I have noticed that on my travels around Deptford and New Cross I am surrounded by buildings that were once public houses.
Within the last20 years, New Cross and Deptford have lost over 70% of their pubs. On this Sunday afternoon before Halloween, I am walking using these ghost pubs as points of reference in order to uncover more about the history of drinking and pub culture in this area.
An interesting social study on this subject can be found in Pubs and Patriots, (Duncan 2013) by Robert Duncan in which he explores how a growing temperance movement merged with Government concerns regarding the impact of drinking on national efficiency in the war effort during the First World War. In response to these fears, the Government set up a Central Control Board to oversee every aspect of drink culture. It established new regulations around the management of public houses.These were an attempt to encourage more healthy behaviour by, for instance, selling beverages other than alcohol, serving food at affordable prices and providing entertainment to attract the non-drinker. This, Duncan argues, permanently changed pub culture and in the process made pubs more appealing, thus ironically ending the influence of the temperance movement in the interwar years.
My walk begins at a rundown old building on Milton Court Road, part of the Milton Court Estate (also know as the Woodpecker). The estate pub,though rare today, was considered an essential part of community life when developers designed the new housing estates of the 1960’s. They were mainly owned by the Courage brewery and its distinctive golden rooster sign still hangs above it. Unfortunately, this estate did not retain the community feel the developers had hoped for. Instead, it soon became notorious for its high levels of poverty and gang culture. As part of an early nineties redevelopment programme, four of its original tower blocks were pulled down and its population dispersed to housing in other parts of the borough, offering an explanation of why this pub was unable to survive.
Walking out of the Milton Court estate, crossing the road and entering Fordham Park I pass a block of flats where the Dew Drop Inn once was.
Known affectionately as the ‘Dewie’ by its regulars, its proximity to Sanford Housing Coop, Goldsmiths University, and the Millwall football ground meant that this pub usually saw a diverse mix of old punks, students and on a Saturday ,football supporters. Memories of this pub, its connection to Fordham Park and its importance to the crowd who went there are immortalised in this piece of artwork which is situated on the edge of the park. It is a quote from the autobiography ‘A Bit of a Blur’ by Alex James.
The pub paid a major contribution to the Deptford Urban Free Festival, a hedonistic celebration of nineties counter culture. It was held at the height of summer, between 1990 -95 and each year attracted several thousand people.
The pub’s charismatic landlady, Mary, departed to Portugal at the end of the nineties , a succession of owners tried to manage it since then but without the same success and it served it last pint of snakebite sometime in the year 2000
The next closed pub on my walk is a grand building on the corner of the High Street formerly The Centurion, now a closed down restaurant. I am more intrigued however by the story of the missing anchor which was situated directly opposite this pub at the entrance to the market.The anchor was once a famous and much loved symbolic landmark for many Deptford people. Placed there in the 1980’s it stood as lineage between modern day Deptford and its maritime past. However the anchor became connected with street drinking, as its plinth was not only a convenient seating area but was within staggering distance to local off-licences supplying the small crowd gathered around it with cheap cans of thermonuclear strength lager. It was also adjacent to a men’s rough sleepers hostel Carrington House on Brookmill Road (later converted into private dwellings and renamed Meriton Mansions). In a new 1.5 million redevelopment of the High Street the anchor was removed by council officials in the hope this would disperse the drinkers. A petition was drawn up, many signed it but as yet the anchor has not been restored to its rightful place.
The attempt to disperse those drinking on the street by the removal of the anchor could be said to echo failed Edwardian policies in response to the perceived ‘drink crisis’ of 1914. Ironically most of the street drinking in Deptford today seems to be taking place outside the Paddy Power betting shop further down the High Street at the junction of Reginal Road. Before its conversion to a betting shop, this was the Deptford Arms a traditional pub popular with shoppers and market traders.
As I head down this constantly evolving High Street I lose count of how many betting shops there now are. I pass many more sites where they used to be the pubs ‘The Pilot’, ‘ The Noahs Ark’ and ‘The Mechanics Arms.’ I then detour along a new street round the back of the railway station which consists partly of new housing designed for people on professional incomes and partly new businesses operating from the railway arches. One of these is a new pub and I am interested to see how they have rescued some of the artifacts from the old closed pubs such as the original signage from the Deptford Arms. The inclusion of this memorabilia could be taken as an homage to the heyday of the pub. However, a hypothesis put forward in Raphael Samuel ‘s Theatres Of Memory (1994) argues that a cultural obsession with recreating the past indicates not a return to tradition but instead is an indicator that we as a society have run out of original ideas.
When Charles Booth in 1898 set out to survey rates of poverty in London according to economic status with his series of color coded maps, he marked all of Deptford High Street red, indicating that this was a wealthy, middle-class area. Howevermost of the back streets were blue or black indicating high levels of social deprivation. With the newly developed housing attempting to attract the prosperous into the area, the end product may be the reverse of the original.
I then walk out of Deptford High Street into St. Nicholas’s Church, where Christopher Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave following a fight in The John Evelyn Pub.This is the last pub on my route.
Again a victim of the changing economic landscape, declining disposable incomes in the area meant this pub failed to attract sufficient customers to make it profitable. With the exception of one day a year every April when the London Marathon went past, there were very few regular customers. As this report in the News Shopper points out, apart from its loss as a site of historical value due to the Christopher Marlowe connection, it’s closure as a pub removed an asset to the community and brought with it the threat of new social problems.
My walk not only informed me about the history of pub culture but also the local economic and social changes that have caused so many of these establishments to call their final last orders.
Duncan, Robert, Pubs And Patriots (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013)
James, Alex, Bit Of A Blur (London: Little, Brown, 2007)
Samuel, Raphael, Theatres Of Memory (London: Verso, 1994)