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Deptford’s Royal Dockyard

By the 1980s, Deptford in southeast London was a rundown and dilapidated shadow of its former self. Pound-shops and fast food outlets competed with tattooing parlours and tanning salons along much of its high street. Friends of mine, who grew up in South East London at that time, tell me that it was sometimes referred to as Dirty Deptford.

Yet there are plenty of clues in the area that tell of a more glorious past. Take, for example, Deptford Town Hall. This splendid building is topped by a weathervane in the form of a large gilt sailing ship under top and topgallant sails. The stonework of the buildings is decorated with other nautical carvings. There are anchors, dolphins, seashells, a frieze of a naval battle with nine ships (one of which is on fire), and statues of various nautical heroes, including Drake and Nelson. Clearly this is a place with a rich maritime past.

Deptford was little more than a village close to a deep tidal creek when Henry VIII chose it as the location for a Royal Naval Dockyard in 1513. Initially it had a single slipway and a storehouse, together with a series of ponds that were capable of mooring ships of up to a thousand tons. As the sixteenth century progressed, the dockyard expanded, with victualling yards and more slipways being added along the river frontage. It was here that many of the ships of the Elizabethan age were built, and it was to Deptford that Francis Drake returned after his circumnavigation in the Golden Hinde, to be met with and knighted by the Queen.

During the seventeenth century, Deptford continued to be one of the country’s leading centres of shipbuilding, both under the monarchy and under Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Peter the Great, the future Tsar of Russia, worked as a carpenter there in 1698. Samuel Pepys was also a frequent visitor, in his role as a senior naval administrator. He would walk to Deptford from his office in the City of London through open countryside. The orchards and pastures that he described in his diary have long since disappeared beneath housing estates, but clues still remain in some of the place names. There is a Cherry Garden pier, for example, close to the point where he bought fruit to consume as he went along. Pepys records one of his many affairs as having occurred at Deptford. It was with Mrs Bagwell, the wife of a Deptford shipwright, whose husband hoped to gain promotion by it. What the poor women thought of this arrangement is not known.

As warships continued to grow in size during the eighteenth century, Deptford’s location high up the River Thames, became an increasing disadvantage. The river was too narrow, and prone to silting up to safely launch the biggest hulls. Orders for the larger ships began to go to the dockyards of Chatham and Woolwich, further downstream, where the river was wider; or to Portsmouth and Plymouth with their direct access to the sea. Deptford continued to produce smaller vessels, including fitting out most of the ships used by James Cook, George Vancouver and William Bligh for their voyages of exploration.

By the nineteenth century the end was in sight for Deptford. Warships had grown too large for the river, and as iron progressively replaced oak in their construction, shipbuilding moved away from London, towards the industrial north. The screw corvette HMS Druid, launched on 13 March 1869, was the final ship to be built at the Royal Dockyard, after which the site was sold off.

The numerous ponds and docks have largely been filled-in and built over now, and many of the iconic buildings have been demolished. Henry VIII’s storehouse survived until 1954, when the four hundred and fifty year old structure was pulled down, and the Tudor bricks used for restoration work at Hampton court. But in recent years there has been a revival of interest in the area’s maritime heritage. Modern archaeological techniques have identified the locations of the in-filled slipways and ponds. Some of the buildings from the dockyard’s golden period do still survive, such as the Master Shipwright's House of 1708. Funding is being sort to open one of the slipways as a heritage centre, and to build a full-size sailing replica of HMS Lenox, a 70-gun ship of the line originally built at Deptford in 1678. It is hoped that this will help to regenerate the area in the same way that the building of the French frigate Hermione has done for the former dockyard at Rochefort, in the Vendee. Perhaps a new chapter is about to open open for Deptford?

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