Posts Tagged ‘Riverside’

A guest book review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon 
The Greenwich Riverside: Upper Watergate to Angerstein by Dr Mary Mills.


The granite globe in Swanage. Library of Congress, public domain.

cover ‘That’s the thing about Greenwich industry – you research what you think is just another yard or factory, a bit dirty, maybe a bit dodgy – and it turns out to be something important and amazing.’
The Thames Path grows by fits and starts. Just when you decide on a riparian ramble then the developers cordon off a section in middle of your intended route for a few years, forcing you to find an alternative and nerve jangling course beside a busy road. That section of path comes back into use, and another blockade ensues somewhere else while more ‘luxury apartments’ sprout. A nicer way of putting it is that the riverside is constantly changing. Unfortunately, riverside industry has mostly changed out of existence. One of the few river sections which remains interesting from an industrial point of view is at Angerstein.

‘We all spend too much time looking at Royal Greenwich when the wider world is so much more interesting.’
If any statement was guaranteed to invite my support and enthusiasm for this book it is this, Mary Mills’ last line from her book. Gone are the rope walks, bottle kilns and Scotch derricks, the tar, the naptha vinegar, sphagnum biscuits, Mockford’s Ordnance Manure Works and kamptulicon. At least the granite globe is still safely at Swanage. But you can savour them all vicariously here.

This is a self-published book in a large, not quite A4, format consisting of the author’s historical articles for the local magazine Greenwich Weekender. If you do not know your Upper Watergate from your Angerstein the book covers the stretch between local boundaries at Deptford and just short of the Thames Flood Barrier. It overlaps only minimally (she says) with another of her books Greenwich Peninsula Greenwich Marsh: History of an Industrial Heartland. That also looks like a book I need to read. By chance I have been recently reading Greenland and Day’s biography of Bermondsey engineer Bryan Donkin 1768–1855, and Richard Hartree’s John Penn and Sons of Greenwich which has whetted my curiosity about south east London’s industry.


Greenwich Tramway Powerstation. Image: Laurence Scales.


Angerstein. Image: Laurence Scales

Being self-published, there are many typographical errors. ‘Commemorative plague’, for example, is not what was intended but delightfully suggestive of some developer’s attempts to accrue some historical veneer from that which they may have swept away. A read through by another pair of eyes before publication would have been beneficial. There is an illustration, photograph, map or press cutting on almost every page. I especially liked a couple of watercolours of the former Greenwich peninsula marshes and a view of the Greenwich powder magazine and proof house. Some of the maps and a few illustrations are a bit fuzzy.

Dr Mills’ research has been going on for a long time. ‘I remember when I was busy trespassing on the wharf in the 1980s…’ she says at one point. Her trespassing elsewhere also led to the recovery of an abandoned capstan by the Museum of London. Her style is chatty and very readable, and this book made for an interesting armchair expedition along the river. Dr Mills writes from her research with enthusiasm and authority. Here is a typical extract.

‘At the southern end of Lungley’s works at Deptford Green was the Kamptulicon works belonging to Harry Taylor. Kamptulicon had been first made at Greenwich High Road and as a sort of predecessor to linoleum for floors using rubber instead of linseed oil. Taylor blended the rubber with a gum in a process that is said to have been discovered by a doctor when dealing with a patient with head injuries. It was advertised for use in ‘floors, knife boards, lunatic’s cells and horse boxes’.

Sometimes you have to look to the end notes to follow up the source for some tantalising reference, for example for more information about another invention, the Noakesoscope.

Among the dog biscuit factories and barge builders there really were some scenes of world beating achievement here such as the works that made the cables that Brunel’s incredible hulk Great Eastern helped to lay across the Atlantic, and the yard that produced the Blackadder, sister vessel of Cutty Sark.

Towards the end of the book there come a few more extended articles. These diverge slightly from the format and sequence hitherto. These include pieces on the Dome, the Blackwall Tunnel, the east Greenwich tidemill, the gas works and the Angerstein railway.

A name that keeps recurring is Morden College, because it is a substantial landowner in the area. This I had never heard of and it is not much elaborated in the book. It is a charitable foundation, centred on a (possibly) Wren designed building in Blackheath. Sir John Morden endowed it in 1695 for the care of the ‘decayed’ and distressed merchants after his own near encounter with financial disaster in trade with Turkey.


Morden College. Image: Danny Robinson. Open domain.

Despite the presentational imperfections of this book, I’m sure that anyone curious about the history of the River Thames, of London, of Greenwich or of its industry will find this not just a great record but full of interest and pleasure.

The Greenwich Riverside: Upper Watergate to Angerstein by Dr Mary Mills, Paperback, 283 pages, Illustrated in Colour, Including Maps. £15.00

Read Full Post »