Walking Deptford Church Street

 

Introduction to Deptford

I first knew Deptford only has its high street on market day, which I had passed through on the way to Greenwich park. But as I began to read about its history, it emerged as a kind of fairytale land. This little town has been home to a host of peculiar characters: Christopher Marlowe, writer and sometime spy, died here, stabbed through the eye in a bar fight (possibly an assassination). John Evelyn, who diaried and wrote Sylva, an adoring discourse on trees and forestry, cultivated a renowned garden on his estate here, called Saye’s Court. Later, Czar Peter the Great took up residence at the same on a retreat to London. Two venerable churches, St. Nicholas’ and Saint Paul’s, preside over the upper and lower regions of the town, respectively. To the north, where the town meets the Thames, the Royal Dockyards, opened by Henry VIII, must have presented a sublime sight– the great fleet of navy ships towering above and casting their long shadows on the thousands of workers who swarmed the wharf (Mackay 77).  Here, Queen Elizabeth I visited and knighted Francis Drake aboard his ship, the Golden Hind, and a crowd who gathered to see her were dumped into the river when the bridge beneath them gave way (Mackay 78).

Gardens – churches – ships – writers – a czar – a queen… this Spenserian realm hovers underneath Deptford as we know it today, and we are lucky to have the magic keys to the city of the past in the form of two maps: Evelyn’s map and Booth’s. Following these alongside google maps, Deptford unfolds in mysterious and delightful ways as ghosts begin to show their faces in overgrown alleys and the odd half-wall in an otherwise barren lot.

Method

Guides and Lenses for the Landscape

How can one turn the simple act of walking into a valuable historical method? Not just by wandering aimlessly, as I have done in and around Deptford before without learning anything of historical substance. Not by looking for historical markers and signs– almost entirely absent in the Deptford points of interest I encountered, and often not particularly interesting or informative anyway. We need our attention guided to meaningful objects without being confined to the established narrative about them, as a tour guide or textbook would do. Historical maps and literature are the key. As I read generally about Deptford’s history beforehand, looking for an angle in, the same names kept leaping out: John Evelyn, Charles Booth, Dr. Mackay’s Thames and Its Tributaries, John Bew’s the Ambulator. I turned away from my secondary sources and wandered deeper into these primary accounts. Soon, I started to get an idea of the interests and concerns of 16th, 17th, and 18th century inhabitants of Deptford. Each primary source offered a lens to structure the walk, so that wherever I went I had a toolbox of possible routes of inquiry to apply to the landscape in order to draw out deeper understanding.

A Toolbox for History-Walking Deptford
John Evelyn
Evelyn was a 17th century writer, best known for his Diary and lengthy discourse on trees, Sylva. In 1647, following a grand tour of Europe, he took up residence in Deptford at Saye’s Court, where he delved into gardening with an almost religious dedication[1]. Both contemporary and current literature cannot discuss Deptford without discussing Evelyn– like Samuel Pepys slightly to the West, John Evelyn imbues the landscape, from Evelyn Street to countless gardens and trees that may well owe their existence to his heartfelt plea that “that such Woods as do yet remain intire, might be carefully Preserved, and such as are Destroy’d, sedulously repaired”[2]. He also left behind the earliest surviving map of Deptford, showing its meager development in 1623.[3] Evelyn Lenses:
1. Paying attention to green spaces and trees, and comparing current landscape to older maps to see where green spaces have been destroyed or created. Has Deptford heeded Evelyn’s call to cultivate a greener London?
2. Use of Evelyn’s 1623 map for navigation to oldest sites and comparison with later maps

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Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps
Charles Booth’s late-19th century “Inquiry into Life and Labor in London” famously and extensively mapped London along with the perceived poverty level of each street[4]. Booth’s map of Deptford gives us both an economic and structural lens, showing old street names, old buildings, and old economic divisions which we can search for in, around, and underneath modern Deptford. Booth’s maps are probably the best source for beginning any history walking in London, especially as they have been digitized into “Phonebooth,” an online tool that lays the Booth maps over the modern googlemaps counterpart for easy comparison and navigation[5].

John Bew and Charles Mackay
Published in 1820 and 1840, respectively, Bew’s the Ambulator and Mackay’s the Thames and its Tributaries allow us to see how Deptford was viewed by visitors in the past. Mackay’s short, affectionate, and humorous description of Deptford and its past would make an excellent introductory text for learners of any age embarking on a history walk of Deptford. As a traveling companion on our walk, Mackay helps us imagine the splendor and din of the Royal Dockyards as they were compared to the quiet emptiness they now possess, and the way he chides the Czar as “a destroyer of plants, a knocker down of holly hedges, a rude trampler upon gooseberry bushes” transposes us from outsider historians to insider town gossips[6]. One starts to look around Deptford with a botanist ethos– “Evelyn would have loved this new park” or “Mackay would glare at the way that hedge has been chopped to bits!” Bew’s travel guide, while less playful, puts us in the shoes of a 19th century visitor, describing historical points of interest and local traditions, like the annual parade to Trinity House on Trinity Monday[7]. Both Mackay and Bew help us understand how Deptford was seen by prior visitors and inhabitants. From their accounts, I learned that Deptford was most renowned for its dockyards, its churches, Evelyn’s residence (where the czar later lived) and the Trinity House hospital.

Findings

Deptford Church Street

Before my journey, I made the to enter Deptford not by High Street, but by Church Street. I had only ever passed through Deptford via High Street, because like all high streets, its detail and busyness lured one away from other possible routes. I determined to remain aloof and see if there might be something to gain in the road less traveled by. Church Street would also, as its name suggested, take me to St. Paul’s, and from St. Paul’s to St. Nicholaus’. There are other churches in Deptford, but these are the oldest, and when one walks Church Street instead of High Street, the town feels anchored in something older and greater than its small size suggests. These two churches are Deptford’s Upper and Lower Egypt, with the Thames above them and New Cross Road ending Deptford below them.

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Pictured: Deptford High Street is the red-blocked one on the left, Deptford Church Street is the less defined road on the right, coming up between Reginald Road and “Theatre.” Just below the blue bar spanning the picture is New Cross Road.

 

Creekside

Glancing at this map, does “THEATRE” stand out to you like it stood out to me? This was the first of what would be many instances where history reached out and snatched me away from my intended path. I made a detour onto Creekside (running right of Reginald Road) to see if this theatre was still there. The only sign of activity at this corner now is the Bird’s Nest pub. The theatre was once adjoined to the pub building, but has been demolished.[8] Yet, as would become another theme of this journey, where I failed to find an object of historical interest, I found an object of contemporary interest that I would not have encountered otherwise. Practicing history by walking opens up the present to us as much as the past. It turns out that Creekside, an unassuming low income blob on Booth’s map, has been transformed into a street entirely devoted to art and exploration.

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The Bird’s Nest Pub. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2393922

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The old Deptford Theatre.
Source: http://www.ideal-homes.org.uk/lewisham/assets/galleries/deptford/deptford-theatre

Creekside has some housing on the East side, but the entire West side holds several art galleries and artist workshops, culminating in a wonderful little place called the Creekside Discovery Centre. This appears to be a hands-on learning space feature art made from recycled trash and things dredged up (presumably) from the creek and a wildlife pond. Intense development is occurring to the east of this area, as you can see here. On Booth’s map, this area, which backs up to Deptford Creek, held a tannery, mills, workshops, and coal depot[9]. The area has undergone, and is undergoing, huge changes– from what would have been an unsavory stew of the dirtiest jobs to an upscale housing and art district.
pic 5.jpg
Creekside Discovery Centre
Churches

St. Paul’s
This church is characterized by an interesting conjunction of streets and shapes. Baroque and startlingly white, with a unique circular portico, St. Paul’s sits on a triangular cut of land facing High Street and backing up to Church Street, where it is walled off but accessible. Green spaces bubble up around it: its graveyards, a disused herb garden to the south, fenced off yards to the east, and further east on the other side of Church Street what was once a block of upscale housing on Booth’s map is now the Sue Godfrey Local Nature Reserve. This nature reserve was very recently (1970s) a site of waste and rubbish, and Evelyn would have approved of its modest transformation into a grassy lot and park[10]. The church was built in 1730, designed by architect Thomas Archer, and owes its existence to the 1711 Act calling for the construction of new London churches under the reign of Queen Anne.

 
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St. Paul’s: 19th century view from High Street[11]
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Now: more rules than history provided

St. Nicholaus
This church dates to as early as the 13th century, some of which can still be seen in its tower, although the rest of the church has undergone extensive additions and rebuilding. This is a site where Evelyn and Booth’s maps give invaluable depth, as modernity has cloaked the church and surrounding area’s rich history in opacity. St. Nicholaus has survived flood (1671), fire (1652), and gale (1901)– British History Online testifies to the first two[12], but I only found record of the third by walking the site and finding this fact imbedded in the building itself. The Trinity House praised in Mackay and Bew once stood behind this church, but all traces of it have long vanished under new housing. The road in front of the church, Deptford Green, was once an actual green space, the “Common Greene,” according to Evelyn’s map. Christopher Marlowe’s remains are buried in an uncertain spot in this churchyard, where a memorial plaque quotes his Doctor Faustus: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.” The quote brings up an interesting intertextuality between Evelyn’s desire to spare trees the axe and Marlowe’s characterization of man’s death in the image of a disfigured tree.

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The tower wall, documenting the gale that blew its top off.
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Evelyn’s map, with St. Nicholaus on the right, “churche”

The Royal Dockyards, now Convoy WharfWith only a slight curve in the road, one can begin walking where New Cross Road and Church Street intersection and end knee-deep in the Thames. In a beautiful alignment, Church Street (becoming Deptford Green and then a little bit of Wharf Street) takes one past two great churches, the street where John Evelyn and Czar Peter lived, through what was once the Royal Dockyards, and down the only set of stairs down to the Thames for some length of shore. If High Street (and high streets) capture one’s attention and psychogeographically detain us in a capitalist spectacle, Deptford’s Church Street siren-calls to us with more ancient power, like a fairy tale path or death drive’s trajectory, luring us Ophelia-esque into the river. In the 17th century, Evelyn’s estate extended all the way to the dockyards here, and Booth’s map shows the area to have been a cattle yard in the 19th century. Now, it’s mostly bare wasteland to the west and very new housing and what looks to be a cultural center, “The House of the Phoenix.” What would have been one of the smelliest, noisiest, most industrious, wharfs in London now sits quiet and shipless. The closest ship when I visited was in fact the Cutty Sark, which could be seen eastward, permanently grounded. But a few visions of the past do remain, such as the great, algae-draped walls of the wharf, the Queen’s House presiding serenely over the bank to the east, and the eternal Thames, bleaching the stones with its sad, grey water.
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Directly left of this photo is where the cattle-yards would have been, and before them, to the right, where the Golden Hind might well have moored.

John Evelyn’s Estate – Saye’s Court
Saye’s Court was my most anticipated site of exploration and the most disappointing. Although the other areas I walked have been remodeled and built over, they all still retained some historical architecture and hallmarks of their past. But Saye’s Court, the most referenced site in all the literature I had read, from Evelyn’s own writings, to Mackay and Bew, to every modern history on Deptford, has been obliterated under towering blocks of flats. Only the name hovers around the area, and a “Saye’s Court Park” offers a pale imitation of a garden, with no signs anywhere referencing its former glory. Here, I felt yanked out of my historical reverie back into the present. Buses whizzed by on Evelyn Street with irreverent noise, a KFC gleamed in white and red, and a local man catcalled me, “hey pretty girl, where you going?” There are some points in the historical walking endeavor where history withdraws into its shell again, but this is not to say the endeavor fails. Instead, the impenetrability of Evelyn Street and present-day Saye’s Court signals the need for a second walk, a return fortified with deeper

 

Sources

[1] http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8996

[2] “To the Reader” https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175035227019;view=1up;seq=18

[3] http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/deptford/a/008add00078629au00000001.html

[4] http://booth.lse.ac.uk/static/a/3.html

[5] http://phone.booth.lse.ac.uk/

[6] https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=MEY9AAAAYAAJ&rdid=book-MEY9AAAAYAAJ&rdot=1 p80

[7] https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=EtsHAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-EtsHAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1 p84

[8] https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/myservices/planning/conservation/conservation-areas/Documents/Deptford%20Creekside%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf p40

[9] https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/myservices/planning/conservation/conservation-areas/Documents/Deptford%20Creekside%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf p23, p40

[10] https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/inmyarea/openspaces/nature-reserves/Pages/sue-godfrey-nature-park.aspx

[11] http://www.stpaulsdeptford.co.uk/gallery-3/

[12] http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-environs/vol4/pp359-385

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