Early Indications of Shipbuilding in the Greenwich Area
By John Fox
WT Vincent in his book ‘The records of the Woolwich District’ written in the 1890s, when writing about Abbey Wood, tells us that “With the deep hollow close by the ruins of the old abbey, tradition has always associated it with the name ‘The Roman Dock’ and although tradition alone in is a bad witness, tradition supported by collateral facts is always receivable as evidence”. It may be thought he laid more emphasis on oral tradition than actual fact. But the two ponds which are there now and shown on Ordnance Survey maps of the time Mr. Vincent was writing, indicate that here the Marsh did extend into the hills of Abbey Wood.
On a map drawn about 1580 a considerable tidal stream or river it shown entering the Thames at a spot west of Crossness Point. This river flowed from its source somewhere in Eltham, around the western part of Welling, roughly following the route of the present Wickham Lane to enter the Thames. It dried up when further enclosures of Plumstead marshes kept out the tides. On this map a branch of the stream is shown diverging eastwards towards Lesnes Abbey. Mr. Vincent suggests that in Roman times a naval station was built at the end of this branch where they constructed their ships of war and commerce. he suggests that at low tide a blockage was put across the stream, someone near the present road, thus making a tidal dry dock in which to build their craft
The hollow written about is less than 100 yards west of the Abbey and I would guess it to be 20 feet deep. Mr. Vincent writes “the dock is partly a natural slade and partly excavation. There are manifest signs of it having been deepened in places and the angular protuberances on the banks which are like nothing in nature”. But I’m afraid that all any present visitor will see is a landscaped valley, all sign that it’s sloping sides have ever been anything other than lawns have been removed. By its size it is obvious that a large stream must have flowed here once
All this is rather fanciful without proof. Only a respected author’s hypothesis about a local place name. Without firm evidence let us examine the likelihood of shipbuilding ever having taken place here. there is no record are there any savant examining the site before Mr. Vincent‘s time. Maybe when local people again to call it ‘The Roman Dock’ more evidence was to be seen. It is known that Roman activity was extensive in the area; a fort where Woolwich Power Station is, or was, burials in Wickham Lane, perhaps building the river wall around Plumstead marshes, and a road from Bostall Heath to Erith that ran close to Lesnes Abbey.
Primitive boats have been dug out of the peat in the area. Whilst this doesn’t prove they were built here it does indicate that the marsh might have been flooded when the vessels originally floundered.
A builder of ships must consider the nearness of the raw material for their construction. an example of this is the London ship building industry of the last century going to the northern part of the country not only because of the abundance of cheap labour but to be near the iron and steel manufacturing centres. Two thousand years before this a Roman shipbuilder would face exactly the same problems. He would need a tidal effected stretch of water near to a plentiful supply of wood with which to build his ship. Marshy areas close to the City were probably denuded of timber to provide firewood for its population by then and if he went up river the effect of the tide would lessen. Going down river on the north bank stretched the marshes of Essex, looking at the small amount of marshland remaining today at Barking and Rainham one could see the marsh supports few trees suitable for the building of ships. It was the same on the south bank until reaching Greenwich; here the hills come close to the river, bug the uplands being on the infertile Blackheath Beds the material of which ships were built grew sparsely. The trees which covered Shooters Hill showed promise but it was two miles from the river. When our shipbuilder went up the river that flows into the Thames at Crossness Point he would come to a branch of the river that flowed from tree-covered hills. It was everything the shipbuilder was seeking. The south bank held a plentiful supply of wood; the stream flowed through a valley that could be dammed and with little effort, here would be an ideal place to build wooden boats
The Augustinian Canons who built Lesnes Abbey in 1179 of stone, said to have been brought from Caen in Normandy, were respected for building only where the building materials could be transported to the intended building easily. If they had unloaded their stone on the banks of the River Thames the 1 1/2 miles through marshland to the site of the Abbey would have been an almost impassable barrier, but not if they downloaded their stone onto the banks of the stream that almost reached the site of the Abbey, that had been deepened and its banks shored up by long ago shipbuilders. Then the stone laden boats could be dragged up the stream at high tide and the materials unloaded. This way the transport of building material by boat was possible
This does not attempt to present conclusive evidence that early ship building in the area took place in Roman times, after so many years I doubt if such confirmation could be found. But there are so many pointers that lead towards the conclusion that the valley just west of Lesnes Abbey would have been high on the list of possible ship building sites close to London in the Roman era. although just the mention the Vincent‘s name will immediately raise doubts in any local historian’s mind, to sum up I can do no than to quote his final thoughts on the question of The R Dock' must be conceded that the Romans, the Danes, and other early shipwrights would build their vessels somewhere near the capital, and, apart from tradition and probability I would ask if anyone can find a situation and a confirmation so suitable and convenient for the purpose as this” needless to say W.T. Vincent was a strong advocate that here in Abbey Wood the earliest indications of ship building in the Greenwich area are to be found.
This first appeared in the GIHS newsletter for December 1998