When the capital’s first railway – the London and Greenwich – opened in 1836, Deptford became an overnight haven for commuters and day trippers. Passengers could reach southeast London from the company’s London Bridge terminus in a matter of minutes and some 20,000 travelled on the line during its first month alone.
But against the jubilation of the new railway, there was a human cost as numerous people were displaced from their homes to enable the construction to take place. For the most part the route between Bermondsey and Deptford passed through open fields and orchards, so few houses needed to be pulled down. The impact on the centre of Deptford itself was a different matter.
Walking down Deptford High Street today, the evidence of the railway’s arrival is very much apparent as a viaduct dating from 1836 divides the bustling through fare connecting New Cross to the Thames. Deptford station, accessed from the High Street, has had a makeover and the arches below are available for businesses to let.
For the Deptford homes wiped out by the railway, there is however no visual reminder and we are left only with newspaper articles which highlight their destruction. An account published by The Times in 1861 challenges the suggestion that some had made that improved transport connections would improve the lives of everyone:
“The poor are displaced but they are not removed. They are shovelled out of one side of the parish, only to render more overcrowded the stifling apartments in the other part… But the dock and wharf labourer, the porter and the costermonger cannot remove. You may pull down their wretched homes; they must find others and make their new dwellings more crowded and wretched than their old ones. The tailor, shoemaker and other workmen are in much the same position. It is a mockery to speak of the suburbs to them.”
Over the course of the 19th century numerous writers noted the appalling, overcrowded living conditions that many in Deptford faced. Edward Wallace was one such person who reported that the “houses are narrow fronted and of a set pattern,” adding:
“For what was once Deptford’s glory is now Deptford’s slum. The great houses ring with the shrill voices of innumerable children. Floor after floor is let out to tenements and in some cases a dozen families occupy the restricted space which in olden times barely sufficed to accommodate the progeny of opulent ship’s chandlers.”
Many more commentators were ready to give their take on Deptford. “The courts and alleys round the dock swarm with low lodging houses; and are inhabited either by dock labourers, sack makers or that peculiar class of London poor who pick up a living by the water-tide,” wrote Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor.
Charles Booth, the social reformer and publisher of the famous coloured poverty maps, spent time documenting the area with his team. “Hardly a family in Griffin Street or Regent Street has more than one room,” he wrote. And although he said that on the High Street “commercial activity bustles; and pockets of relative affluence, even civic pride, can be discerned”, for the most part he didn’t have very many positive things to say about “low class” Deptford where people lived on the breadline. He saw “men breaking up some gas fittings and putting the metal in a sack…. some prostitutes… and broken windows “.
Others had strong opinions on how it wasn’t the most pleasant of places for a night out, with drinking alcohol on the streets being deemed a considerable problem. “Deptford High Street is not a desirable place to be in on a Saturday evening, unless you enjoying being jostled here and there, or pushed anywhere by a crowd. If you are looking for quietness, whatever else you do, don’t come into the vicinity of this street,” Robert Sparrow, the Wesleyan commentator wrote. In his account, he said that at 11pm “the number of children who are, at this late hour of the night, out on the streets, uncared for, neglected and apparently for the time, forgotten.”
But while the arrival of the railways helped to bring about Deptford’s downfall, it was by no means the only factor. To understand this fully, we need to delve deeper into the area’s past.
The name Deptford is believed to derive from the deep ford where the Romans established a crossing point over the Ravensbourne. Back then it was a wild, open spot and it was not until Tudor times when the area achieved any real significance. As I’ve written before, Henry VIII established a naval dockyard at Deptford in 1513 and it took centre stage in the maritime world for some 350 years.
Explorers Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and James Cook all set off from Deptford on epic adventurers, while hundreds of warships – including those used in the Napoleonic Wars – were built at the dockyard. Shipbuilders that benefited from the Atlantic ‘triangular’ trade route which brought African slaves to the New World, before vessels returned to the UK laden with sugar were also based here.
Deptford attracted visitors and workers from all over the world, including Peter the Great who spent three months here on a fact finding-trip to help him plan the construction of the new Russian fleet. It must have been a very multicultural place, with seamen and dockers originating from places as far afield as India.
But over time trade disappeared from Deptford because it was inappropriate for larger vessels and it finally closed. The knock on effect was considerable, not least because many trades associated with shipbuilding – such as sail making and timber – also became redundant.
Some dockyard jobs were replaced with those in the animal trade (a Cattle Market was established in 1871), but this did little for Deptford’s reputation given the dirty nature of the work.
Philanthropists and missionaries came to Deptford in a bid to improve the lives of local residents by working in pubs, opening temperance halls and – in the case of the Salvation Army – marching through the streets. As you walk around the local area today, traces of some of these age-old institutions remain.
Yet what many Deptford residents really craved in the 19th century – and the first half of the one that followed – was a decent place to call home. London County Council announced plans for slum clearance, but this little came to fruition. Little noticeable projects therefore really got underway until the aftermath of the Second World War.
New homes were clearly needed, as an 1939 account from a Giffin Street resident testifies. They reported that “poor children” were “living in rat infested” conditions. And there were “black beetles on the table we are eating on, also sleeping and eating in the same rooms cannot get places because of having children, our time is now that we should all have clean homes, not to have to eat what rats are touching and running over the beds at night”.
However it was the strategy of renewal that has been criticised by many. As I wrote following an excellent BBC programme, the Secret History of Our Streets back in 2012, it has been proved that solid housing stock was demolished and communities were destroyed. Heavy-handed tactics, such as water pipes being cut, were used to kick out those who refused to leave. As a result, life was sucked out of out the High Street, with pubs and shops forced to close for good. Slums were created where there hadn’t been slums before.
Visiting Deptford today, it’s fascinating to see how the traditional and modern merge into one. The regular High Street open air market selling everything from double beds and carpets to clothing and light bulbs continues, but the covered stalls partially mask a new breed of trendy of popular coffee shops. Pie and mash shops and tatty pound stores exist next door to smart art galleries.
One Saturday morning I popped into London Velo – part cafe, part bike shop – for a latte and to read the newspaper. It’s a great place to people watch as bikes are brought in for repair and their owners relay the accidents they’ve had. And not feeling I’ve had enough caffeine I carry on down the High Street to the cosy Waiting Room coffee shop, which features a very middle-class book exchange, coffees are served in jam jars and it seems to be doing a roaring trade with take away drinks.
Many of these new breed of cafes open late into the evening, but the place that has truly grabbed the headlines is the Job Centre. Opened in 2014 in a former jobcentre, it has made its way into the CAMRA beer guide which says it is a “welcome addition by Antic to the fairly sparse Deptford pub scene.” Like many upstart bars in the area the decor is minimalist, with bare concrete flooring and exposed flooring.
In my view the Job Centre is a pleasant place to go and drink good beers with friends. It features a changing rota of so-called “food residents” and there is often a DJ playing uplifting tunes from their turntables. The vibe is completely different to what you would find in a traditional London boozer (like the charming Dog and Bell a few minutes away from the High Street), yet the two sorts can go hand in hand.
But not all were happy about the arrival of the Job Centre, with an editorial in the Guardian claiming that “in a neighbourhood with so many impoverished residents that there is a free food bank around the corner, unemployment is now being packaged as fun decor for those with disposable cash.” It’s ironic that the last time I went in there the only paper I could spot any of the punters reading was….. the Guardian.
Once there were 12 pubs on the High Street, but they no longer take centre stage and the bars and cafes are now the popular places to head for a drink. Yet as you walk along the bustling stretch the traces of these former boozers remain and many of the buildings now have new uses. The old sign for the Deptford Arms still hangs above what is today a branch of Paddy Power, the bookmakers, for example. And I spotted that another former pub is now an Afro-Caribbean restaurant, while another is an outreach centre
Lying just off the High Street, one of the more recent additions to Deptford is the Deptford Lounge, a gold-coated modern building that offers a range of community services, such as a library and commuter access, as well as a popular cafe. It’s a few minutes walk from the Albany Arts centre and together the two institutions, along with the Laban contemporary dance centre, are aiming to change the image of this part of Southeast London and give the local people a place to live that they all can be proud.
Passing the Albany one day, I encountered a mass of volunteers frantically taping cardboard boxes together in an attempt to build a tower structure stretching into the sky. It was all a bit of fun and was designed to help bring the community together.
Deptford is a place that doesn’t take no for an answer as a poster doing the rounds in coffee shops demonstrates – “GIVE US BACK OUR BLOOMIN’ ANCHOR”. Locals have started a petition reinstate that stood for many years at the top of Deptford High Street, but the surrounding seats became a place for street drinkers. Campaigners want the anchor to be returned without the plinth on which it once stood.
But despite the opening in Deptford of numerous businesses and the addition of new community facilities in recent years, all is not well. It is one of the most deprived wards in Lewisham and youth unemployment remains high. Just as in Booth’s day, a short stone’s throw away from the High Street many people continue to live in poverty. The railway displaced Deptford residents in the 19th century and some would argue that wave of building work bringing plush apartments on the banks of the Thames is not doing favours for local people either.