Changing London

Deptford Dockyard’s world history contribution

Approaching Convoys Wharf is like nearing many other sites prime for development along the Thames. Looking through the tall gates, there doesn’t appear to be very much on this brownfield land bar remnants of a few tatty industrial sheds in the distance.

By the entrance, a security guard sits in a cabin looking at a television. But with little more than a large area of open, uneven concrete to keep watch over, you wonder what he is actually meant to be guarding.

Deptford Dockyard today

Deptford Dockyard today

While for people passing casually by, this Deptford site may seem insignificant, to others it is a different story. The World Monuments Fund (WMF) has named it as one of 67 global heritage sites at risk, putting it on a list alongside the likes of Venice and the Inca ruins in Latin America.

Calling for redevelopment of the land to be carried out “sensitively”, the organisation noted the “rich heritage” of the 16th century dockyard and the adjacent Sayes Court Garden (the latter was once the home of the diarist John Evelyn).

From its foundation in 1513 by Henry VIII, Deptford Dockyard was at the centre of the maritime world for 350 years. Famous explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh set out from here, later James Cook would leave Deptford on his voyage to discover Australia.

Hundreds of warships were built at Deptford Dockyard over the years, including those used in the Napoleonic Wars. It grew to be the most important of the royal dockyards and was visited on a number of occasions by the monarch to inspect ships being built (in 1550 £88 was spent on paying for Deptford High Street to be paved for one such visit).

Yet while Greenwich has no problem pulling in the crowds to popular attractions, like the Royal Observatory and the Maritime Museum, Deptford has struggled in recent decades. Deptford High Street is in parts fairly gloomy, with many businesses having folded given the departure of industry and unemployment in the area.

The Dockyard, once described as the “Cradle of the Navy”, had declined in importance after the Napolenaic Wars and it was largely inactive after the 1830s, before being finally closed in 1869. It had lost out to the likes of Chatham because, some distance from the sea, the Thames was too narrow and shallow (as well as being busy with other river traffic).

Following its closure as a dockyard, the site had a number of uses, including that of a cattle market, an army depot and warehousing. It was also used by News International for 28 years for the importing and storing of paper products.

After some difficult years, things are now beginning to change for the better for Deptford though. With vacant plots of land in neighbouring Greenwich all but taken, developers are moving onto Deptford.

Looking at one eye catching riverfront residential development at Paynes Wharf, you could be forgiven for thinking you are actually at King’s Cross. The building had the same architect as the north London terminus and on the riverside has very similar, distinctive Italianate arches. Soon the first residents will move into the luxury homes.

Current design for Brothwick and Paynes Wharf

Looks familar? What Paynes Wharf will look like once development is complete….

The High Street has not escaped redevelopment, with the opening in recent years of a fantastic, bright arts venue, the Laban Dance Centre. Deptford, as a whole, is doing well to attract the arty sorts, with projects including a disused railway having been converted into a trendy coffee shop. Earlier this year Time Out featured Deptford as the “D” entry in its “A-Z of Cool” in the capital.

But whatever progress Deptford has made in recent years, you can’t help thinking that it has traded on Greenwich’s name. In fact, the word Deptford is barely used in the new development. While the historic Creek should be the dividing point, the Greenwich name is creeping over the water.

As for Convoys Wharf, developer Hutchinson Whampoa plans to build 3,500 homes, plus restaurants and other amenities as part of a £1 billion scheme. While Deptford heritage campaigners are worried the development won’t include anything which marks the rich history of the place. Some are even calling for space to allow for the construction of a replica 17th century warship as part of the plans.

To the naked eye this seems a desolate space, but there is something special that needs to be preserved at Deptford Dockyard as the WMF notes: “Frozen in time are the perimeter walls, caisson gate, cobbled paths, double dry dock, and seventeenth-century domestic architecture that reveal the rich heritage of Britain and trace the development of London over time. “ Hutchison Whampoa say their 2013 masterplan enables “the history and heritage of the site to inform the layouts of spaces and buildings.”

Let’s hope the developers stick to their word and this important part of world history really is not lost for ever

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