Sunday 9 October 2011

Convoys wharf archaeology tour

1698 view of the Dockyard. © City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

Around 60 people turned up for the tour of the Convoys Wharf site on Saturday, which was led by Duncan Hawkins, the archaeologist from the Museum of London who is in charge of the programme of work at the site.

The historical significance of the Convoys Wharf site is so immense, and has such implications for our national heritage that large areas of the site are being dug and examined. Most of this work is not visible from the boundaries, and it was quite sobering to see the physical extent of the dig. It was also sobering to realise that what we were seeing was just a fraction of what has been uncovered - large areas have already been buried again for 'preservation'.

The current programme of archaeological investigations is approximately halfway through, Hawkins explained, with a lot more digging still to be carried out. Major below-ground structures such as the mast ponds and the dockyard basin have still to be properly opened up, and these will be the focus for the coming months. But some of the dock structures, including a substantial part of the Great Dock at the eastern end of the site, still have buildings standing on them. Other parts, such as Sayes Court Gardens, are not even included in the programme of works.

According to Hawkins, Hutchison Whampoa intends to use the building on top of the Great Dock for storage of the archaeological finds, hence the Great Dock will not be fully excavated until the development is well under way.

Likewise, the archaeological investigation of the mast ponds and dockyard basin are not expected to be completed until May 2012. Deptford is.. maintains that it would be totally shortsighted - perhaps even negligent? - of the council to grant planning permission for a site which is still being excavated. Proposals for the future redevelopment of the site can surely not be granted until the full extent of the archaeology is investigated and understood.

The first part of the visit focused on the remains of the Tudor storehouse, which dates from 1513 and is a scheduled ancient monument. Many of the old walls have been uncovered and it's still possible to see the shape of the building, although previous construction work has driven concrete piles through the walls in various places. Bricks from the upper parts of the walls were taken away and used to rebuild the garden wall at Hampton Court when it was demolished, incredibly as recently as 1954. Much of this part of the dig was still open but Hawkins said that it would be backfilled shortly to protect the remains from frost damage during the winter.

In the middle of the photo above, the dark grey area of soil is evidence of one of two medieval docks found on the site - these would not have been much more than holes dug into the clay. According to the archaeologists they represent the earliest evidence of ship-building left in London today.

From the jetty, Hawkins pointed out the dressed stone which marks the entrance to the Great Dock - one of only two double dry docks in the country, the other being in Chatham (you can see the dressed stone to the right of the post if you click on the photo below and view the larger version).

This diagram from the May 2010 archaeology report shows the positions of the trial trenches (in red) overlain on the 1868 dockyard map. (If you click on it you can see a larger version).

Very little excavation work has been carried out on the Great Dock so far (marked here as 'stem dock' and 'head dock'); a large warehouse covers most of it and one trial trench has been dug at the river end of the site. This part of the site is slated to be retained for public use by the developers. However they proposed to recreate the 'footprint' of the dock as some kind of public park or garden area, not to excavate and reinstate it, which would be a much more appropriate solution for such a significant piece of heritage. Despite the minimal amount of investigation that has been carried out into this structure, the archaeologists were confident in their assertion that it would be impossible to reinstate it.

To the west of the Tudor storehouse remains, two wooden slipways have been uncovered. There were originally five slipways in the docks - three which opened directly to the river, and two which were covered by the Olympia building (in the background of the picture above) and led out to the huge dockyard basin.

Many of the wooden timbers remain, with the uprights showing that the former slipways had been modified over time to accommodate bigger and bigger ships. Some of the timbers are recycled from ships. The walls are brick and concrete - a very early version of the concrete we use today.

The next phase of excavation involves opening up the dockyard basin - a huge area of land enclosed by a brick wall, part of which Hawkins is standing on in the photo below. The upright timbers in front of the wall are old mooring posts. Although the top half metre or so is missing, the majority of the wall itself seems very well preserved. The archaeologists are intending to open up the whole dockyard basin, before moving on to the mast ponds and the other slipway at the far end of the site.

The last part of the visit was the Olympia warehouse, where the archaeology team have established that the granite slipways are still intact and remain just half a metre or so below ground level. This is a listed building and as such the developers must retain it - but as yet there is no clear indication as to how it could be used apart from some rather vague title such as 'cultural centre' or similar.

One of the issues that Deptford is.. wants to highlight is that Hutchison Whampoa is claiming that the revised planning application is an improvement on the earlier proposals, but in fact we believe it is a retrograde step. For example the Olympia warehouse was originally set next to a public area, which while not ideal, at least gave the structure some kind of dignity and respect despite it still being overshadowed by the neighbouring towers.

In the new plan, shown below, the public area is gone and the only connection between the covered slipways and the river - the feature which informs the very purpose and history of the structure - is via a narrow, tree-lined path which links one corner of the building to its natural partner like a lifeline that is gradually being snuffed out.

The structure of the building is largely intact, with its originally cast-iron columns and beams, although the cladding and some parts of the roof members are much more modern. The ability of the structure to bear any substantial loading will have to be thoroughly assessed before any design can be progressed for its rehabilitation - one of the cast-iron columns is already cracked and the brittleness of this material means that cracking is a risk for other parts of the structure.

The Olympia warehouse visit marked the end of the tour - rather prematurely, many of us thought, with no mention of the investigations into John Evelyn's former home Sayes Court and its famous gardens.

After being asked about this, Hawkins explained that excavations had been carried out and the team believed it had uncovered the remains of the house, which is mentioned in a news item on the Museum of London's archaeology page here.

This contrasts somewhat with an earlier archaeological update note published by Hutchison Whampoa, Museum of London Archaeology and CgMs Consulting in July 2010 which stated that: "On the site of Sayes Court, trial trenching has revealed no surviving trace of either the buildings or gardens of Sayes Court due to the impact of later development. Previous archaeological work in 2000 had revealed fragmentary remains of the main Mansion House of Sayes Court and this can now be shown to be an isolated find in a relatively small area of the site."

Clearly the original lack of surviving trace has since been found to be erroneous. But the claim that the site team have actually found the remains of Sayes Court is strongly disputed on the London's Lost Garden blog, which believes that the overlays used by the team have not been placed in the most appropriate locations. The authors – a qualified archaeologist and a landscape architect among them – believe that the structure uncovered by the Museum of London team was the former army pensions office, which was built next to the site of Sayes Court.

In discussions at the site, Hawkins stated confidently that his team had found the right building, but the excavation and the trenches had already been backfilled under a huge mound of rubble so there was no visual evidence to examine. The documents submitted with the planning application were written in April 2010, when the team believed no evidence of Sayes Court remained. We await the full report on this part of the dig with interest.

Despite this about-turn on the presence of Sayes Court, no attempt has yet been made to investigate the archaeology of the former gardens. London's Lost Garden blog explains the heritage significance and potential of the site thus:

Sayes Court is a site of national historical importance. Its archaeology has yet to be properly investigated and recorded.
Informed by a thorough archaeological excavation, the development proposals should include a historically-accurate restoration of a substantial part of the garden as a valuable local amenity, an economically-significant visitor attraction, and a worthy memorial to John Evelyn.

Update: Shipwright's Palace has posted more about this here.


  1. Had the remains of John Evelyn's Sayes Court House and Garden, the Great Dry Dock, the full extent of John Rennie's 1814 Great Basin and the Pepys era Mast pond been excavated to the extent that the storehouse complex has, prior to the submission and adoption of the planning application I believe English Heritage would have been duty bound to comprehensively list and schedule the site as they have with every other royal naval dockyard in the country. Of the seven major royal naval yards Deptford is the only royal naval dockyard in the country not to be comprehensively listed and scheduled. See you on Tuesday.

  2. Correction- the cladding on the north and south walls of the Olympia building and the windows within those walls are original to the building. It is only the roofing that has been replaced. This an important fact and one that renders the building very special because of its early use of corrugated iron.
    In Chatham Dockyard they recently had to specially manufacture the cladding for their slipway covers at significant cost. Thankfully, Deptford still retains its original cladding and windows. Hurrah!

  3. Thank you for your work and sharing....
    Keep the history alive...