CEYLON PLACE COTTAGES
At the back end of the car park at the Millennium Dome stand the ‘Ceylon Place’ cottages, next to the Pilot pub, and the only old buildings in a great sea of new structures. The Dome is dedicated to the future and when it was originally planned they intended to demolish the old cottages along with everything else. Local people didn’t feel quite the same about the demolition of everything old and protests from local community groups meant that the cottages were saved. Since then English Heritage has listed them and, in the course of their research, have discovered that they are among the oldest buildings of their type in London.
They date from around 1802, and so are ‘Georgian’. They were built to house the families of workers in Mr.George Russell’s large riverside ‘tide’ mill – that is a watermill which was driven by the incoming tides. Anyone who wants to see a tide mill can do so by making a short trip through the Blackwall Tunnel. The House Mill at Three Mills – just behind Tesco on the 102M – is open to the public on the first Sunday of each month. Prepare to be surprised at the enormous scale on which was it was built and operated! The Greenwich one was rather smaller – but not much.
In 1802 the area on which the Dome is now built was marshland and there were cattle grazing in muddy fields which were interspersed with a network of drainage ditches and ponds. No-one lived there and it was probably a very lonely place. A few lanes meandered down through the marsh from Greenwich to the riverside. The river itself however would have been very busy and full of great ships – East Indiamen calling into their Company’s depot at Blackwall and many others coming to and from the new West India docks.
The Mr. Russell, who built the cottages and the mill, had made his money out of soap. His factory, alongside Blackfriars Bridge, was the biggest soap works in the country. By the 1790s could afford to retire, and he had bought a big house at Longlands, near Sidcup. He intended to invest his money in property so he bought a piece of riverside land around 1795. His two ships, Nymph and Russell, would have passed Greenwich marsh on their way up river and he no doubt thought it was an area ripe for development..
Russell’s workmen, under his foreman Thomas Taylor, began to make bricks on the site – this involved digging up the ‘brick earth’ which was then moulded and baked. The dirty, smelly, activity began to worry the marsh bailiff – the ‘wall reeve’ – who managed the marshland area on behalf of local landowners. His name was Philip Sharpe and one day in April 1796 he walked down to the site to see for himself. At the brickworks he met Thomas Taylor and an argument developed. Taylor said ‘Damn your eyes Mr Sharp, if you come here I will polish your teeth and stop your eyes with mud, Sir!’. He followed this up by ordering John Bicknell, who was standing nearby, to push Sharp off the river wall. Bicknell, the future Greenwich Town Clerk, did as he was told. Sharp made a hasty retreat, no doubt well covered in Thames mud!
Nothing very much seems to have happened as the result of this violent encounter and a couple of years later they were working amicably together as the new buildings went up on the riverside. The only problem being that as building progressed the workmen were reported for throwing ‘rubbish’ into neighbouring fields. Son after Mr. Russell applied for official permission to build a wharf and causeway into the river. This causeway was until recently used by Greenwich Yacht Club.
In 1800 the new development was called ‘New East Greenwich’ and consisted of the mill, cottages, some tenements, the pub and a big house. The mill and the house survived for about a hundred years but now, after two hundred years, only the cottages and pub remain. When they were built they were called ‘Ceylon Place’? What does this name mean?
The strange thing about the whole area is that it seems to be linked to national politics and William Pitt, the younger, who was Prime Minister before 1801. Some documents have survived which show that the mill and some of the buildings were leased to a consortium of politicians – all of them at some time cabinet ministers . Some of them were local landowners from Blackheath but William Pitt and his elder brother, Lord North, are also included. There is no apparent link between these politicians and George Russell, and it is a matter of speculation as to the nature of their interest in the mill and cottages on this remote part of the Greenwich riverside.
The name ‘Ceylon Place’ can be explained by contemporary national events . In 1802 Ceylon was ceded to the British Crown as part of the Treaty of Amiens. This treaty was associated with William Pitt and was thought at the time to represent the end of the wars with France. We now know that this was not the case, but at the time it was cause for great national rejoicing, and the name of the cottages must be a commemoration of the treaty. Perhaps it was also intended to mark Pitt’s association with the area.
In the two hundred years since the cottages were built there have been many changes in the area around them. Until a few years ago their neighbours included a gas works, a power station and a structural steel business. All of them have now gone – to be replaced by the Dome and all its works. The people who have lived in the cottages were ordinary local people – fishermen, watermen, gas workers, and so on. For a while they made up a small community with a mission hall, shops and a café. Many local people still treasure memories of a childhood in Riverway and I have been shown photographs of, for instance, races held there for the 1937 coronation celebrations.
The cottages were built as homes for the workers at George Russell’s mill and it is understood that they will now be used to house workers from the Dome site. When Mr. Sharp and Mr. Taylor quarrelled on the river bank two hundred years ago they could hardly have imagined all the changes that were to come. Perhaps, however, they would have been proud that the small, and, to them no doubt, unremarkable cottages which they built have survived to see in a new millennium and at the same time to have gained official ‘listed’ recognition.
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