Tuesday 5 November 2019

Deptford - Cradle of the British Navy

The latest local industry to close down is Convoys – which occupied the site of the old Deptford Dockyard – arguably one of the most important sites in British naval history.  The site is technically in Lewisham Borough (although it is so near the Borough boundary that the road alongside it is in Greenwich!). Can we appeal to any Lewisham based members to keep us all up to date on what is going on at the old Dockyard site – and anyone sitting on any material about the history of the site is very welcome to send it in.

In the meantime here is the first part of an article by a member, Allan Burnett, about Deptford and its naval traditions:

BY Allan Burnett

There are places in our fair land that have universal appeal to the tourist.  There are others of limited appeal that would attract the curious or the specialist. Yet again there are others to avoid like the plague. One such place is Deptford.  It is situated in the south-east London and consists of a rough, very rough, two square miles of back streets sandwiched between the A2 trunk route, the River Thames, and a veritable maze of railways both used and disused. It is a drab; it is dreary, and incredibly depressing. Dirt and decay) demolition and desolation seem to stalk the streets. Perhaps one day a new Deptford will rise from the ruins but that is doubtful.

Such new buildings that have taken shape look as they have all tumbled out of the same square mould devoid of character beauty, inspiration or ingenuity. It is as if Deptford was spawned by the Industrial Revolution and is still suffering.
But Deptford is considerably older than it looks; and that is saying something, in fact its history is its only redeeming feature. Roman remains were unearthed near the toll gate at New Cross in 1735 and it seems they had a chain of forts or bastions from the River Ravensbourne to St. George's Fields in order to keep out the heathen hordes from Kent - today Connex South-eastern railway is marginally successful in bringing them all back in again!. The Ravensbourne is said to have received its name from Caesar who encamped at Keston twelve miles to the south. It must be remembered that Bourne is a Saxon word for River or Stream - Deptford le Stronde.

At one time it was believed that Deptford was known to the Saxons as 'Meretun' the dwelling place in the marsh perhaps the Saxon equivalent of 'Much Binding' and its first mention in history is in 871 AD when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that King Aethelred, assisted by his brother Alfred (of subsequent fame as Alfred the Great) defeated the Danes here. The area was known as 'West Grenewych', but the Roman Bridge that carried the old Roman Road 'Watling Street'  over the River Ravensbourne fell into disuse and the area took its name from the ford called 'Depe',  (the name is believed to have came from the word 'deep') and became known as 'Depe-ford', which with various spellings (there were eleven different ways of spelling used in the 16th. and 17th. centuries), has persisted ever since.

By the 14th century a wooden structure was in place and it was the duty of the whole of the 'Hundred of Blakeheth' to keep it in good repair, being on the main artery to the Continent, it took a pounding . The Canterbury Pilgrims crossed over the bridge on their way to pay homage to Thomas a Beckett's shrine in Canterbury, as did Wat Tyler and his followers.  King Henry V was met here in 1415 by the Mayor of London, the famous Richard Whittington, on his return from his wonderful victory at Agincourt – and so it went on, every journey between London and the continent via the English Channel crossed this fragile bridge.

Deptford was a traditional meeting place for ships and really came into its own in 1513 when King Henry VIII established a Royal dockyard here a few miles up-stream from the existing one at Woolwich and only a mile from the Royal Palace of Placentia at Greenwich.

This 'dockland' covered thirty acres and was for over three hundred years a centre of shipbuilding. At the same time the 'maisters, rules and maryners of your Navye within your Ryver Thamys and other places' petitioned the King for incorporation, claiming that your and inexperienced men were imperilling the lives and ships of the King's subjects by meddling with pilotage on the River Thames, depriving older ex-seamen of employment, but not themselves learning the art of seamanship. But bluff King Hal had other things on his mind at the time and it was not till the following year that he granted Letters Patent that incorporated the existing association of Guild of Pilots into the Trinity House Corporation.

This article appeared in the November 2000 GIHS Newsletter

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