Friday, 10 October 2008

Deptford's anchor: a potent symbol of the past

The anchor at the end of Deptford High Street very obviously commemorates the town's seafaring past. However, it is more than simply a symbol of ships and dockyards: it is also a reminder of the tragic side of London's maritime history.

Deptford had multiple connections with the slave trade. Just a few examples: Catherine of Aragon arrived here with two slaves when she came to marry Henry VIII's elder brother Arthur; Sir Francis Drake, knighted in the town, played an important part in establishing the transatlantic slave trade with his uncle and Deptford resident Sir John Hawkins; ships built and refitted in Deptford went on to carry slaves across the notorious middle passage from Africa to the Caribbean and America. The traces remain visible: Paul Hendrich has drawn out the symbolism of slavery visible on that monument to civic pride, Deptford Town Hall.

However, the anchor is more than a tangential reminder of Deptford's links to the slave industry. It can also be read as a more direct symbol of the strong connections between Britain's maritime and slave-trading histories, through the figures of Sir Ambrose Crowley and his son and heir John. A leading steelmaster in the early eighteenth century, Sir Ambrose's huge factories foreshadowed the manufacturing advances of the Industrial Revolution. He made his fortune as a naval contractor during the Anglo-Dutch war with France; when that ended, he and his son turned to the transatlantic trade. They had a virtual monopoly on anchor manufacture; other major products included agricultural implements for American and Caribbean plantations worked by slaves, and chains and manacles for slave ships.

Crowley's factories were in north-east England but he preferred to live in Blackheath to be near London's shipping. In order to manage his factories from this distance, he laid down detailed 'Rules of the Crowly Iron', ironically known for their fairness to his workers and provision of welfare facilities. Outworkers were employed making nails in the Midlands; he also built a large warehouse at Highbridge, until then marshland beside the Thames at Greenwich.

Crowley was, therefore, a pioneering figure in England's manufacturing history; a man closely involved with the shipping industries in Deptford and Greenwich; and a key supplier of horrific equipment to the slave trade. This intimate connection between England's industrial, maritime and slave-trading histories is neatly encapsulated by the placement of an anchor in Deptford High Street.

Related post: Sir Francis Drake


DDKK said...

Coo, how did you manage to get a photo of it without any local winos?!

Joanne Seale said...

The didnt mention anything about this in the BBC2 program last night 'The secret history of our streets'!!