Monday, 22 January 2018

Copperas in Greenwich and Deptford Part 1

Copperas manufacture was an important industry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the earliest works were in Greenwich and Deptford

I wrote a lot about this industry nearly 20 years ago - but I guess very few people will have seen the articles - or be able to access them now (refs later). 

So - if you want to know what copperas is, and how it was made in the 17th century - and why it was important -  read on!  This is a four part article - and this is Part I and it tells you bit about some of the posher people involved.


There were several copperas works along the banks of the Thames and Medway.  I am hoping in this – and following – three articles to extend that story to Greenwich – and eventually to add in cavaliers, slavery, 'moles', stately homes, young ladies and other things of that sort!

The manufacture of copperas was a major chemical industry before the industrial revolution.  It was a way of making a black dye as well as vitriol (sulphuric acid) and a number of other chemicals – but more of that later.

It was made from stones picked up from the shore along the Thames estuary and there was a concentration of works in the Whitstable area and on Sheppey.  A few years ago archaeologist have undertook digs for its remains - particularly in Whitstable and Tankerton. As a result a number of articles were written.

Copperas works were not only found at the sea side – they were to be found right up the Thames with a large group in Greenwich, Deptford and Blackwall. These works probably dated from the mid-seventeenth century, or, maybe, even earlier. The Deptford works, about which most is known, appear to have been promoted by a particularly busy Royalist entrepreneur  - a Sir Nicholas Crispe.

The Crispe family were well known in the Thanet area. In the seventeenth century a Crispe family lived at Quex House, near Birchington , and they were certainly involved in the copperas industry in Thanet. In the 1550s a Sir Henry Crispe from Quex had had an interest in a copperas works at Stonar - where the huge Pfizer chemical factory complex stood until its recent closure.

There was a later Quex based Sir Henry who had an exciting life during the Civil War when he was captured and held to ransom in Flanders. There were certainly some later links between this family and the Deptford copperas works however, but  - this is the confusing point - I do not think that the Deptford 'Sir Nicholas Crispe' had anything to do with Quex.

This other Sir Nicholas Crispe might have had Kentish relations – but he came from Gloucestershire. His family had originated in Leicestershire but Nicholas' father and co-partner, Ellis Crispe, came from Marshfield, near Bath, and was an Alderman of the City of London. He was also a member of the Worshipful Company of Salters – a City Livery Company whose original interests had been in the manufacture and distribution of salt but which had expanded to become involved in what we would describe as the chemical industry. Indeed, the Company now maintains the Salters Institute of Industrial Chemistry.

Nicholas was one of three sons – his brother Toby was a well known and controversial cleric who was an 'antionomian'. The Crispe family had not forgotten their roots in the Gloucestershire countryside and almshouses which they donated in 1612 still stand in the village of Marshfield.

At the age of 20 our Nicholas had set off for Africa and was responsible for the first permanent English settlement at Kormantin, in today's Ghana.  I am very, very sorry to say that he set this up in the 1630s as a slave depot and as a stopping place for East India Company ships. He and his partners traded on the East African coast to the exclusion of all others and in 1621 Charles I, gave him an exclusive right to trade on the Guinea Coast and he set up a trading organisation known as the Guinea Company. He made a great deal of money.

In the early 1630s Crispe rented a piece of land in Deptford alongside the Ravensbourne river in an area known as 'Broomfield' and this is most probably where the copperas works was built. It is the area on the Deptford side of Creek Bridge.   It was part of the estate which later belonged to John Evelyn, the diarist, however at the time when Crispe first leased the land Evelyn had no connection with Deptford and Crispe's arrangement was probably with Evelyn's father-in-law, Richard Browne, who owned the estate before the Civil War. We should note that the Evelyn family had made a fortune from the manufacture of saltpetre - for use in gunpowder!

Something else happened in Deptford which probably had some relevance to the copperas industry but which had much wider importance. The copperas liquor needs to be heated and Crispe used 'Newcastle Coals' to do this but it seems likely that a more efficient fuel was needed and tried. In 1636 Thomas Peyton 'of Deptford' was granted a patent for 'charking sea coals'. 'Sea coals' – is coal which has come from North East England and arrived up river by ship and 'charking' sounds very much like the process which would be needed to turn coal into coke and thus provide a fuel which was capable of producing a greater heat.

It is not clear exactly who Thomas Peyton was but he was someone who probably knew Deptford well. That could have been Sir Thomas Peyton of Knowlton near Chillenden who may have had an interest in property in the Mottingham area. He certainly had an interest in coal supplies to London since he acquired the right to levy customs on that for the price of £2,000.

In 1636 Peyton was in his early twenties and recently married. His wedding had taken place at St.Bride's Church in the City of London so it likely that he had a London home as well as that in Thanet.  John Evelyn knew him, and described visits by mutual friends and social visits in the early 1650s. Peyton had been involved in one of the many skirmishes of the Civil War when he was appointed Lt.General of a party of 6,000 horsemen and 1,000 foot soldiers. At Deptford this force met Fairfax who had four regiments of horsemen and three regiments of infantry. Battles ensued at Northfleet and Maidstone. 

Was this Thomas Peyton from Knowlton the man who invented coke? It was a very important step because this is the first occasion on which the preparation of something we all take from granted - coke made from coal – has been traced. Was he doing this in order to use the coke to heat the copperas liquid for Nicholas Crispe?

At the beginning of the Civil War Nicholas Crispe had made so much money that he contracted with the King for a 'customs farm' - that is he bought the right to administer the customs and make a profit from them. In 1641 he was knighted and became a Member of Parliament. He was however expelled from the House of Commons because of his monopolies – and one of the accusations made was about his manufacture of 'copperas stones'. Over the next four years he devoted himself to the Royalist cause, raising regiments, providing ships, undergoing a court martial and so on.

Eventually he was pardoned and settled in Hammersmith where he began to experiment with new ways of making bricks.  He tried to sell some of his bricks to John Evelyn and later provided the bricks for the garden of the Royal Palace at Greenwich.

In 1655 Crispe visited John Evelyn at Deptford – to make a suggestion about a 'mole to be made at Sayes Court'.  A  'mole' being some sort of breakwater or pier in the river. There are a number of letters from Crispe which Evelyn filed and kept – and they show that Crispe had really terrible hand-writing. The letters describe a number of visits which Crispe made to Sayes Court in order to discuss his 'mole' but on each occasion - Evelyn was apparently always 'out'.

By 1656 more coke was again being made in Greenwich but by a different Royalist entrepreneur. Evelyn, crossing the river by the Greenwich Ferry 'saw Sir John Winter's new project of charring sea coale'.  Winter (or Wynter) is better known in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. His grandfather was Admiral William Wynter, the associate of Sir Francis Drake, while another relation was one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. The family had used their wealth to buy land at Lydney in Gloucestershire where they exploited the coal and timber.

In 1655 Winter was actually incarcerated in the Tower of London for his activities in Ireland in support of the King – but, although his estates had been confiscated, he seems to have been allowed out to further his business interests in Greenwich and Deptford. Through this he gained a lucrative monopoly in coke manufacture.

I know of no connection between Winter and Peyton – or between either of them and Nicholas Crispe – but, in the relatively small world of the 1600s, it is almost impossible that they did not know each other, given their devotion to two common causes – that of the King and the exploitation of natural resources.

To return to Deptford and the copperas works. In 1658 a lease on the site seems to have been reviewed and put in the names of Crispe's three sons, Ellis, Nicholas and Samuel. The document says that the site is 'part Broomfield, called Great Crane Meadow' and had been in the previous possession of Evelyn and his wife's grandfather, Thomas Prettiman. 

There is however another and very interesting name on the lease – that of 'Thomas Kilsey'.  I was unable to decipher the writing on the lease which gave Kilsey's address which was 'Lower ---- Kent". What is the missing word – Lower Halstow or even Lower Goldstones? 'Goldstones often means copperas!

In the Civil War Kelsey was a Cromwellian General whose remit in the Parliamentry forces was the whole of Kent and Surrey. He was undoubtedly a connection of the Kelsey family who lived in Greenwich and whose most famous member was Henry Kelsey, the explorer who went to America with the Hudson Bay Company in the 1680s.  Were the Kelsey family  involved in the copperas works?

Sir Nicholas Crispe remained busy in Kent, as elsewhere. In 1660 he set up  the culture of madder (a plant yielding a red dye)in Dartford and then, back in prison for non-payment of debt, he petitioned for his release - giving his promotion of the copperas works as an example of his usefulness to society.

In 1662 he was back and visiting John Evelyn, this time with a 'project for a receptacle for ships'.  This idea was also noted Samuel Pepys who discussed the project with Crispe and noted that it entailed a dock at Deptford to take '200 ships of sail'.  Evelyn also noted Crispe's 'success with distilling'.

Nicholas Crispe died in 1666 – still selling bricks at 12/- per 1,000. His heart is buried in St.Paul's Hammersmith as part of a monument to the memory of Charles I. He left three sons who seem each to have inherited a third of the copperas works. This was, as well will see, to complicate the ownership considerably as time went on. One of the sons, Ellis, died not long after  - according to Samuel Pepys the cause of Ellis' death was 'eating cucumbers.

Nicholas Crispe, another son, was also a 'customs farmer' for the Port of London, and he seems to have taken on the Deptford copperas works. As part of the new regime there seems to have been some sort of evaluation and perhaps modernisation work. A plan was made of the works in 1674 which shows that it was sited on Deptford Creek and covered the area from the Creek to slightly north of Creek Road. There were a number of buildings on the site and a small dock.

One of Crispe's friends was a Daniel Colwell, who was a member of the newly formed Royal Society. Colwell went down to Deptford copperas works and wrote an article about it for the Society. This is a very valuable document because it outlines in detail the set up and working practice of the works in the seventeenth century – and has often been used as an example when other works have been examined.

Colwall's description has recently been by archaeologists when looking at the of excavations in Whitstable – I would recommend articles about this in the Spring 1999 Industrial Archaeology News by Tim Allen, and on web pages put out by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Copperas is made from stones picked up along the shoreline and cliff faces – and more of that later.
Colwell described how the stones were put into 'beds' - trenches of about a hundred by fifteen feet and twelve feet deep.  They were then covered with rain water and left there for several years until the liquid became concentrated enough to dissolve a boiled egg in three minutes! This liquid was then boiled to crystallisation and could be used as a black dye. Strongly heated, it produced 'oil of vitriol', leaving behind another dye, Venetian red.

Meanwhile Nicholas Crispe was consolidating his family's wealth with a fine Kentish residence.  In the early 1680s he bought Squerries Court at Westerham and the fine house which still stands there, and is open regularly to the public, was built by him. He stayed in Westerham for less than twenty years but the house remains as a living symbol of the sort of money made by a family which was prepared to take active sides in the political (and real) battles of the mid-seventeenth century while perfectly prepared to work with the opposition while there was money to be made.

the next article will follow in the next posting.

The above article is an edited and updated version of an article in Bygone Kent Vol.22 No.6

Sources - many and varied
Documents in the Kent and Surrey archives
Documents in the Greenwich local history archive
Pepys Diary
Evelyn's Diary - and the collection of his letters in the British Library
Royal Society Transactions - and some help from their archivist
(and no help from the internet in 2001!!)

Mary Mills 

1 comment:

Julia Gasper said...

Excellent article. Thank you.