Local History

A Brief History of Deptford

Carl Evans HMO Lettings   Carl Evans

I live in New Cross and own a HMO Letting agency that rents HMOs in Deptford. As I really enjoy history and am intrigued with Deptford once being a key ship manufacturing powerhouse for the English Navy, I have attempted to write an article on the history of this fascinating area that once built ships that raised their sails onto the Thames and into the world’s oceans.

He came he saw, but did not conquer
Right next to Depford DLR Station is the River Ravensbourne, an 11 mile river that steadily flows northward, draining into the Thames. The name “Ravensbourne” comes from a legend involving one of the most famous Romans, Julius Caesar.

Two years after his unsuccessful invasion of Britain in 55BC, Julius Caeser along with 800 ships landed in Pegwell Bay, Kent. With rumours that the island was rich with gold and silver, he and his troops marched inland. No rich metals were found and not much food or water either. Desperate to quench the thirst of his legions Caesar was apparently guided by a raven and found a source of a river, which thankfully for Caesar, provided much more water than was actually needed. This river was named ‘Raven’s bourne’ and Roman invaders in years to come would specifically head toward this spot once ashore our island.

While the accuracy of this story is debated, it is interesting to note that in 1886 construction workers discovered a Roman mosaic floor between Deptford Broadway and Deptford High street, and a Roman Coffin on Vanguard Street; all very close to Ravensbourne River.

Ravensbourne River

Ravensbourne River today

It is not until the 1290s, however, when Deptford was first recorded as “depe-ford”, in the Old English language. This name gradually became known as “Deptford”, meaning “deep crossing”. Approximately 100 years later Geoffrey Chaucer actually mentioned Deptford his seminal The Canterbury Tales, as the main characters stay a night in Deptford whilst on their journey.

“Tell, forth your tale, and do not waste the time.
Here’s Deptford! And it is half way to prime.
There’s Greenwich town that many a scoundrel’s in;
It is quite time your story should begin.”

The aforementioned scoundrels may be the same people who robbed Chaucer in Deptford/Greenwich a few years before he wrote The Canterbury Tales!

St. Nicholas church
St. Nicholas church was founded in the in the 1100s yet none of the original structure still exists. However, the tower, built in the 14th century, still stands today. St Nicholas the patron Saint of sailors and the church is thought to have served many seafarers over the years. Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook and Horatio Nelson are all thought to have been blessed here.

Notable Deptford yard ship designers such as Jonas and John Shish are buried in the church, as well as the famous playwright Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe met his untimely and controversial death after being stabbed at a private house in Deptford in 1598—historians and conspiracy theorists to this day speculate the exact motive for his murder—as it remains unclear why it happened.

Sometime between 1697 and 1720, the church authorities commissioned skull and crossbones statuettes to be erected by the entryway of the church. Serving as a memento mori, these monuments functioned as a reminder to church-goers that death could strike them at any moment, and were hence a stark symbol of humanity’s feeble mortality. Many people tend to associate these as the main inspiration behind the Jolly Rodger symbol since Deptford was at that time highly circulated by pirates and privateers. While it is romantic to believe that the ‘pirates flag’ finds its origins in the St. Nicholas church, most historians disagree, citing that Barbary Pirates from the coast of North Africa flew the Jolly Rodger while terrorizing European and Ottoman Turk merchant ships 100 years before the church cast the stoic monuments.

St Nicholas Church Deptford

Memento mori

From Henry’s Humble Yard to Cutting Edge Ship Manufacturing
The Tudors were very familiar with Deptford and the surrounding areas. In 1497 Henry VII and his superior military force crushed rebels from the Cornish Rebellion at the Battle of Deptford Bridge. Henry VIII was born and baptized just down the road in Greewich and as a young man he would to go hunting in the neighbouring woodland.

Since Spain and Portugal had a superior naval fleet compared to the English and recognissing the crucial importance of building a competitive maritime industry, King Henry VIII founded the Trinity House Corporation in 1513. Not exactly using a catchy name, it was officially known as “The Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of Saint Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond in the County of Kent”. Unlike his matrimonial commitments, Henry was committed to building a strong maritime force. The Deptford Dockyard was born.

In 1518, the Kateryne Plesaunce, the first ship built at the Deptford Dockyard set sail. Her purpose was to transport royalty from England to France. During its 350-year time of operation, the shipyard produced several hundred ships which sailed around the world or fought in historic battles. In addition, many world historical individuals visited the yard.

In the 16th century, Deptford shipbuilders produced or maintained ships used by privateers like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Both Drake and Raleigh frequented the yard in between bouts of harassing Spanish galleons, setting up colonies and discovering new shipping routes. In 1581, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake in Deptford, after he circumnavigated his ship the Golden Hind around the world. Because she accomplished this feat, the Golden Hind remained on display to the public in Deptford until the mid-1600s.

Sir Francis Drake knighted in Deptford

The spot where Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake

The Not so Great Tenant
Peter the Great, who was ‘Emperor of All Russia’ and who Saint Petersburg is named after, once worked and lived incognito in Deptford for a few months in early 1698. He went by the name Peter Mikhailov. Traveling with a huge posse called the Grand Embassy they rented Says Court from renowned writer John Evelyn. It seems as though the Czar and his crew enjoyed this fine residence and there are rumors of using expensive paintings as target practice, large parties and a drinking game involving a wheelbarrow.

On 5th October 1665 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary; ‘he (John Evelyn ) showed me his gardens, which are for variety of evergreens, and hedge of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life’. Peter the Great used these fine evergreens and hedge of holly to be pushed through at speed whilst in a wheelbarrow drunk. When he and the Grand Embassy vacated the property the garden was totally destroyed, along with most of the house and possessions. According to Sir Christopher Wren; ‘3 wheelbarrows broke and Lost, Eight Fether beds, eight bolsters, twelve pair of blanketts very much dirtyed and spoyled’. Wren valued the damage in today’s money at close to £30,000.

Peter the Great Deptford

Peter the Great statue on The Thames

It seems that between partying and drinking games Peter did actually do some work, the original intention of the trip. Hoping to learn the latest shipbuilding skills and techniques from the English, he grafted as a carpenter, drew blueprints of the English ships and learned as much as he could to improve the nascent Russian navy. From all accounts the trip was a success; the Czar took his blueprints, knowledge and some Deptford ship builders back to his homeland and eventually turned Russia into a massive maritime power.

The Decline of the Docks
Keeping up with and contributing to advancements in shipbuilding, the Deptford Dockyard expanded even more in the 18th century where some of Britain’s most famous ships were constructed. A ship named Earl of Pembroke was taken to Deptford Dockyard, modified and renamed as HMS Endeavor. The Endeavor became the first European ship to reach New Zealand and Australia, and was the vessel that Captain James Cook was aboard when he claimed New Zealand and Australia for England. During the Battle of Trafalgar two ships used by Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Neptune and the Colossus, as well as one used by Napoleon’s forces after capture—the Swiftsure, were also built at Deptford Dockyard.

After the Napoleonic Wars, shipbuilding at Deptford yard began a period of decline. By 1869, the new class of massive iron-clad battle ships could not be constructed in Deptford yard, a site for constructing and maintaining mostly wooden ships of a forgone era. Therefore, Plymouth, Sheeress and Portsmouth Yards absorbed and expanded British ship production. From the 1870s until the early 20th century, Deptford Dockyard transformed into a live animal import dock, where several hundred thousand cattle, sheep and other livestock were imported and slaughtered each year.

Unfortunately, Deptford Dockyard experienced ongoing decline throughout the 20th century. After the government took control of the yard during the first world war, it ceased operations as a livestock yard and was used as a military supply depot until the conclusion of the second world war. During the blitz, Deptford sustained heavy damage, resulting in the destruction of many of the old warehouses and administration buildings.

Today with the development of nearby educational institutes like University of Greenwich and Goldsmiths University, along with much gentrification in the area Deptford has a youthful artistic feel which contrasts nicely with its maritime history. I am enchanted with Deptford’s history and view it as an important English national treasure.

If you think I’ve missed anything about Deptford’s important history you can contact me here. If you own a HMO in Deptford and want help renting and managing it, you’re more than welcome to call 0208 895 6195 and ask for me, it would be great to hear from you!

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live in New Cross and am the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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