Sunday, 9 October 2011

Convoy's Wharf uncovered

Yesterday, I joined a guided tour of the Convoy's Wharf site led by Museum of London Archaeology. As debate rages over proposed development on the site, it's instructive to realise just how much of Deptford's history is still present here. Although key buildings were demolished above-ground, their foundations remain; other important features have always been below ground level and are largely intact.

The trading history of Deptford goes back much further than the founding of the Royal Dockyard by Henry VIII. There was probably already trade on this site before the Romans arrived. They certainly used it, and we saw a piece of Samian ware from Gaul found during the excavations. Shipping continued here in the Middle Ages, and the dark area of ground in the photograph below is part of the site of a mediaeveal dock.

The mediaeval dock was filled in order for a Tudor storehouse to be built in 1514. Unbelievably, this survived until the 1950s but was demolished in 1954. Some of its bricks were then used for garden walls at Hampton Court Palace. The foundations remain, though, and are clearly visible as a rectangle of salmon-coloured brick.

The Tudor great dock is partly intact, although some of the stonework was damaged when World War I warehouses were built here. Various slipways have also survived: the one pictured here dates from the early nineteenth century (slipways were altered and rebuilt on the same sites as the size of ships changed). Some of its wood is reused ships' timbers; the uprights are later, and of imported African wood. The slipway is probably the last such London structure of this size still surviving; it is proposed to leave it in situ but cover it up when redevelopment occurs.

The dockyard also had a huge basin, extending back into much of the current site, and the wall and large upright timbers below were part of it. The basin became smaller and deeper over time, again to accommodate changes in shipping.

This tour highlighted both how much of Deptford Dockyard's industrial heritage was lost last century, and how much is still there. The fascination lies in the way it reveals the huge changes and innovations which all occurred here: this is a complex map of naval, industrial and maritime history, rather than a survivor of just one historical moment.

It is a great shame that the proposed redevelopment does not take more account of this. However, Lewisham Council have responded to the many objections to the plans by organising a drop-in session from 5-8pm this Tuesday 11 October. It's at St Nicholas Church Hall, Deptford Green and offers an opportunity both to get more information about what is proposed for the site and to make your views known.

For more on the Convoy's Wharf development proposals, do follow Deptford Dame and Deptford Is... while Shipwright's Palace has not only information about the issues but also a huge amount of historical information about the dockyard.


Jonathan said...

Interesting write up of yesterday, which I also attended.

Highlight for me was the Olympia Warehouse. In the worst case scenario of Convoys going ahead as currently planned I can only hope that this magnificent structure can find a permanent, fitting use.

Thanks to Chris from Shipwright's Palace for an additional fascinating tour around the house and garden of his amazing home.

CarolineLD said...

I agree that the Olympia Warehouse is wonderful, and am going to devote a separate post to it later in the week. Your thanks to Chris are seconded, too!