Saturday 18 May 2013

Deptford's 'spectacular history'

The full text of Joan Ruddock's introduction at the recent Naval Dockyards Society conference has now been published on her website. We have included our highlights below.

When I was first invited by local Labour party activists to contest the selection to succeed the late John Silkin MP I was a stranger to South East London. My only reference point was Samuel Pepys’ diaries and his oft recorded “went down to Deptford”. .

Looking back it wasn’t a bad connection to have made because although my life has been bound up with all the contemporary issues of the past 25 years a small thread has drawn me repeatedly back to the Dockyards. It was the vicar of St Nicholas Church, Graham Corneck, who first got me interested in the history of the Royal Dockyard. Christopher Marlowe’s bones are reputed to rest in St Nicholas’ churchyard and Graham was an enthusiast for the history of that time.

Deptford has a spectacular history, sadly little appreciated or promoted locally.

It was the decision of News International to close Convoys Wharf - the last remaining working wharf - that got me enthralled with the history of the Royal Dockyard. When the site was due for closure the management invited me to a meeting to explain their plans and assure me that the hundred odd workers were all to be redeployed. I was astounded to see the extent of the site – a footprint equivalent to the whole of the South Bank – yet hidden from public view for decades. My immediate concern was how we, the local people, would regain the site and access to the amazing river frontage. 

Instinctively I knew that development plans would come forward, based on millionaire’s housing and no respect for the site’s extraordinary heritage. I was right – over the next few years, I, the council and local people pressed our case. The first proposals were scrapped, a new master plan was produced but in the end News International abandoned their task and sold to Hutchinson Whampoa in 2008. They equally struggled to find their way. Eventually I insisted on meeting a senior Chinese executive. We had a very tough meeting in which I likened the importance of the Royal Dock Yards' place in British history to that of the Great Wall of China in his. Probably this is the one audience that doesn’t think I exaggerated.

Convoys Wharf when I first visited it was a concrete wasteland with huge sheds dotted randomly on site. One building stood out – the Olympia Warehouse – with its huge ugly façade but superb Victorian vaulted ironwork inside. Fortunately this had been listed and will remain on site but I was appalled to learn that the remains of a Tudor storehouse had been pulled down as late as the 1950s. 

Model of the Tudor storehouse

My basic demands for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf were complete access to the site for all including the riverfront, a mix of jobs and homes, including affordable homes, recognition and marking of the important heritage and mitigation of the impacts of such a vast development on local roads, transport and services. I knew there would be many objections as there always are but what I didn’t anticipate was the advance of two hugely imaginative projects by local people. 

A group of people led by a local boat builder, Julian Kingston, have put forward a plan to build a replica ship. The project is to build a replica of the Lenox which was the first of the great thirty ship programme of 1677, overseen by Samuel Pepys. The plan is based on the 20 year research programme undertaken by marine historian Richard Endsor which means that it is possible to construct an exact replica. The details of the potential build are fascinating and could employ an army of apprentices. I have never had a particular interest in boats but contemporary paintings record a magnificent war ship that could not fail to inspire. 

The second project is one particularly close to my heart as a former botanist. The Sayes Court project is led by landscape gardener Roo Angell and Bob Bagley. They have researched the origins of John Evelyn’s garden established at Sayes Court in 1653. John Evelyn worked on his designs and experimented with plans over a period of 30 years, making his garden one of the most famous and revolutionary gardens of its time. The remains of his manor house and the site of most of his garden now lie within the boundary of Convoys Wharf. 

The project aims to create a John Evelyn Centre based on the archaeological remains of the ancient manor house and to plant an extensive garden with trees and medicinal herbs. Once again this site could offer the opportunity to combine natural beauty, scientific research and a place of relaxation for local people. 

The site requires a decae-long investment programme

We are looking at a decade-long development programme during which we will need to be vigilant. I won’t be the MP by the time it’s completed but I’m intending to stay involved. This is a part of our heritage too important to miss.


  1. Superior Gardens = HIT
    Ship = Bad Business

    Get some cash cow attraction (not the ship ;/) to bring in the tourists and and get them down all the local shops and Deptford High St etc etc.. businesses need money...... to employ local people..... get some new attraction that will bring in the crowds....

    They wont come here to see a ship.

    1. I think lots of people will come to see a ship ! I travelled from Deptford to Faversham bank holiday just to look at some old Thames barges at a fair there...And it was a lovely community event with music and food stalls etc.. (They are fighting to keep the Creek a working creek) I'm sorry our ship was a WARship but it is the beauty of a ship's construction that draws admiration and crowds..Combined with Greenwich's Cutty Sark and Thames pathway and joining the high street to the river (as planned) will draw the crowds)...Whether it is done in a way to help local people and business is the issue - Matay

  2. In southern France an old shipyard town has built a wooden ship and for over ten years the people came each year in excess of 250,000 - yes a quarter of a million each year. Restaurants, shops, museum and all flourish. The town has been reborn!
    The project has trained hundreds of locals. Deptford could do the same.