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'.