GREENWICH AND DEPTFORD COPPERAS
ELIZABETH PEARSON AS A GIRL
In the late eighteenth century Charles Pearson controlled several, if not all of the, copperas works along the Thames and Medway estuaries.
Charles had a haberdashery business in Fleet Street - said to be at no.169 on the corner of Red Lion Court, although a drawing of 1829 shows Pearson's 'hosiery warehouse' at 475 Strand on the corner of Lancaster Court. Despite controlling a large part of this very valuable chemical industry the haberdashery business seems to have continued.
In "The Story of Copperas and the Castle", Geoffrey Pike has described Charles Pearson's works in Whitstable and Tankerton and the life of his family there. Charles had four children, Charles, Clara, Amelia and Elizabeth and at Tankerton he built a 'tower' – which has evolved into the building now known as 'Tankerton Castle' - the local commmunity centre.
The family did not live only in Tankerton – but spent part of the time in London at the Fleet Street premises, and some time in Greenwich at Ravensbourne House. Charles, and his son Charles, were both to become closely involved in Greenwich politics, and, to some extent in other industries in the neighbourhood.
Charles Pearson seems to have owned, and lived, at Ravensbourne House from the time he married Elizabeth Radford in 1780. We know very little about the house then except that it was said to have been 'Tudor'. It was somewhere in Lamb Lane – today Bardslay Lane – between Greenwich Town Centre and Deptford Creek. However, there is some confusion over through some entries in a diary kept by one of Charles Pearson's children.
Most of what we know the family and their daily life comes from a diary kept in the early nineteenth century by Charles's daughter Elizabeth. She had been born in 1781 in Tankerton and named after her mother. She kept a diary for a couple of years in her early twenties and began it again in her early forties. In it she detailed her life as the family moved between their various homes. Geoffrey Pike quoted a number of extracts from it to illustrate her life in Tankerton and Whitstable – perhaps one day someone will do the same for the time she spent in the City of London. Elizabeth spent a considerable amount of her life in Greenwich – although sometimes the entries to not always make it clear exactly which of her homes she is describing. Unfortunately as a young lady she had very little to do with copperas manufacture!
The puzzle over 'Ravensbourne House' arises through one of the earliest references in Elizabeth's Diary which describes the 'old mansion at Deptford' – on the west bank of the Creek. Mrs. Walsh, who owns the Diary, assumes that this was Ravensbourne House, which was, of course, in Greenwich on the east bank.
It is quite clear from the records that Charles Pearson owned copperas beds on both banks of the river – hence in 1813 he was rated in Deptford for 'copperas works, land , garden, wharf and mill" and in Greenwich in 1810 for 'Dwelling house, two coal houses, copperas works'. We must assume that Elizabeth knew what she meant by 'Deptford' and 'Greenwich'. It is, of course, possible that there were big houses on both sides of the Creek built for the owners or managers of the two copperas works since they had originally been in different ownership. The 1678 plan of the Deptford works certainly seems to show a big house on there, as does the 1777 plan of the area of the Greenwich works. Without other evidence however this may be a problem which remains unresolved.
Elizabeth says in her Diary that the 'old mansion at Deptford' was burnt down in January 1797 and that it had only been insured a few days previously with the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company, but that 'the directors very honourably paid although the policy had not been completed'. In correspondence Mrs. Walsh has commented to me that the Phoenix Company was a 'recent diversification' for Charles Pearson, and she adds 'are we to draw any conclusions?'.
The house was then rebuilt. A year later Elizabeth recorded a visit to see the 'house at Deptford' and three years later, in 1804, she noted that the new house was almost finished and 'the eagles and lamps have been replaced and old fashioned glass put up again, not withstanding great opposition'. Sadly, she doesn't say who the opposition came from! She adds that all the painting had been done by 'Samuel Grimwade, my fathers' manager at Deptford'.
Mrs. Walsh, in correspondence, referred to a painting of the house in possession of some members of her family and described it, from memory as 'a Jane Austin Gothic villa' – and I am not really clear where the eagles might have been on a building of that nature. The exact location of the house is far from clear on any of the maps and plans available but it seems to have been somewhere near the Creekside – and in an increasingly industrial setting an unlikely location for pretty Georgian villa.
On the 1741 Roque Map two buildings are shown out on the marshland beyond Greenwich church. This may be in the same place as the tiny building drawn on the Metcalfe Estate Plan of 1777 and again appears on the 1832 Morris Map of Greenwich but by then it is at the end of newly built Claremont Street, The building does not appear on the Greenwich Tithe map of the mid 1840s nor on the 1861 Ordnance Survey. By the 1860s the road pattern which exists today had been set but the road names have changed – 'Ravensbourne Street' is now 'Norman Road' and 'Pearson Street' has come 'Haddo Street'. This seems to accord with the local directories which show that Charles Pearson had moved to Maze Hill by the mid-1830s and presmably his new Ravensbourne House fell to an incoming tide of housing and industry.
In the years before 1805 the Pearson family travelled to Greenwich from Tankerton or from London in various ways – usually by public transport. Elizabeth describes how she, her two sisters, and their mother together with a Mrs.Johnson took the stage coach to Greenwich. Brother Charles, together with 'Jane the Cook and James the Porter' walked. The unfortunate James had to walk back again to London after tea!
A few months later Elizabeth, Clara and their mother, took the 'four o'clock Bromley Stage'. This did not go all the way to Greenwich but dropped them somewhere in Deptford from whence they walked to the Creek, and down along the Deptford bank to take the ferry. This ferry ran across the Ravensbourne in the area of today's Creek Bridge and took the family across to Greenwich.
Coming to Greenwich from Tankerton they came by 'post chaise' … 'Father, mother, Amelia, Clara, Charles and Mr.Smith and I .. nine hours in coming .. had tea… I and Amelia to bed with headache'.
On another occasion Elizabeth and her mother left Greenwich in order to visit friends at Stamford Hill in north London by a 'hackney coach'.
At the same Charles Pearson, his son Charles, and Thomas Tilson went off to Walton on the Naze in Essex in a 'post chaise'. Walton was of course another place from which copperas stones could be obtained. Five years later in 1810 John Basley White, the cement manufacturer, recorded that he had made agreement with a 'Mr.Pearson who has a large copperas works and lives his Greenwich.. . and his steward Mr. Tilson'. Charles Pearson had in fact also acquired the manor of Walton, in the same way that he had Tankerton – a couple of years before this he had been taken ill there 'with the ague' and been brought home 'in a chaise' by his teenage son.
The Tilson family were close to the Pearsons and were to remain so. One of the first entries which Elizabeth made in her diary was a reference to 'Aunt Tilson' of Islington. In 1804 she had visited young Mrs. Tilson, looking 'prettier than ever' in bed after the birth of little Tom. A year or so later they were visited by 'the maid with little Tom Tilson, who roared all the time'.
Tom Tilson was to grow up and, like his father, provide many useful services to the growing Pearson business - and to the south London gas industry.
In these years Charles Pearson was mixing with a wide and influential body of society. Elizabeth recorded what she could, but very much from the sidelines. In 1801 she notes the proclamation of peace and the large party which she attended, full of people that she hardly knew – Barclays, Grevilles, Charringtons, Pepins - many of them names to be associated with the Whigs, with the Quakers and anti-slavery movement. Many of them extremely wealthy families.
One of the people present was 'a little old woman, introduced as Buonaparte's aunt from Sir William Scott's'. Whoever the old woman might have been, Sir William Scott was a very important man – a maritime lawyer, privy councillor and brother to the Lord Chancellor – which shows the sort of society into which Charles Pearson was moving.
Much of what Elizabeth noted was however going on at some distance from her. She rubbed shoulders with society, and with events, but mostly at second hand. She met John Russell, RA, in Greenwich and heard him describe his pictures. On another occasion she saw Lt.Col. George Landmann, at church in Greenwich, and she noted Col.Despard's trial for High Treason.
There were family outings - twice, in 1801 and in 1804, Elizabeth was taken with her sisters to see the newly built West India Docks. They regularly visited Greenwich Park and not only for their regular afternoon walks.
In 1804 they went to see a display of 'pikemen' undertaking exercises and a few months later noted 'there has been a great deal of music in the Park all day, I think we were foolish in not going to see it'.
On many occasions Elizabeth recorded walks around Greenwich – walks which are still easily followed today and indeed are along routes along which local people might well still take on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. On her twenty-third birthday she, together with friends and her brother and sisters, went for a 'walk.. through the Park and Vanburgh Fields and down Crooms Hill to home'. A few months later they ventured further afield to go 'through the Park to the ruins of Sir Gregory Page's' - that is to the ruins of the vast and opulent Wricklemarsh House which had been sold and stripped bare some twenty years earlier. It had stood on the site of today's Cator Estate in Blackheath – and a considerable walk from Elizabeth's home at Creekside.
Nearer and more typical of her excursions was 'through the Park, Heath, Maize Hill and Hospital'. By the Hospital she meant, of course, the buildings which were until recently the Royal Naval College and perhaps we should also note that she always spells 'Maze Hill' with an 'i' – as 'Maize Hill'.
Such walks were of course also of a social nature. Elizabeth might describe a 'pleasant walk .. through the Hospital, up Maize Hill by Woodlands.…. met Mr. Edmeades and Mrs. Johnson' - Woodlands most likely being the farmland and quarries covering today's Restell Close, rather than Woodlands House, further on. On another occasion 'upon the Heath went over a house late in the occupation of Lady Stewart' – which goes to show there is nothing so interesting as poking about in someone else's remains.
One day Elizabeth noted that her brother Charles had gone to London to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – but nothing so interesting for her. That same day she was to go to tea with 'Mr. Holmes of Westcombe Park'. I know nothing about Mr.Holmes except that for some years he was tenant of Westcombe House on the corner of what is Westcombe Park Road and Vanburgh Hill – my own home is built on what was the gardens.
Some visitors to the house were clearly other young people. One regular visitor in 1804 was Philip Horn. Who was he? She gives no details. Elizabeth never married, but it would be sad to think that she never had a suitor, that there never was man in her life. There was also a 'Mr.Platt' who came 'both Sunday and Monday' – and on other occasions to see 'Eamy' – fourteen year old sister Amelia. Once again there are no details given, he could as well have been the doctor on a medical visit as much as follower. There was also a young man, Joseph Fabian, who seems to spent a suspiciously large amount of time with the girls.
Philip Horn's visits to the family however seem purely domestic and very relaxed, almost as if he was accepted as a family. In March 1804 they breakfasted, he came back again 'for tea and read. .. mother ironed and pleated frills … supped'. A few days later Philip went for a walk with brother Charles .. and then 'Philip and Charles went to see the play' . The next day a . 'very pleasant walk through the Park, Maize Hill, Hospital … worked, dined'. Philip was eventually seen off on his way to Plymouth – perhaps he was to become a sailor and left Elizabeth's life for good. Future references were no longer to visits from Philip but from a Frances Horn and her father, clearly a friend with whom Elizabeth corresponded.
Much of Elizabeth's life was spent in purely domestic tasks .. 'mended stockings' … broke sugar'. .. 'went to the butchers'. .. 'altered sleeves of black gown' . In evenings it was 'whist with Mrs. Hines against father and mother' .. or 'whist with Mrs. Johnson against father and mother .. lost nine pence'.
At one point she admits 'whist almost every night till I'm tired of it .. reading my only pleasure'. Her reading was, however, hardly any more lively 'Newton on the Prophecies' .. 'Prideaux's Connection' .. 'Grecian History' or, at the best 'Peregrine Pickle".
It is only to easy to reach the obvious conclusion that it was the men of the family who had all excitements. Elizabeth's life of idleness seems so boring at times that, despite her comfortable circumstances, it is easy to feel sorry for her.
When Elizabeth's diary resumed in the 1820s, although her life had not changed materially, she was clearly more independent and living in a world of exciting changes. Her father's business in Greenwich was changing too and as the copperas industry began to lose its momentum he began to diversify. These changes were to reflect strongly on the area around Deptford Creek.
This draws strongly on material from Elizabeth Pearson's diary. I would of course like to thank Mrs. Walsh - with whom I have now lost touch and the whereabouts of which I do not know. A photocopy of the MS was deposited in Whitstable but can now not be found. I would like to thank both Barbara Ludlow and Geoffrey Pike for copies of their notes taken from the MS.