775 - 'he walked uphill in the mire by the side of the mail as the other passengers did ... with drooping heads and tremulous tails [the horses] mashed their way through the thick mud ... there was a steaming mist in all the hollows ... a clammy and intensely cold mist .... a loaded blunderbuss lay on the top of six or eight loaded horse pistols, deposited on a substratum of cutlasses'.

The idea of steam road transport had been around a long time.. One of the earliest inventors was Richard Trevithick. He came from Cornwall in 1803 bringing with him a steam locomotive which he had developed in Cambourne and which had been demonstrated there on roads. He also demonstrated railway locomotives in London. It is not known if Trevithick ever brought his vehicles south of the river but he knew Kent well and was to die in Dartford. Thus, perhaps there is some association there between Kent and one of the very earliest road vehicles..
The first powered vehicle on a North Kent road seems to have been that built by Samuel Brown. It was, however, not a steam car

Brown's road vehicle was tested by driving up Shooters Hill on 27th May 1826 - before he moved to Greenwich. Unlike many later vehicles which climbed the hill it did not use steam but was powered either by coal gas or the vapour from commercial alcohol. The engine was known as a 'gas vacuum' and has been claimed as the forerunner of internal combustion. The car itself had four wooden wheels, a small seat for the driver and very little room for anything else on top of a gigantic engine. It climbed up Shooters Hill very slowly but 'with considerable ease'.

In the 1820s many people thought that Mr. Brown's carriage would never be able to go uphill because of something they called 'perpendicular resistance'. The drive up Shooters Hill was to disprove this once and for all. Mr. Brown's car went up it all right - and plenty more were to follow it.
Brown's ride up Shooters Hill has been given very little attention although it was well reported at the time in the technical press. Historians of motor transport have tended to ignore it because it was very early and, in some ways, isolated from the later development of the internal combustion engine. It has not been described in any detail in histories of steam transport because steam was not used. Brown himself seems to have abandoned the idea of using the system for a road vehicle and adapted to be used for powering boats. The 'Canal Gas Engine Company' was formed by a group of entrepreneurs to exploit the engine for use in vessels on the Croydon Canal. This canal ran from New Cross to Croydon going on the Kent side of the Surrey border for some distance through the Sydenham area - it was to become the route of the London Bridge/Norwood Junction railway line. It was not a success and the gas engine project floundered with it.
Brown was not the only person in Greenwich trying to put powered vehicles on the roads. At around the same time in the 1820s another inventor was working on a steam carriage. John Hill came from Greenwich, although it is not clear exactly who he was. Contemporary directories list a John Hill in Creek Street, Deptford - perhaps he thought 'Greenwich' was a politer address than 'Deptford'. 'John Hill' is, in any case, a common name. His partner in the steam carriage project was a Timothy Burstill who came from Edinburgh and was, of course, a competitor in the 1829 Rainhill Trials for an effective railway locomotive. He entered with 'Perseverance' - said to have 'no more than a glorified domestic boiler'.
In London Burstill and Hill made a very heavy, 8 ton, road steam carriage with a very large boiler. This meant that it was very slow and could only do, at the most, three or five miles an hour. They found it difficult to get passengers as because , it emerged, people were scared of sitting close to the enormous boiler. They were quite right to be afraid because this boiler eventually exploded during a demonstration run. This explosion probably happened in Deptford although no exact spot is given. No one was hurt in the accident although twenty three people were standing nearby 'on the bank' and one man had his foot on the machine itself . Burstill and Hill claimed that the fact that no one was killed showed how safe the engine really was! No more was heard of it.

Such steam carriages were experimental and none of them ever ran a regular public transport service. This changed in the late 1830s when new carriages came on to the roads which were designed to hold fifteen or more passengers and run an 'omnibus' service. The next article will look at them.

This article has been compiled from a variety of sources, in particular local newspapers and the trade press of the day. There is a considerable literature about steam road carriages, I have drawn particularly on William Fletcher's Steam on Common Roads. An article about Samuel Brown's car by L.Graham Davis appeared in True's Automobile Year Book, No.2. 1953.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Warren Wood - mystery shelter

We  have had some queries and a request for help from Nick Catford -Sub Brit and south London's underground spaces guru, old abandoned station guru and much else.

Nick says he has updated the following site - of which more below:

However - once you have read it - he is asking for help....

Can anyone help with some dates.  Do you know when the Bagnold family moved out of the house. I know they were there till at least 1943 when Colonel Arthur died but I assume they stayed on after that date?
I know in the 1970s it housed the Warren Wood Children’s Home. Do you know when they arrived and when they left.  What happened to the house after that.  I believe it was demolished late 80s or early 90s.  Can  you be any more precise. I have been in touch with a resident there between 1970 – 1974.  The children used to play in the shelter.

so - what's all this about??
Nick's Sub Brit piece is about an Air Raid Shelter on Shooters Hill. It is in the grounds of what was Warren Wood House, home of the Bagnold family.  The big houses were demolished and it is now part of the Shooters Hill Woodlands and in a Local Nature Reserve.  This was part of the area investigated by Time Team in 2008 and the Team considered whether it was a military structure rather than a domestic air raid shelter.  The Time Team excavation was carried out by Wessex Archaeology and Nick includes their report and a link to their site. Nick also draws attention to an adjacent large oil tank - not noted by the Time Team - and to the nearby wartime air battery and gun site.
- but please look at his Sub Brit article and pictures

Sunday 24 March 2013

A Teardrop

We have been sent some information on forthcoming archaeology on the 'Teardrop' site at the Arsenal.
Briefly - 
"Oxford Archaeology has been commissioned by Berkeley Homes to do an archaeological evaluation on part of The Royal Arsenal site, This is being done as a condition of Planning Permission.

The site is the one immediately outside the current western boundary of the old Royal Arsenal -n east of the Woolwich ferry terminal. On the south is Warren Lane, to the east Ship and Half Moon Passage - which follows the western boundary wall of the Arsenal, and to the north by the River.
The site was partly developed by the beginning of the 17th century with wharves, warehouses and cottages to the north of Woolwich High Street. During the Napoleonic Wars the Arsenal was expanded and built on ground raised above the River floodplain. A timber yard was on site from the 1860s plus  a gas worksfrom 1837 to 1887 and it was later a coal yard and a builders' yard. The area was taken over by the Royal Arsenal during the First World War and when the Arsenal closed in 1994 it was cleared.
In addition to the military use of the site previous archaeology to the east of the site within the Arsenal revealed Roman burials with a significant cemetery in the area of Dial Arch. . Also found about was the 14th century kiln (the Woolwich kiln, now at the Heritage Centre). Other excavations have found more evidence of pottery manufacture, two more London Ware kilns, a Tudor kiln and a post medieval example. Medieval houses were also confirmed there. Evidence of Iron Age activity was found in the form of a ditch.

Saturday 23 March 2013

London Whaling Conference - Today

Just back from today's whaling history conference at the Docklands Museum - thought I might as well do a brief report while its all in my mind - and it would be good if some of the other Greenwich historians there were to add comments - Rich, Andrew, Steve, Peter .... must have been others .... ???

As one of the speakers said whaling was an important London industry and a vital part of the economy in the age of what we call the 'industrial revolution' and yet it is barely mentioned in histories of the period and there is no bank of memories are there are in some of the smaller whaling ports of the Americas.  Some of the pictures and incidents recorded were quite harrowing - and we must remember how cruel this trade was, and only recently this has been recongnised.   It was not that much to do with Greenwich - although the last two speakers spoke about Greenwich. Recently, some developers and, sadly, some historians have claimed north Greenwich as an area of the whaling industry - those last two speakers to some extent explained how this misconception has come about.

The day started with the usual welcomes and then some background in a paper by Dr. Janet West of the Polar Research Institute - sadly labouring under a bad cold.  Janet outlined how in the 16th century ships left London for Arctic whaling. Later, when American independence limited London's supply of sperm whale oil the Southern fleet grew from around 1775. Some merchants managed to work both in London and in America - and many of them undertook heroic adventures in the Southern oceans and there were many discoveries of lands and their fauna and flora.

Alex Werner - known to many of us as the Head of History Collections at the Museum of London spoke of the research and publications of A.G.E. Jones. Mr. Jones had over a lifetime collected assiduously an enormous archive of material on whaling ships and their crews - and published books and many articles. Mr. Jones had been known to many of the audience - and Chris Elmers recounted how he had complained to the Director of the Museum when one of the staff had suggested that some of his material might be digitised!

Alan Pipe, who works for the Museum of London Archaeology Department gave us a brisk talk about what bits of whale bone are in the Museum's collection. The answer is - not much - although some of it is Saxon.  On the  whole they have too little to come to any real conclusions.

Next came Chris Elmers himself - for those who don't know Chris - he was Curator of the Museum of Docklands for many many years - and through all those years when the Museum itself was an act of faith.  He knows all about London shipping, London industries and he started off as a student at Woolwich Poly (hurrah!!!).  Chris talked about some grim aspects of the trade, but also about the Rotherhithe dock we now call the Greenland Dock (it originated as the first dock of any size in the world).  This was all really really interesting - about how the poor whales were killed, about the dreadful accidents and the terrible dangers of the work out in the oceans (sometimes the whales turned, attacked the boats and killed the sailors....................). Chris spoke  about the smells, and the general foulness - and how developers were trying to built posh houses round the dock, even in the 18th century despite the nastiness of it all.

Beatrice Behlen who is a fashion historian spoke about the use and manufacture of whalebone
- or beleen as it is apparently properly called. This was interesting but I felt that somewhere there was a point missing.

Stuart Frank, an American from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, spoke at length about scrimshaw - those little drawings scraped on the poor whales' teeth. They are very valuable and this was a collectors talk - he told us about the research on the pictures and the 'artists' but not about what these drawings teach us about the trade, or the lives of the sailors, or whatever.

So to the - sort of - Greenwich talks. Charles Payton talked about the Enderby family. We all know about Enderby Wharf but the family were wealthy merchants elsewhere. The earliest traced seems to be as tanners in Staines and then at Lomond's Pond in Southwark. They began with whaling vessels in the City - and with American connections - and it was a third or fourth generation which finally built their rope and canvas works on the Greenwich riverside (the Alcatel) site.   The next generation lost all in their Auckland Islands venture.    I hope Charles can be persuaded to come and talk to GIHS and tell us more - the family lived locally as well as having the wharf and it would be good to hear what he has to say.

The last speaker was also very much to do with Greenwich - which is about the Bay Wharf whale. We had hardly heard locally about this important find which turned up on a development site found by Pre-Construct Archaeology.  The speaker, Richard Sabin, works for the Natural History Museum and spoke a bit about their important archive on whales and whale remains.  They now have the Bay Wharf skeleton  which is being carbon dated and DNA analysed.  It appears likely that this was a poor elderly creature lost in the Thames in 1658. It was cruelly killed and left to rot on the riverside.

That's it really - except that a bibliography was circulated and please let me know if you would like to see it.  Also circulated was the published set of papers from last years Shipbuilding Symposium - which will be reviewed here soon (and it contains my paper on Maudslay Son and Field).

Please add your comments ..


Thursday 21 March 2013

Who was the Pilot at the Pilot??


This article was written in 2000 before the many changes to the area which have taken place over the past 13 years - it is about the area of east Greenwich around the Pilot pub and speculates about the meaning of the pub's name. Until 2000 a road, Riverway, ran from the Pilot to a long causeway into the river and the Yacht Club was in buildings adjacent to the pub. On the north side of the road were gas works buildings - including the sulphate store, previously very much in use as a film and video location. All around were buildings which had been in use by the riverside power station - but all tht is a subject for future postings here.

When the site at East Greenwich was identified as suitable for the Millennium Exhibition one of the arguments for it was that it was 'derelict'.  Over the past five or six years even those buildings with some merit had been cleared – in particular a large and interesting parabolic sulphate store.  The area comprises mainly the site of the East Greenwich Gas Works but also takes in some other parcels of land.  At one end of the site a public road runs to the river where there is a popular slipway and the Greenwich Yacht club.  There is also a row of cottages and a pub – The Pilot.

When the first planning application for the Exhibition came before Greenwich Council local people who studied it realised that the cottages were scheduled for demolition.  Almost every community group in the area protested strongly – the cottages might not be very much but they were something of the past.  It was quite quickly agreed that they should remain.  No one knew very much about them.  They were tiny, poky with back gardens and outhouses.  They had been owned by a housing association but were now in use as short life housing.  Their one claim to recent fame was that, unnoticed by almost everyone, they had appeared on a wildly popular music video, 'ParkLife'.    The Pub was doing rather better. It had been an old fashioned downmarket affair, apparently on the verge of closure. A dynamic new landlord and extended the building, enlarged the bars and planted a pretty garden.  It was now thriving, festooned with flower baskets and boasted a busy lunch trade. On the outside is a plaque which says 'New East Greenwich 1802'.

Cottages and pub are in fact nearly two hundred years old.   They first appear in the Greenwich rate books with occupants in 1804.   The site was owned by George Russell, whose obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine of May 1806 described as a soap maker of Old Bargehouse, Blackfriars.   Greenwich Marsh is well documented in that records exist for the Court of Sewers; marsh managers for this period, as well as for the City of London controlled Thames Conversators.  Minute books of these two bodies show that Russell had been in occupation for some time and had been using the area as a brickfield. In 1796 there had been an incident when his partner, Taylor, had pushed the wallscot bailiff off the sea wall 'Damn your eyes, sir…. .. I'll stop your eyes with mud, sir'.

In June 1800 a William Johnson, living in Bromley, Kent, had patented a new sort of 'water wheel adjustable to tidal currents' and began to find a site where he could build a mill.  In June 1801 he approached Morden College, the major local landowner, for a site but was refused unless he could provide a 'valuable consideration'.  By September he had come to an agreement with George Russell and applied to the Commission of Sewers for 'permission to open the sea wall'.  A year later, and now living in Montpelier Row, Blackheath, he made a similar request to the Thames Conservators, telling him that he was having difficulties with the Greenwich based Commissioners.  They reacted strongly to any suggestion of a challenge and immediately gage him permission so long as he produced Russell's signature on the document.  He employed a Mr. Hollingsworth to 'open the bank'.

Something else happened in 1801, which is only revealed by an estate agents' ' Conditions of Sale' document produced forty years later. This showed that in August 1801 a lease was granted on the site.  This lease was to 'the Right Honourable Earl of Chatham and the Right Honourable William Pitt,.. the Right Honourable Edward Crags, Lord Elliot and the Honourable John Eliot'.  Pitt was out of office in 1801 and, the Earl of Chatham mentioned is his elder brother, not his father.  The two Eliots were members of the family of Earl of St. Germans, a Blackheath landowner,  and Edward was married to the Pitt's sister, Charlotte.    For lack of information it is only possible to speculate about what was going on.  Was Johnson perhaps a of protégé of the Pitts – after all Bromley Kent is near enough to the Pitt family's base at Holwood, near Keston.    It has been said that the Pitt family were very short of money in 1801 – was this a money making speculation?  Perhaps some future discovery will give a cue.  There is however no evidence of any input by the Pitts into East Greenwich  … except for one thing.

The name of the pub is The Pilot. This has usually been taken to mean that 'pilots' used the 'pilots causeway' at the end of the present road, Riverway.  The causeway was licensed to George Russell by the City Conservators in 1801.  It was known merely as the 'Causeway in Bugsby's Hole'.  There is no mention of any pilots, nor is there any pilot station, or equipment on this site.  Pilots may have used the causeway, but it was not an official depot.  Working on the assumption that 'The Pilot' is, or was, a person, reference should be made to any dictionary of quotations. Under George Canning you will find 'here's to the Pilot that Weathered the storm' [Song for the inauguration of the Pitt Club, 1802].  'The Pilot' is quite simply William Pitt.  It should also be noted that the song was partly to celebrate the fact that Ceylon had come under the protection of British Crown. The cottages are, of course, called 'Ceylon Place'.

Monday 11 March 2013

The gas works shipping department

The following article comes from the South Metropolitan Gas Company's Co-partnership Journal and was written in June 1929.
A few points -
-   when this article was written East Greenwich Gas Works, was of course a world leader in gas-works terms and would of course be receiving regular shipments of coal to their jetty (now more or less the QE jetty where the river boats call).  However in 1929, the West Greenwich Works (the riverside off Norway Street) would have been a very recent memory. Two Woolwich Works and the Eltham Works would also be remembered. The Roan Street holder site and a number of small manufacturing sites would still be at work.
- please note very carefully the paragraph about the number of boats lost during the Great War.  The article doesn't mention that one of them was brand new, torpedoed on her maiden voyage, through what the company considered to be incompetance by the Navy.  It also doesn't mention that these sailors, who navigated the treacherous north east coast on a daily basis, would have been given a white feather in local pubs because they were not in the forces.
- the final paragraph is about co-partnership. I'm happy to explain about that - but if you insist I will print the WHOLE of my M.Phil Thesis here - so watch out!
- remember too that the collier fleet was coming up the Thames until the early 1980s  - they went because the gas works closed, and then the mines closed, and London industry collapsed - and the boats kept going to the last.
- I will try to load up the pictures. Blogger hates them

" Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

•With a cargo of ivory and apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedar wood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

With a cargo of diamonds, emeralds, amethysts,

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British steamer with a salt caked smoke-stack,

Butting through the channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal, road rails, pig lead,

Firewood, ironware, and cheap tin trays."


There Masefield conjures up visions, the actualities of which were centuries apart in time, and, so he would have you believe, poles asunder aesthetically. Undoubtedly, he visualises most vividly that "dirty British steamer . . . with a cargo of Tyne coal," and one can imagine the curl of his lip as he wrote it. But whilst his description of the general trader is most apposite, we would almost suggest that had he been acquainted with any of the Company's steamers, English poetry might have been the poorer by that delightful verse, for we take a peculiar pride in that we are" reproached" not infrequently by our shipping acquaintances that our ships are" not colliers." "we have no doubt that could the men who manned that quinquereme of Nineveh be resurrected to do a voyage" in, say, the Redriff, they would prefer her modern comfort to any hypothetical romance which may have attached to their former craft-not that the two are incompatible, for romance brought the Redriff to London just as surely as it "brought up the 9.15." One need only glance at the accompanying illustrations and compare an old collier brig with one of our own steamers to appreciate the truth of this; and the accommodation provided for the men, and various other features, are additional evidence that so far as is possible the conditions under which our marine personnel live and carry out their duties are ideal. Certainly, in comparison with the average pre-War collier, they are “not colliers."

And truly the conditions under which the men work need to be ideal, for" butting" down the coast" in the mad March days" is no pleasure trip. On one occasion during the past winter one of the Company's steamers arrived in the Tyne white from stem to stern with ice, and the pilot cutter twice signalled for her name, being unable to believe the first time that it was one of our vessels from 'the south; her anchors were frozen in their hawse-pipes, and she had to manoeuvre in the river until they could be freed. This is not an isolated case, and is cited merely because it is typical of the sort of thing which may be expected in the North Sea during the bad weather in the winter months. The kind of gale described so graphically by St. Paul is the average weekly experience of the North Sea sailor.

Now a heavy sea breaking over a ship's forecastle may make an excellent photograph for the morning newspaper, but it hardly makes the forecastle the most ideal (albeit the usual) part of the ship for the crew's accommodation, and it was because the Company realised this that when, during the War, they decided to purchase four new steamers then in course of construction, they instituted many new departures from the current practice, not the least important of which was the construction of the men's accommodation amidships. All the vessels which have been acquired subsequently have been so arranged, and in 1922 the s.s. Effra (which had, until then, her accommodation in the poop) underwent extensive reconstruction to bring her into line with the rest of the fleet.

The Company's first venture as ship-owners was in 1915 when, owing to the Admiralty requirements, the shortage of tonnage became very acute, and the Board, therefore, decided to acquire and run their own fleet. Hitherto, the coal supplies had been conveyed in chartered vessels. As a commencement, four second hand steamers were purchased, to which others (both new and second-hand) were added later in order to increase the fleet and also to replace the ten steamers lost by enemy action. A generation is arising which has no vivid memories of the War, and it may be fitting to recall that during that period thirty-two men sacrificed their lives in the performance of what they regarded as their everyday duty, a duty so prosaic as the supply of raw material to our Works, and yet, withal, a duty as hazardous as any undertaken by those serving in the official Forces.

At the Armistice only three of the steamers acquired during the War remained: the Effra, the old Redriff and the Lambeth, and the two latter have since been replaced by more modern steamers. The Company's fleet at the present day consists of

s.s. Effra purchased March, 1915
            s.s. Catford built July,1919
            s.s. Old Charlton built  Dec.,1919
            s.s. Brockley built Sept., 1920
            s.s. Camberwell built August, 1924
            s.s. Redriff  built August, 1925
            s.s. Brixton  built August, 1927.

Each of these steamers carries a cargo of approximately 2,200 tons, and makes, on an average, sixty round trips in the year, steaming in that time some 38,000 miles, or, to put it more picturesquely, one-and-a-half times round the globe.
A further innovation, so far as steamers of our class are concerned, was made by the Company in 1927, when each ship was fitted with two extra water-tight bulkheads. The usual practice is for such ships to have only four, one between the fore-peak and the fore-hold, a second between the fore-hold and the engine-room, a third between the engine-room and the after-hold, and a fourth between the after-hold and the deep tank at the stern of the vessel.

These. of course, divide the ship into so many water-tight compartments, and when it is borne in mind that the two holds comprise the greater portion of the ship, it will be seen that should a vessel be holed by collision in either of the holds, the risk of foundering is very great. It will be obvious, therefore, that this risk will be considerably minimised by the fitting of additional water-tight bulkheads, one dividing the fore-hold into two separate compartments, and another similarly dividing the after-hold.
The great advantage of these extra bulkheads was demonstrated recently when the s.s. Catford was run into whilst at anchor in the Thames Estuary in foggy weather, as a result of which she was badly holed in No. 3 hold. A photograph of the damage is shown, which conveys at once an idea of the danger under which ships ply in enclosed waters. Collisions at sea are comparatively infrequent, by far the greater number taking place in river estuaries and when entering or leaving harbour, and, as is well known, the most difficult river to navigate is the Thames.

Doubtless most of our readers think of the Company's steamers as being limited to plying between London and the north-east coast, but-it should not be overlooked that they are equipped to perform service abroad, and the wisdom of this policy was more than justified during the disastrous coal stoppage in 1926 when our steamers regularly ran to the Continent, going not only to Rotterdam and Hamburg, but as far afield as Stettin, in order that coal supplies might be fully maintained.
No article on the Company's ships could possibly be regarded as complete without reference to the inception of Copartnership, and the application of its principles to the marine personnel. At the commencement it met with a very mixed reception, a large proportion of the crews regarding the idea with more than a little suspicion. This may seem strange to those who have been brought up in the Copartnership tradition, but it is readily understood by those who are acquainted with the roving, independent spirit of the average seaman. Gradually, however, the inherent virtue of the principle made its own appeal, and its success may be gauged by the fact that whereas in 1920 there were 264 changes in the personnel, these have become steadily less each year until in 1928 there were only 27. The ships may therefore be regarded as being manned by a permanent personnel, a state of affairs which is distinctly unusual in the shipping world and one which is to the mutual benefit of the men themselves and the Company

Tuesday 5 March 2013

A breach in the sea wall - Greenwich Peninsula


The river is an ever-present reality around the Greenwich Peninsula. Sometimes, when floods seemed likely, that reality became a threat.  

The Peninsula's real name is 'Greenwich Marsh' where a network of sluices was built, probably, in the Middle Ages. Flood defences along the riverbank are always referred to as the 'sea wall' – a term which reflects the potential dangers of the tides. It is difficult to know when the original embankments against the sea were built – since they are mentioned in a document dating back to 1290. In 1528 they are referred to as the banks 'which had anciently been raised'. I would be very interested if anyone reader could tell me anything about the age of the sea wall. Clearly it is a very important structure, and, as the remainder of this article will show, requires the very best of engineering expertise. Without it much of the landscape of Thameside would not exist, as we know it.

Most of the records about the sea walls refer to times when the river had broken through. One early instance is in 1297 when there was a 'certain breach made in the bank betwixt Greenwich and Woolwich by the violence of the tides'. The problem usually was less a question of getting the breach mended than of persuading the locals to pay for the work.

From the 1620s the marshland was managed by the 'Marsh Court' or 'Court of Sewers' consisting of landholders and other interested parties who raised the 'Wall Scot' (the local rate) and employed a small staff. . A very full set of minutes for this body exists from 1625, which detail the care that had to be taken to maintain the marsh properly and keep the river out. This article is about one instance of a breach in the sea wall.

In October 1825 it became clear that a section of sea wall had become very unsafe and was threatening to give way. At the time two plans were made drawn but they don't give enough detail to be able to pinpoint the spot exactly. One appears to show it on the tip of the peninsula but, since the site was said to be 'opposite the Folly House at Blackwall', it may well have been on the western side of the peninsula at the southern end of the old Delta Works site. It appears that the problem was caused by a slight projection which made an irregularity in the line of the sea wall and a breach was threatened.

The Marsh Court had immediate legal problems in dealing with this because, not only was the work urgent and expensive, but members were unsure of their powers to acquire the site and have the remedial work done. Could they go ahead and buy the three acres of land, which were affected? If so how should they raise the money? Or did they need to get a private Act of Parliament first, to give them the powers to do the work? That would be the proper way to proceed but it would take time and the work was urgent. First they looked at 'Callis'. This was Robert Callis' 'Reading upon the Statute of Sewers' originally published in 1685. It had been edited and reissued as recently as 1824 – but perhaps the Greenwich Commission did not have the new edition. They found that that authority was 'full of doubt and contradiction' and so they sought a legal opinion. Unfortunately the barrister who they consulted also gave an opinion that the matter was not clear and he told them to get another opinion. 

The Court also began negotiations with the owners of the site – because there was an issue of land reclamation they felt it was important to acquire it. It was occupied by a Mr. Newman, a butcher who used the land for grazing, and the Commission had had the impression that he was the owner. This was not so. The land was actually owned by a Mr. Powis.
It was decided in due course that it would be simpler and quicker for all the landowners to sign an agreement allowing the commissioners to buy the land and that they would also agree for each of the landowners to pay a sum of money. It was suggested that the actual purchaser should be Morden College, the wealthy charity that already owned a great deal of land in this area - and of course is still a major landowner here.

An estimate for the work was sought from John Rennie. This is the younger Rennie whose more famous father had died four years previously. He was currently involved, among other things, in completing his father's work on London Bridge. In the future he was to undertake many projects involving marshland reclamation in the fens but he had already been appointed as Chief Drainage Engineer for the Eau Brink so that drainage, and perhaps embankment, was already an interest of his.

Two months later Mr. Bicknell, solicitor to the Commissioners gave an update on information obtained to a meeting at the Green Man Pub, then at the top of Blackheath Hill. This meeting was packed with representatives of local interests. 

Rennie reported on what he thought was the cause of the problem. Rennie felt that the great variation in tides throughout the year 'tends to carry the bank away' and that previous remedial work – 'a wooden framing consisting of poles and land ties' together with 'several hundred tons of Kentish ragstone' was making it worse. The wall would have to be rebuilt. The Court was not impressed with the cost of Rennie's estimate and asked if he could find an alternative, and cheaper, way to solve the problem. Rennie made a second site visit and reported a few days later. He said that the only other possible alternative scheme – to use piling would be even more expensive. He then sent in his bill for this second consultation.

Meanwhile the Court had asked if a report could be obtained from Thomas Telford. He was at, the age of seventy, nearing the end of his long career. He was the 'undisputed head of the civil engineering profession in Britain'. He had considerable experience in the Fens and was soon to work with John Rennie Jnr. there. The meeting at the Green Man had, however, asked for the most prestigious engineer that they could.

Telford too made a site visit. He to pointed out that the exposed position of the portion of bank which had caused the problem. The river narrows slightly at this point and he also drew attention to the new West India docks and the number of vessels which were 'frequently moored adjacent to their entrance' constricting the flow of water. The river thus rose with 'increased violence' and was 'continually grinding the soft matter from the bottom'. He felt that there was an imminent danger of a breach in the wall.

Neither engineer mentioned the Blackwall Rock which had been removed from the northern side of the river about twenty years previously.  

Telford, Rennie and the members of the Court of Sewers all thought that the activities of lightermen employed by the City of London and Trinity House were not helping. It was alleged by everyone that material was being removed from the foreshore in this area for use as ballast. The Commission duly wrote to those authorities to point this out asking if this had been going on. Replies, from the Lord Mayor and the Elder Brethren, were, predictably, non-committal.

Telford was however asked to do the work. The archive includes his detailed specification. The work basically consisted of a new earth bank built in such a way as to make the line of the sea wall completely smooth. There was to be a drain at the bottom of the inner slope and the whole structure covered in turf. The work was to be supervised by the Commission's Wall Reeve who received an enhanced salary for the job. Two contractors tendered for the work Thomas Cotsworth of Dover Road, Southwark submitted a price of £2,100 and Simmons of Bromley, Kent, who got the job, for under £900. 

The work was finished by the summer of 1826, apparently without problems, Telford's final inspection took place and his certificate of completion was issued in July. A dry dock was built in this part of the peninsula in the 1870s but otherwise it is likely that the line of the bank is much as Telford left it, although a very considerable amount work has been done to the wall itself in the intervening years.

A year later in July 1827 Telford wrote to remind the Commissioners that he still had not been paid for the job. It was around the same time that Telford, in the company of Rennie; working on the Nene outfall in the Fens was to catch a severe chill, the first sign that he was beginning to fail with age.

Telford was not alone in not having been paid his services – a series of letters had already been received from Rennie. These concerned his bill for £30 in respect of the second estimate, a sum that the Commissioners refused to pay. In October 1826 Rennie had written to say that he had been in Ireland but that his brother, George, had informed him of the outstanding bill. He wrote to them that he had 'charged only what I conceive myself entitled to' and in April 1827 that 'nothing annoys me more than disputes about money matters'. The Commissioners recorded that they 'did not find it necessary to alter their first determination'.    

Within the next few months the Commissioners also received claims for compensation for late payment from the original landowners. This was a Mr.Richard Powis. The original owner had been his father who had just died – Powis wanted £50 as compensation for late payment. 

There is just the suspicion that this archive might have survived because of the arguments over payment. The job must have been a relatively small one for Telford and Rennie, but very important in terms of Thames flood prevention. Few visitors to Greenwich will realise how the care and maintenance by the Marsh Court, its predecessors and successors, over many centuries has kept the land safe and made development of the area today possible.

This article has been prepared from archive material in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers archive plus some material on 'imbanking and draining' in the possession of Woodlands Local History Library. Biographies of Telford and Rennie have also been consulted. It first appeared in Bygone Kent in 1998

[1] L.T.C.Rolt, Thomas Telford. 1958

Saturday 2 March 2013

Woolwich Memorials

Working through the vast pile in the GIHS pending tray - picking something out at random which should have been reviewed some time ago  - a Woolwich Antiquarians Newsletter from November 2011......

In it Jim Marrett wrote about some of the memorials, past and present, in Woolwich ... this was a two part article - and, briefly, what Jim noted included the following  .............. are they still there??

The Royal Military Academy Woolwich Common - now a Durkan Homes housing development.  There used to be two statues there. One was of Napoleon III's son whose body was brought to Woolwich after he had been killed in the Zulu Wars. The other was a seven foot high statue of Queen Victoria.  Both of these are now at Sandhurst.

Greenwich Heritage Centre - there is a stone plaque to Beverley Burford. Beverley was the first manager of the Heritage Centre, and had been Curator at the Plumstead Museum. Her death was sadly premature and she is greatly missed.

Royal Arsenal Gardens - some bits and pieces in this soon to be lost little park - some pottery commemorates the Woolwich pottery industry and a piece like a red dead nettle commemorates the many convicts who died aboard the Woolwich hulks.

Shell Foundry - nearby are the bases of three steam hammers plus a statue of the Duke of Wellington sculpted in 1848 and intended for the Tower of London.

By the Guard Houses near the riverfront is The Assembly of iron men by Peter Burke.

Dial Square - there is a memorial to the founding of the Arsenal Football Club, now in North London.

Woolwich Arsenal Station - on Platform One is a wall frieze showing the manufacture of guns,.

Beresford Square - there is a sculpture of the Great Harry Tudor warship built in Woolwich

Falconwood Cemetery - has a sculpted set of the Woolwich Arms on the gate

The Barracks - The Gunners Triumphal Arch??   and the Crimean War Memorial in front of the Barracks
But a statue by James Barry for the Royal Ordnance Corps in the South African Wars is now in Camberley and the Bhurtpoor gun is now in Larkhill

Under Tescos was the Grant Depot Barracks - which included the tomb of Arif Bey - what happened to that??

Corner of Ha Ha Road and Woolwich Common - an obelisk to Robert John Little - a teetotaller - and it was originally a drinking fountain

Friday 1 March 2013

Docklands History Group

We have now received a note about the February meeting of the Docklands History Group which includes some items of interest to Greenwich

First - they included at the meeting a tribute to Paul Calvocaressi who died last year..  He worked for the GLC and went on to English Heritage where he covered the Greenwich area.  He also wrote an article on Heritage in Docklands for the 1986 'Docklands Book' and an booklet on Conservation in Docklands for Docklands Forum.  A quiet very gentle man he sometimes came to meetings by bike. 

Elliott Wragg talked about the Thames Discovery Programme.  The Programme was looking for and at nautical remains on the Thames foreshore from Brentford in the west to Tripcockness in the East.  It In the Tidal Thames Greater London area they had 370 volunteers and they undertook field work in the summer season.  The Programme ran training courses for field work and details of the courses could be found on their web site.
Major shipbuilding had taken place at Rotherhithe, Deptford and Woolwich.  There was also much ship breaking.  The timbers were used for among other things new ships, firewood, and garden furniture.  At the bottom of Anchor & Hope land at Charlton the remains of a twentieth century pleasure boat had been found.  At the Charlton Castle ship building yard the walls of the yard had been decorated with the figureheads of the ships they had broken up.  Elliott explained that they compared the dimensions of timbers from the 1860s to discover whether they were from a first rate or a second rate ship of the line.  The first class was probably the Duke of Wellington but they were not sure of the second rate although it might be the Edgar. Timber found covered with solid iron was thought to be from a Victorian ironclad.  In 1904/5 Ajax, a first class ship of the line launched in 1882, was broken up at Charlton.

At Tripcockness bulk cargo vessels had been found filled in, to reclaim land.  On examination they had no keel and a strange plank formation and were possibly built by someone who was not a boat builder.  In 1890 an Inspector of Engineering built boats for the Admiralty and these may have been the boats. 
Gus Milne then spoke about the Second World War.  As well as the well known emergency services the Thames Flood Prevention Emergency Repairs Service has been formed to protect London from flooding when the German bombs breached the embankment walls.  The London County Council replaced their Chief Engineer at that time with Sir Thomas Peirson Frank 1930-1946, who set up a rapid response unit.  Born in Yorkshire he was in the Royal engineers in the First World War and attained the rank of Major.  Preparations were made to deal with invasion, gas, bombing and flooding.  A survey of risk was undertaken and between 1940 – 1 Frank obtained the times of Spring tides from the Admiralty.  The tide tables were classified top secret and only given to a limited number of people.  He set up depots at Battersea, Southwark, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich, so that teams could get to any wall breaches quickly to carry out emergency repairs.  A skeleton  staff was maintained at the depots and at high tide it was boosted with road gangs.  The problem was that the filling in of bomb damage to the roads was also important so the Royal Engineers were drafted in to help. The river walls were hit 121 times between 1940-1. There could be 80 strikes during one night and the Doodlebugs created 15 holes,  while the V2s created three gaps. In case any of the permanent bridges were put out of action by enemy bombs, three emergency bridges were build over the Thames, one being at Battersea.
The Metropolitan Record Books show that there were three types of repair, emergency repair, temporary repairs and permanent repair, the latter paid for by the owner.  The emergency repairs usually involved using raked up rubble to form a dam.  The temporary repairs would be the building up of a defence wall, originally with sandbags but later on with bags full of concrete which set under water.  The bags behind Dowgate Stairs survived until last year when the stairs were replaced.  The repaired sites had to be monitored.  Windows had to be filled in where, if a building was blown up, the water might gain access through the resulting hole.

The first raid breached the roof of the Greenwich foot tunnel, which was pumped out and patched with iron collars, visible today.  It was in use again within three months.  On the embankment you can see where the wall by the Victoria Embankment Gardens has been concreted.  It was holed three feet below the standard level assessed as needing to be solid wall to protect the House of Lords from flooding.  On the Isle of Dogs you can see the hole where a doodlebug landed on the concrete ramp built by Brunel to launch the Great Eastern. 
In order to avoid alerting the Germans to the risk to London, the service never received the publicity it deserved.  There is no memorial to Frank but surely he deserves one.

© Sally Mashiter 

The Docklands History Group programme for the rest of the year is:

Wednesday 6th March
Evening Talk Maritime Greenhithe Part 2 by David Challis – postponed, replacement talk to be announced.
Saturday 23 March
Whaling Symposium
Wednesday 3 April
Evening Talk Behind the Jubilee Flotilla by Martin Garside from the PLA
Wednesday 1 May
Evening Talk Thurrock’s Tales of the Riverside by Jonathan Catton Heritage & Museum Officer, Thurrock Museum
Wednesday 5 June
Meet at 6 pm at Hanover Stairs Rotherhithe, between Canon Beck Road and Isambard Place, for a walk on the foreshore led by Gus Milne and Elott Wragg.  The end point will be Fountain Stairs which are at the bottom of Wilson Grove.  (Wellington boots needed.)
Wednesday 3  July
Annual General Meeting followed by a talk by Chris Everett
Wednesday 7 August
Wednesday 4 September
Evening Talk “Improvement in the Environment of the Tidal Thames” by Nichie Jenkins or Tanya Houston
Wednesday 2  October
Evening Talk “Charles Dupin’s Writings on London’s Commercial Power, industries, port facilities and dockyards”   by Alex Werner Head of History Collections Museum of London.
Wednesday 6 November
Evening Talk The Society of East India Commanders and the Poplar Fund by Tony Fuller
Wednesday 4 December
Evening Christmas Social

They meet on the first Wednesday evening of each month, excluding January. New members and visitors are very welcome. A £2 donation is suggested from visitors. Talks are held at the Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay, Hertsmere Road, London E14 4AL, starting at 5.30pm for 6pm and ending at 8pm. The Museum is in a converted West India Docks warehouse, just north of Canary Wharf. Should you arrive late and the Museum main door is closed, there is a staffed entrance called the ‘schools entrance’ at the back on Hertsmere Road, down a few steps. You will need to knock.