IN DEPTH DEPTFORD
CRADLE OF THE BRITISH NAVY
by Allan Burnett (part 2)
Deptford's shipbuilding industries attracted a rich variety of personalities – the best known being Samuel Pepys, the first Secretary of the Admiralty, President of the Royal Society, and twice Master of Trinity House. His name is preserved in a huge housing estate, opened in 1966 by Lord Louis Mountbatten on the site of the old Navy Victualling Yard adjacent to the Dockyard.
Deptford was also the birthplace of the notable Pett family. Phineas Pett born in 1570 was the keeper of the Plank Yard at Chatham when he was thirty years of age. He became the first Master of the Shipwrights Company and built 'Sovereign of the Seas' at Woolwich when he was sixty-seven. This ship was 232 feet long, had a 49-foot beam, and was 1,647 tons with eleven anchors. She was nicknamed the 'Golden Devil' by the Dutch. Phineas's son, Sir Phineas, was Commissioner of the Navy in 1667 when the Dutch ships, led by de Ruyter sailed up the Medway and attacked Chatham. Sir Phineas was impeached by the House of Commons for inattention to duty, but the charges were later dropped. His cousin, Peter Pett, is credited with the introduction of the frigate to the British Navy – the first being 'Constant Warwick' in 1649.
For over forty years John Evelyn, the diarist, dramatist, City Commissioner and promoter of the Royal Society lived at Sayes Court, in Deptford – a manor house with a chequered history. The manor of West Greenwich had been granted to the Bishop of Liseux under William the Conqueror. The property passed through the female line to the wife of Geoffrey de Saye and in 1612 it was given to Richard Brown, Ambassador to Paris. His great granddaughter married John Evelyn – which is how this celebrity came to Sayes Court, as a tenant in 1648 and then by purchasing it for £3,500 in 1652. After 1694 his tenant was Captain (later Admiral) Benbow and then Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, who came to Deptford to learn the art of shipbuilding. Most of Sayes Court was demolished in 1728 but the remnant served as a workhouse until 1881. The site of Sayes Court is now a small park, Sayes Park – situated behind a public house called the John Evelyn
The centuries following the founding of the Dockyard at Deptford saw a great expansion in trade and exploration. Joint Stock Companies were formed to finance voyages of discovery - one of the earliest being the Russia Company in 1553 to try and find a north east route to China. Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor sailed from Deptford and although Willoughby perished, Chancellor went on to discover the White Sea, visit Moscow and open up trade with Russia.
In 1576 Sir Martin Frobisher led an expedition to look for the north west passage – it is more than likely that the expedition was fitted out at Deptford.
In the following year Drake left for his trans-world voyage of discovery in 'Pelican'. The Pelican sailed back to Deptford and on 4th April 1581 Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and the ship renamed 'Golden Hinde'. It was permanently preserved – but eventually destroyed.
In the year Drake was knighted the East India Company fitted out its first expedition. The company obtained its charter from Queen Elizabeth. With the financial rewards of an expedition to the east, the companies bought storehouses at Deptford, on the same site later used by the General Steam Navigation Company as a repair yard, and later occupied by a road haulage firm – the narrow approach road is still known as Stowage but is now part of a housing estate.
In 1607 the East India company launched its first ship 'Trades Increase' - at 1,200 tons the largest of her day and Henry Hudson left from Deptford in the 80 ton Hopewell on this first voyage for the English Muscovy Company to seek in vain, a north west passage across the north pole to China and the far east. Instead he found Spitzbergen and the fishery trade. In 1768 a former Whitby collier left Deptford with a Lt. James Cook in command. Three years later HMS Endeavour returned having rounded the Horn and discovered New Zealand. Thus Deptford has an assured place in maritime history – but no hint of this is available to the tourist. I sometimes wonder if the local authority is aware of its' heritage!
The run-down of the Dockyard co-incided with the decline of the sailing ships. It's resources could not cope with iron and steam. It closed for the first time in 1844 and finally closed in 1869. The last ship to be built at the Royal Dockyard was a 1,322 ton corvette, the steamship 'Druid'. The site was bought by the City of London to serve as a cattle market, live cattle being imported from North America and slaughtered, but trade declined due to improvements in refrigeration and the market closed in 1914. Thereafter it was an army reserve depot and then became Convoy's Wharf – and is now due for change again. The main imports recently have been paper from the Baltic, general cargo from nearby European ports and the transhipment of grain – a far cry from the rumbustious days of Drake, Cook and Hudson.
This article appeared on the January 2001 GIH Newsletter