Sunday 21 April 2013

Naval Dockyards Society conference: 500 years of Deptford and Woolwich Royal Dockyards

The five-hundred year anniversary of the founding of Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich was the theme of the annual conference organised by the Naval Dockyards Society at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich this weekend.

To mark this historic milestone and draw attention to the plight of these sites that risk being forgotten, the NDS lined up a series of speakers who gave presentations on different aspects of the dockyards.

Local MP Joan Ruddock opened the conference, and voiced her support for the Sayes Court Gardens and Lenox schemes being put forward by Deptford Is.. to recognise the significant heritage of the site.

Chris Ellmers is president of the Dockland History Group and was instrumental in setting up the Museum in Docklands in 2003. His presentation examined the private shipyards at Deptford and how they related to Deptford Dockyard over the period from 1790 to 1869. He pointed out that attention is almost always focused on the Royal Dockyard, but that Deptford also has a very rich history of shipbuilding at private yards. Merchant sailing ships, innovative steamers and early iron ships were also built in these dockyards and during the Napoleonic War the private shipyards also built and repaired naval vessels.

Peter Cross-Rudkin from the ICE Panel for Historical Engineering Works spoke about John Rennie, who was effectively the consulting engineer to the Navy from about 1806 onwards. He was involved in planning and designing works at Deptford and Woolwich, as well as Chatham, Milford Haven and Sheerness. The dock gates and parts of the river wall at Convoys Wharf (above) were designed by Rennie.

Archaeologist Duncan Hawkins (above, at one of the open days on the site) who led the excavations at Convoys Wharf presented his findings so far. He noted that while few artefacts were found at the site, the nineteenth-century slipways, entrance to the Great Dock, and the Dockyard basin were in relatively good condition.

Mark Stevenson is English Heritage's archaeology adviser for national planning for South London, and he spoke about archaeology and development management in the context of the developments that have taken place in Woolwich Dockyard and those planned for Deptford.

Finally Chris Mazeika and William Richards (owners of the Master Shipwrights House) presented a paper on the Dockyards Officers Terrace at Deptford (above). Their presentation focussed on the Dockyard Officers' Terrace, tracing its early history from a WWII bomb damage map, plans from the 1930s and a photograph taken around 1900. By analysing these resources and comparing them with earlier naval records as well as further photographic and cartographic evidence, they established that a terrace was present as early as 1623 and survived in part until the post-war period.

This discovery prompts the question as to whether the terrace at Deptford is the first palace front terrace in a royal naval dockyard. 

They also showed a fly-through 3D model of the site showing the location of the former terrace. 

The Greenwich Industrial History blog has also published a report on the conference.

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