This walk began on Deptford Strand, part of the Pepys Estate Deptford, a site originally established as a naval yard by Henry VII in 1513 (Peter Ackroyd, Thames Sacred River London: Vintage, 2008 p442.) The first landmark I passed was the ‘Wall of Ancestors’ a row of sculptured faces positioned at the foot of Aragon Tower on its Thameside this is now a block of private apartments previously owned by Lewisham Council for social housing.
The faces are a mixture of contemporary characters and historical figures. The sculptures made by local artist Martin Bond were designed to reflect the past and present inhabitants of the area. The historical characters include Grinling Gibbons, Sir Francis Drake, Catherine of Aragon, Phineas Pett – (a shipwright member of the Pett Dynasty), Peter the Great, Queen Elizabeth I and Olaudah Equiano (a campaigner against slavery in the times when London was an important slave trading port) Some of the contemporary characters are still living on the estate and as Bond was keen to reflect the diversity and creativity of the area he included Dr Burnhart Gloss, originally from Australia, and now a resident working as a professional clown. Bond says of his work “The Wall portrays some of my friends of that time, elevated and commemorated for ever, mixed in with the historical and socially worthy people. My idea was to show cultural diversity elevated to celebrity sometimes with merit sometimes without – some of the people are still alive and probably ride past on their bicycles!”
The 21st century brings with it new faces to the area. Across the Thames from Aragon Tower stands Canary Wharf representing the new financial districts now replacing East London’s deserted docks.
Peter Ackroyd wrote that the emergence of this new centre of capital ‘transformed the social and economic life of the immediate riverine.’ When Aragon Tower, was sold by Lewisham Council for private development into luxury flats its proximity to Canary Wharf was considered an attractive prospect for the developers. Following the sale the existing tenants were dispersed by the council. In 2007 the BBC made a six-part documentary about this, highlighting the proposed regeneration of the area. Entitled ‘The Tower A Tale of Two Cities’ this documented the area’s economic changes and serves as a useful oral social history by providing the existing residents the opportunity to tell their stories.
I then turned right from Deptford Strand into the remains of the sprawling Pepys Estate. Today’s concerns about the lack of affordable housing in the capital are not new. The start of the twentieth century saw a deficit of available housing for working people. Council housing became established at the turn of the century as a response to overcrowding in the capital and emerged in earnest in 1919 with the introduction of the Housing, Town Planning Act, which promised government subsidies to finance house building. World War Two exacerbated the housing shortage further reducing the number of houses available. Hence in the post war years it became a problematic task for local authorities to house all those bombed out by the war. Even though the post war years saw an enormous increase in social housing provision this was still not sufficient to solve London’s chronic housing shortage. The solution, implemented by the succeeding conservative government, was to build upwards. Their new housing policy put into practice subsidy changes in 1956 which gave local authorities additional money per flat the higher it was from the ground. In all some 68,500 flats in blocks of ten or more storeys were built in London in the fifties and sixties (Jerry White, London In the Twentieth Century London: Viking, 2001. p55-56)
Some of these municipal housing projects in South London were a failure due to the high cost of maintaining them and their location away from the main hub of the communities, for instance the, now demolished Kidbrooke estate managed by the London Borough of Greenwich. However, the Pepys Estate was different due to the fact it was built within an already thriving local community. Records show that the ethos behind the development included provision for the community and acknowledgement of the past with historians consulted on the naming of the new blocks of flats and maisonettes. It was originally proposed that names associated with the East India Company should be used, due to its connections with commerce on the Thames. Deptford Council minutes on the 16th July 1963 state that eventually it was decided that the buildings were named after fifteenth century historical figures, for instance Daubeney tower after Lord Daubeney who fought rebels at Deptford Bridge in the reign of Henry VIII. Some of the low-rise maisonettes, Pendennis, Burgord and Ranelagh are named after fifteen century ships built in Deptford. These minutes recorded from Deptford Council meetings from 1963 onwards are now stored at the London Metropolitan Archives (Deptford Council Minutes found at the London Metropolitan Archives REF LCC/CL/HSG/02/067)
Throughout the sixties, Lewisham council’s social housing plans to replace slum housing expanded outside of the old dockyard and eventually extended along Grove Street and onto Evelyn Street. My walk took me along this route arriving at Sayers Court now a compound of low-rise council housing. This was where Peter the Great lived when he studied ship building at Deptford Royal Docks.(Ackroyd, Sacred River. p.442)
From Sayers Court, I took a right along Evelyn Street arriving at Deptford High Street.This High Street survived relatively unscathed from the air raid attacks of World War 2, however, in the post-war years, town planners deemed it necessary to relocate most of the residents living in the back streets of Deptford deeming their housing unfit for habitation. The families living in these homes were scattered to other parts of London or into the new housing estates. The controversy surrounding this post-war slum clearance policy can be found in the BBC documentary ‘Secret History of Our Streets’ in which some remaining residents claim that this policy destroyed their close-knit community. However, for some the modern council flats many were relocated to made a welcome change from the rundown housing where they had previously lived. The documentary makes use of the Booth maps to illustrate the changing economic fortunes of the area and they show that when Booth surveyed the High Street it was the Oxford Street of London, marked red for extremely ‘well to do’.
The availability of affordable social housing meant that Deptford became a pole of attraction for those without regular incomes, many of which were actors, writers, musicians, and other creatives. Martin Bond is quoted as remembering ‘At one time, if you were on the dole and lived in Deptford you were an artist, actor or writer.’ Many of these actors, artists, and writers had connections to the Albany Theatre located on Deptford’s market square, Douglas Way, and the final stop of my walk. This arts and entertainment venue was originally located in Creek Road, then called the Albany Empire. It relocated to Douglas Way after the building was damaged by a fire in 1978, the cause of the fire was never ascertained. Many believe that this was a deliberate arson attack by right-wing groups given the high racial tension in the area at the time and the venue’s support for Rock Against Racism and similar organisations. To discover more about the Albany’s connection to the area I spoke to Tony O Leary , a resident of the Pepys Estate, and one of the faces featured on the Wall of Ancestors.
Tony was trained by the Albany as a community outreach worker during the late seventies and early eighties. He described to me how he, along with other artists from the Albany, used his involvement in the arts to enhance the lives of the Pepys Estate community.
Using the kitchen of his council flat as a base, Tony remembers how he helped organise local events reflecting the experience and meeting the needs of the inhabitants of the estate. These took the form of stage productions at the Albany, as well as welfare advice sessions and community festivals. These projects were designed to involve a wide range of the Pepys population hence workshops and training were provided helping residents learn new skills and use them for the benefit of their community. This form of engagement served to unite the local population, going some way to help combat the increasing social depravation which started to reemerge in the early eighties.
From this walk around the Pepys Estate its surrounding area I am now able to see how parts of Deptford became completely redeveloped in the post war period, accommodating the changing socio-economic landscape. In addition, I have gained an understanding of the role heritage played in this reconstruction.
Ackroyd Peter , Thames Sacred River London: Vintage, 2008
London Metropolitan Archives
White Jerry , London In the Twentieth Century London: Viking, 2001.