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Friday 16 April 2010

Open House 1774

A Visit with George III to His Majesty's Dockyard at Deptford 1774

Those of you who have enjoyed the visits to John Evelyn's garden through the portal http://londonslostgarden.wordpress.com/  may have noticed a gateway in the dockyard wall from Mr. Evelyn's land to the dockyard. Although the day is a little hazy come through the gate, and we will take a tour of the King's Yard as it was in 1774, and walk from London's lost garden to London's forgotten dockyardSo many feet have walked the paths through the yard, many of them illustrious. Lets leave the royals aside and say that in their time they each visited at least once to witness the launching of their ships. The names of the greatest are easily remembered, Elizabeth's great mariners, slave traders and pirates, Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins. Captains Cook and Bligh, Nelson (and some say Lady Hamilton) the roll call is long, so follow closely, its easy to get lost, to slip through time and space when there are five hundred years of history to recount. Remember it is now 1774, the yard has already served the nation for 261 years. It is now in its Hanoverian prime, and  the layout will hardly change at all for the next 236 years or so. 

Our guide http://www.british-history.ac.uk tells us, 
that Deptford is described in the "Ambulator," in 1774, as 'a large and populous town, divided into Upper and Lower Deptford, and containing two churches." The place was of old famous for its naval shipbuilding yard, "Deptford is most remarkable for its noble dock, where the royal navy was formerly built and repaired, the yard is enlarged to more than double its former dimensions, and a vast number of hands are constantly employed. It has a wet dock of two acres for ships, and another with an acre and a half, with last quantities of timber and other stores, and extensive buildings as storehouses and offices for the use of the place, besides dwelling-houses for the use of those officers who are obliged to live upon the spot in order to superintend the works. Here the royal yachts of our Tudor and Stuart sovereigns were generally kept.

this view from the river shows the landing place in front of the  storehouse. The landing place, was open until the 1930's. The storehouse was begun in 1712 by Joseph Allin, Master Shipwright, responsible for the rebuilding of the Master Shipwright's House in 1708. Imagine walking up these stairs from the Deptford foreshore, following in the footsteps of the Georgian monarchs, navy dignitaries, and so many of the work force. The fine stone causeway is there if you care to notice, and doubtless the steps too, just bricked up. 

At the top of the stair there is a fine gate to greet the monarchs at the launching of their ships  and look closely and see the great flagpole, perhaps once it was a ship's mast. 

The Royal Dock, or "King's Yard," as it was locally called in former times, was esteemed one of the most complete repositories for naval stores in Europe. It covered not less than thirty acres of ground, and contained every convenience for building, repairing, and fitting out ships-of-the-line—those veritable "wooden walls of Old England" with which we were familiar before the introduction of armour-plated vessels.

If we had come here and stood on this spot 200 years ago, in 1574, we would still find the double dry dock, crossed by two bridges, with its capstans as tall as a man (and some female shipwrights!) close by the Master Shipwright's House where it has stood since Tudor times. In another 200 years time after launching ships for the Armada, ships for the establishing of the colonies in America and Australia ships for Captain James Cook and after that ships for Nelson's battles including Trafalgar ,the dock will still be here quietly sleeping under a temporary warehouse structure just waiting to be discovered and excavated. 

 Artificers in wood and in iron had here large ranges of workshops and storehouses; and here the hammer and the axe were scarcely ever idle, even in times of peace; but where, during the prevalence of war, they were plied incessantly "in the construction of those floating bulwarks for which England is, or rather was, renowned, and which carry a hundred and twenty guns and a thousand men to guard her shores from the invader, or to bear her fame with her victories to the remotest seas of the ocean."

Looking across the roofs of the Master Shipwright's House to the storehouse, "better than anything at Chatham". Be careful not to blink because between the powers that will be, the heritage experts and planning officials, will see fit to permit this magnificent building to be partly demolished in 1954 and completely demolished in 1984. 20,000 bricks from the Tudor storehouse will be taken to repair Hampton Court. The early 18th century plum stocks will go to repair Tilbury Fort. Enjoy the storehouse now, one of the finest edifices to grace the London Thames. Oddly fifty years after demolishing Henry VIII's Great Storehouse, the remains will be scheduled as an Ancient Monument.

The yard was occupied by various buildings, such as two wet docks (one double and the other single), three "slips" for men-of-war, a basin, two mast ponds, a model loft, mast houses, a large smith's shop, together with numerous forges for anchors, sheds for timber, &c., besides houses for the officers who superintended the works.
The okum boys have been chided by the Timber Master for playing the dangerous game of scrambling across the masts recently arrived from Riga and now pickling in the mast pond. 

Lets go inside the newly refurbished Officers' Terrace, originally built around 1670 and now refashioned with sash windows and parapets. Through the grand door in the corner of the terrace the wife of the Clerk of the Cheque has lately returned from Spitalfields with silks that she is showing to the Master Attendant's wife. They are having tea, lately brought from Seurat, with some of the women who have contracts to supply the navy with canvas, nails and other requisites. They are telling old dockyard tales about Samuel Pepys' visits to the dockyard and his philandering with Mrs Bagwell. The Master Shipwright's Assistant's wife has arrived from next door and suggested they walk in the garden and play "I love my love with an A because......" just like Lady Castlemaine, KIng Charles II's favourite mistress and her friends would play whilst staying at the Navy treasurer's house in the dockyard.

The finest machinery in the world is said to have been employed in Deptford Dockyard for spinning hemp and manufacturing ropes and cables for the service of the navy. The large storehouse on the north side of the quadrangle was erected in the year 1513. This may be said to have been the commencement of the works at Deptford, which under successive sovereigns gradually grew up and extended.

The ladies are now walking in the gardens and the Storekeeper's wife is showing some plants to the Surgeon's wife that she insists have been growing there since the time John Evelyn had his famous garden at Sayes Court. (the Clerk of the Survey's wife whispered that next she'll be telling us that the plants came from Evelyn's garden, or that they were planted by Charles II himself!) They've now gone inside the banqueting house at the foot of the garden and lots of laughter is coming from there, so lets continue our tour of the yard.

The old storehouse, which was a quadrangular pile, appears to have consisted originally only of a range on the north side, where, on what was formerly the front of the building, is the date 1513, together with the initials H R in a cipher, and the letters A X for Anno Christi.

Let me show this drawing I have with me. It will be done by the kind gentlemen who, in 1954, will demolish the earliest naval building in the country, "for economic and strategic reasons" it has a ring, a certain echo to it that phrase. Anyway, the drawing shows Henry VIII's cipher HR and the date 1513. It is set below this flame headed gothic arch in hand wrought Tudor brickwork. As it is being demolished one fellow by the name of J. H. W. Haywood will be moved to write "it may eventually be regarded as the work of an artist craftsman having very few equals" In fact, eventually it will end up in a lobby being used as a notice board and no one will even remember what it is or why it is even there. 

 The buildings on the east, west, and south sides of the quadrangle were erected at different times; and a double front, towards the north, was added in 1721.

 Another storehouse, parallel to the above, and of the same length, having sail and rigging lofts, was completed towards the close of the last century; and a long range of smaller storehouses was built under the direction of Sir Charles Middleton, afterwards Lord Barham, about the year 1780.

Look there! the ghost of John Cleveley, raising his brush in devotion, to record for perpetuity the magnificence of Deptford!

In Charnock's "History of Marine Architecture" is given "A note how many ships the King's Majesty (Henry VIII.) hath in harbour, on the 18th day of September, in the 13th year of his reign (1521); what portage they be of; what estate they be in the same day; also where they ride and be bestowed." From this we are enabled to see what use was made of Deptford as a naval station at that time:—"The Mary Rose, being of the portage of 600 tons, lying in the pond at Deptford beside the storehouse there, &c.

The John Baptist, and Barbara, every of them being of the portage of 400 tons, do ryde together in a creke of Deptford Parish, &c. The Great Nicholas, being of portage 400 tons, lyeth in the east end of Deptford Strond, &c. … The Great Barke, being of portage 250 tons, lyeth in the pond at Deptford, &c.
The Less Barke, being of the portage of 180 tons, lyeth in the same pond, &c. The twayne Row Barges, every of them of the portage of 60 tons, lye in the said pond, &c. The Great Galley, being of portage 800 tons, lyeth in the said pond, &c."

We are accustomed in the yard to Royal visits, indeed the Duke of York resided here for a while in the Navy Treasurer's house. 
Deptford dockyard, in its time, received many royal and distinguished visitors; the earliest of whom we have any record was Edward VI., who thus tells us of the provision made for his reception:—"June 19th, 1549. I went to Deptford, being bedden to supper by the Lord Clinton, where before souper i saw certaine [men] stand upon a bote without hold of anything, and rane one at another til one was cast into the water. At supper Mons. Vieedam and Henadey supped with me. After supper was ober a fort [was] made upon a great lighter on the Temps [Thames] which had three walles and a Watch Towre, in the meddes of wich Mr. Winter was Captain with forty or fifty other soldiours in yellow and blake. To the fort also apperteined a galery of yelow color with men and municion in it for defence of the castel; wherfor ther cam 4 pinesses [pinnaces] with other men in wight ansomely dressed, wich entending to give assault to the castil, first droue away the yelow piness and aftir with clods, scuibs, canes of fire, darts made for the nonce, and bombardes assaunted the castill, beating them of the castel into the second ward, who after issued out and droue away the pinesses, sinking one of them, out of wich al the men in it being more than twenty leaped out and swamme in the Temps. Then came th' Admiral of the nauy with three other pinesses, and wanne the castel by assault, and burst the top of it doune, and toke the captain and under captain. Then the Admiral went forth to take the yelow ship, and at length clasped with her, toke her, and assaulted also her toppe and wane it by compulcion, and so returned home." This royal record of a mimic naval engagement on the Thames appears in the Cotton MSS. in the British Museum, and is quoted by Cruden in his "History of Gravesend." 

Walk with us now across the bridge at the mouth of the dry dock. As we cross in time and space, you will witness Sir Samuel Bentham, younger brother of Jeremy, pointing out alterations to be carried out to the dock gates and entrance. Samuel raised a navy for Potempkin and Catherine the Great, taking many artificers from the Deptford yard, in a long tradition of co-operation between Russia and England since Peter the Great's visit here in 1698. 

Arriving in front of the Master Shipwright's House through the shimmering haze coming off the river, ascending the early dockyard watergate stairs is Elizabeth,
"On the 4th of April, 1581," writes Lysons in his "Environs of London," "Queen Elizabeth visited Captain Drake's ship, called the Golden Hind. Her Majesty dined on board, and after dinner conferred the honour of knighthood on the captain. A prodigious concourse of people assembled on the occasion, and a wooden bridge, on which were a hundred persons, broke down, but no lives were lost. Sir Francis Drake's ship, when it became unfit for service, was laid up in this yard, where it remained many years, the cabin being, as it seems, turned into a banqueting-house: 'We'll have our supper,' says Sir Petronel Flash, in a comedy called Eastward-hoe, written by Ben Jonson and others, 'on board Sir Francis Drake's ship, that hath compassed the world!' It was at length broken up, and a chair made out of it for John Davis, Esq., who presented it to the University of Oxford." It is recorded that Queen Elizabeth not only partook of a collation on board Drake's ship, and afterwards knighted him, but that she also consented to share the golden fruits of his succeeding adventures. Miss Strickland observes, with reference to this record, that "as some of Drake's enterprises were of a decidedly piratical character, and attended with circumstances of plunder and cruelty to the infant colonies of Spain, the policy of Elizabeth, in sanctioning his deeds, is doubtful." 
She gave orders that his ship, the Golden Hind, should be preserved here as a memorial of the national glory and of her great captain's enterprise. For long years, accordingly, in obedience to her royal command, the vessel was kept in Deptford dockyard until it fell into decay, when all that remained sound of her was converted into a chair, which was presented to the University of Oxford, and is still kept in the Bodleian library. The chair was thus characteristically apostrophised by Cowley:—

"To this great ship, which round the world has run,
And match'd, in race, the chariot of the sun,
This Pythagorean ship (for it may claim,
Without presumption, so deserved a name,
By knowledge once, and transformation now),
In her new shape this sacred port allow.
Drake and his ship could not have wished from fate
A happier station, or more bless'd estate!
For lo! a seat of endless rest is given
To her in Oxford, and to him in heaven."
Not now but in a future time, a different boat will come alongside the yard wall, and carry away the storehouse bell and clock tower that had measured so many thousand dockyard hours and chimed at the launching of so many ships, downriver to stand, marooned in the car park at Thamesmead and hear only the rattle of shopping trolleys.

And in another future time a different boat may fetch the bell and clock tower back to where it belongs carrying with it, the will and imagination to make of Deptford what it deserves, what it is owed even, given the five centuries of service to the nation this small stretch of the Thames will achieve. The twentieth century will prove to be unkind to the dockyard. United States marines returning from service in WWII Europe will die here when their amphibious landing craft are hit by German buzz bombs. Whilst a majority of buildings will survive into the 1950's, some more than four hundred years in existence, the following thirty years will see the loss of the Tudor Great Storehouse and the magnificent storehouse begun by Joseph Allin in 1712. The remainder of the Officers'Terrace from the 1600's will be demolished after WWII, ancillary buildings such as stables, timber seasoning sheds, mold lofts, boat houses, smithies and anchor forges will all be swept away. The great civil engineering works by Sir Samuel Bentham, John Rennie and George Ledwell-Taylor will remain, awaiting discovery just immediately below the modern concrete and tarmac surfaces. Until that time we hope you enjoy your 1774 walk through the dockyard of George III, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum. You can continue your journey around the dockyard and Deptford's history by following the link below,

Coming soon............A walk through the King's Yard 2013............


  1. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Let our Heritage be Open to Public Viewing
    Not Buried beneath Soulless Skyscrapers and
    Historical Ignorance

  3. May there be an Open House in 2014 which
    will enable the Public to Appreciate
    their Rich Naval Heritage

    Building of Wooden Ships, Making of
    Figureheads Revival of Trades and Skills
    this is a Positive Vision for the Future

  4. The Sooner the Storehouse Bell and Clocktower
    is back at Deptford Yard as Opposed to it's
    Thamesmead Exile the Better