Sunday 10 February 2019

Naval Dockyards in Deptford and Woolwich - Conference Report

That excellent organisation, the Naval Dockyards Society, has now produced an important report on a conference held at the National Maritime Museum in 2013 – “500 Years of Deptford and Woolwich Dockyards" - officially the Transactions of the Society (Vol 11 Jan 2019). So what’s inside it?

First paper in the report is by NDS Chair Ann Coats and gives a resume of the history of the dockyards and their subsequent existence. She looks at the current planning processes for both of them – in particular at Deptford where there is still a live planning application whereas Woolwich, as people will know, has had housing on the site for many years. She also looks at what remains from the dockyards including items like the Woolwich Dockyard church which was re-erected in Eltham, were it remains.

Next we have Philip McDougal with a paper entitled the Naval Multiplex of Kentish London - and he’s right, we do need to remember the both the Dockyards were in the County of Kent.  He describes how the establishment of the two Dockyards led to other government owned industrial units being set up in the area = including the ropery at Woolwich and the victualling yard, very much later of course, at Deptford. In Greenwich there were institutions with an emphasis on science and health in the Royal Hospital and the Observatory. He describes how over the centuries changes, not just in society and politically, but also issues like silting in the river led to changes to the Dockyards. He mentions also the importance of the Arsenal to the Navy in supply of Ordnance. This is a detailed paper – and my summary above does it little justice and leaves out much of what he raises.  It leads us to other issues about which we will hopefully hear more in future years.-

Of course the dockyards we’re not the only shipbuilders in this part of London. There were private ship construction yards of Deptford - and of course throughout the surrounding area – ships were built here not just for the Navy but for private companies. Chris Ellmers’s paper was on Deptford’s private shipyards and their relationship to the dockyards between 1790 and 1819. He points out that in the late 18th- early 19th centuries private shipyards in Deptford built not only merchant sailing ships but also warships. He looks at the Dudman’s Yard in Grove Street and Wells and also Barnard in Deptford Green pointing out that they provided one of the nation’s major concentrations of shipbuilding. He gives a great deal of information about these yards and their relationships to the dockyards and how they built large warships.  This is a fascinating paper and easily my favourite in the set. There is a great deal of detail about the ships built and he also discusses the workforce and its skill base. We should not underestimate their contribution to the labour movement. Chris reminds us in discussing workplace organisation that these large workplaces existed here at a time when large factories in other trades elsewhere in the country barely existed.  Chris talks also about ship launches, the impact of the Napoleonic wars, and much else. An important and very interesting paper.

The paper by Peter Cross Rudkin is on John Rennie and the Naval Dockyards 1806- 1821.  It looks at Rennie’s career generally and in particular his role in the dockyards. However, to be honest, it does not say much about Deptford or Woolwich.  it discusses issues like contractors and the context within which Rennie worked in both technical and economic terms but his work at Deptford is described as ‘minor but tricky’ and his work at Woolwich was 'limited'.  However his role as consultant engineer is seen as key in this period.

Mark Stevenson is well known locally as our contact with Historic England. In his paper he looked at the regeneration of the dockyards in a planning context. He also describes his role in the emergence of SHARP which is it an international body which co-ordinates the histories of arsenals and other major historic government military sites manufacturing sites.  He discuss in detail how the planning process has impacted on the two dockyard sites we have locally. This is interesting and extremely informative.

The paper by Duncan Hawkins discusses the archaeological investigations at Convoys Wharf and the work done there. We have of course had a recent detailed report on this work but some this is an important summary of work undertaken at Deptford by the archaeologists

Finally there is a paper by Chris Maseika. People will know Chris from the Shipyards Palace in Deptford. The paper is “Mapping the Built Environment of the former Royal Dockyard at Deptford.  I do think we must very much be grateful to Chris, and Willi, the amount of work they have done on this issue and others. He outlines the changes which have taken place since the closure of the yard but then moves on to a discussion of the architecture and provenance of some of the buildings. He gives much detail about the architectural provenance of officers accommodation and relates it to the development English domestic architecture. This is the fascinating paper which in its originality opens up whole world of possible connections and gives us new insights into the dockyards and their past history - which is not always just about building and repairing warships

This is an important collection of papers about out local Royal Dockyards and raises important issues which are not just about naval ship construction but the influence of them on the society in which we live in today.  We need to be aware that the Naval Dockyards were more than just places visited by Samuel Pepys and where Nelson’s Navy was built but that they had a long existence as workplaces, manufacturing units with a multiplicity of contacts and influences as well a national and international resonance.
Contact Ann Coats for details and copies.


Alan Burkitt-Gray said...

Is this a typo? The conference was in 2013 yet the report has come out now, nearly six years later? How can that happen?

M said...

Don't ask me Alan, I'm only reporting on what I am sent. It is Transactions Jan 2019, Report of Conference April 2013. Perhaps all the people re-wrote their papers and took a long time about it. Whatever! There is some good stuff there