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Review: The Industries of Deptford Creek by Mary Mills. A guest post by Margarette Lincoln.

idustries deptford creek_Deptford Creek is the name given to the stretch of the River Ravensbourne from Deptford Bridge, on the A2 road to Dover, northwards to where the Ravensbourne discharges into the Thames. Today the Creek is within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, but historically it divided Deptford from Greenwich.

Mary Mills’ painstaking research reveals that the Creek was once a busy industrial waterway. Over the years it contained at least two industries of national importance. One was the Tudor Armoury Mill, located on the Ravensbourne north of Deptford Bridge, where armour was manufactured for Henry VIII. The second, at the other end of the Creek where it meets the Thames, was Ferranti’s revolutionary power station. Completed in 1891, it was the first to generate electricity for public supply.

Between these two sites a range of industries operated at different points in time. In the early seventeenth century, gravel pits and osier beds were maintained along the Creek. While the Tudor palace still functioned in Greenwich, it was serviced by a slaughterhouse on the nearby river. From the early 1600s to 1644, the East India Company had a shipbuilding and repair yard just west of the Creek mouth, on the Thames at Deptford, before moving entirely to Blackwall on the Isle of Dogs.

Operations along the Creek were transformed as new technologies were invented. There were several mills over the centuries, waterpower being replaced by steam, then electricity. The fortunes of the Armoury fluctuated with successive monarchs, but Elizabeth I visited its workshops several times and it continued to make armour into the early Stuart period. In the later eighteenth century, the armoury was revived for making rifles and other military weapons. The flow of water in the Ravensbourne could not cope with intensive production and the small arms factory moved to Enfield in the early nineteenth century. The Armoury buildings were next used to produce silk thread, then from 1860 gold and silver wire, and allegedly it was here that tinsel was first produced.

There was a concentration of potteries at Deptford, owing to the quality of local brown earths and nearby water transport, to bring in other clays and to distribute finished goods for sale. The potteries mostly produced plain and glazed red earthenware for everyday use in the kitchen or garden. They also produced sugar moulds. One of the few industries the author does not mention are the sugar bakers, clustered in Deptford Broadway in the 1780s and 90s. Coal merchants long kept wharves on the Creek, dealing in coal brought down from Newcastle and Durham. The trade only disappeared from the riverside in the 1970s. There was also a succession of breweries and a distillery. More polluting industries included noxious copperas works. This valuable product was used as a dye fixative and a dye-darkening agent, to blacken leather, and to make ink.

In the nineteenth century, industries on the Creek became even more polluting. Gas works, related to the coal trade, sprang up in the early decades, providing gas for street lighting. Manufacturers of manure ground up animal bones with chemicals, creating nauseating stinks. On the positive side, the pumping station at Greenwich was the first part of Bazalgette’s monumental Victorian sewage system to get up and running. If industrial history brings awareness of living conditions in the past, it also gives insights into specific occupations. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century there was a horse tram depot with extensive stabling on the Creek, serving the line that ran between Blackheath Hill and New Cross. Mills reports that one exhausted driver complained in the 1880s, ‘It is very hard for a man to be obliged to stand for seven, nine, and twelve hours without being allowed to sit down, especially when the horses are pulling hard at him all the time.’

Famous firms along the Creek included Merriweather’s, a firm that built fire engines. Its fine engines are now polished and cherished in museums across the world, but locally the firm’s history is practically unknown. The most famous Creekside firm was General Steam Navigation, founded in 1824, which built a fleet of paddle steamers for passenger transport and coastal trade. By the 1940s the firm had about 45 ships. Its fleet helped to evacuate London children at the beginning of the Second World War and played a role in rescuing troops from Dunkirk. The firm merged with P&O in 1972 but by then it had already ceased to build ships.
This is a self-published work which began as a series of articles in support of a project to create a heritage trail along the Creek. It does not seek to meet all standards of professional publication (images lack captions and the geographical organisation of the second half would be much clarified by a labelled map). There are also some minor errors. For example, the Popish Plot was not ‘the baby in the warming pan scandal’ (p. 31). But this is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the local history of the area. Mary Mills has rescued the Creek’s remarkable past from potential oblivion.

An afterword by Mick Delap sets out plans for a Deptford Creek Heritage Trail, the project he leads with Barbara Reid. The intention is to place the history of Creekside industries in a wider context since many entrepreneurs indirectly derived funding from plantation slavery or the colonial exploitation of South Asia. Recent extensive development in the Greenwich Peninsular and the Deptford area has largely ignored the rich industrial past that Mills has uncovered. Given the economic value of anchoring property developments to heritage, helping to make new housing attractive to buyers, it seems that developers have missed a trick by not doing more to fund the project. This fascinating book ends with a call for volunteers and help with sponsorship. See www.creeklink.co.uk.
The Industries of Deptford Creek (219pp) by Mary Mills was published in paperback in December 2022 with a cover price of £15.

Our reviewer Margarette Lincoln, who is a London Historians member, has written several books on her own account including London and the 17th Century (2021) and Trading in War (2018).

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