An altered Greenwich roadway

Kentish Mercury
24th March 1932
When a lane has lost its real or imaginary association with dog roses, honeysuckle or other of nature’s frivolities it rapidly sinks in the public’s estimation and must be renamed. The change from Marsh Lane to Tunnel Avenue and Riverway was reasonable but you could hardly call the old Marsh Lane picturesque it was in spite of its dirt and ditches for more interesting than the deadly dull roads, which have replaced it.
At the top, on the left, Robert Govan a Scot, kept a grocery and a baker’s shop and made money. On the right was the Ship and Billet with the horse trough. Below this stretched some small houses inhabited, I should think, entirely by Irish. This little colony probably came into existence soon after the terrible potato famine of 1846-7 when many thousands of starving peasants came to England. Our charwoman, Betsy Bowen, was one of these. The ten million grant by the Government did not go far.
I collected the rents of two small houses on the right of the lane Mrs. Sheehan was a saintly old Catholic revered by all the lane. When she died her coffin lay in the little back room for some days. A calico catafalque had been erected over the coffin and tiny white tape crosses pinned thereon.
An Eviction.
The tenant next door was not a saint. He didn’t keep clean or sober. That would not have made mattered in those days but he did not pay his rent which was serious. I had to put his furniture save the mark, into the lane. In the front room upstairs there was a wash handstand. A newspaper covered it. I took up the job bottomless and basin also bottomless. In a corner of the room there was a little altar. It was rather pathetic. The goods stood in the gutter untouched for about a fortnight when the Vestry bundle the rubbish into their yard. Now had this rubbish been in an English street it was house disappeared in a day. But it belonged to an evicted tenant and no one; boy or man, in Marsh Lane would meddle with it.
Mention of the Vestry reminds me that a certain vestryman stated at a meeting that ‘Marsh Lane wasn’t fit for Presbyterian to go down’. Evidently Congregationalists were more sturdy for old Mr. Davies who lived at the end of the lane opposite the causeway tramped once or twice each Sunday to Maze Hill Chapel. Mr. Davies was the uncle of Sir Walford Davies whose aunt died in Blackheath some years ago over 100 years of age.
The Davies house with the trees around formed a pleasant little oasis in the Marshes. A few trees still remain. Opposite the house is Bugsby’s Hole whether the river is very deep here I don’t know, but many years ago an old pilot friend of mine, rather more alcoholic than usual fell out of his boat and was drowned.
In the wall of the Pilot you may see a stone ‘Ceylon Place, New East Greenwich 1802’ The inhabitants of this fag end of Greenwich were mostly watermen and pilots when I first knew it and in bad winter weather it was isolated. On Saturday, greatly daring, the wives went to Greenwich market. On other days they were generally content to deal with Mr. Chaney who had a grocery shop just before you reached Mr. Davies’ house. Mr. Chaney not only attended to their physical wants but over the shop there was a room where he did his best to meet their spiritual needs. I have sampled his goods but not his sermons – I fee, sure they were equally good
Hard winters
As all know the land was then all market garden, but there were certain huts in which gunpowder or fireworks were made. Every now and then there was a ‘blow up’ and sometimes a death occurred. Worse however was the low fever some ill-natured people called it ‘starvation fever’ that generally killed a few in the winter. Winter was a dreadful time among the garden workers.

April 29th 1932

It is pleasant to find that our father, Mr. Davies, is still remember in Greenwich, though it seems strange that he should then have been thought old, as he was only 72 when he removed to Dulwich. But as he had tramped ‘the lane’ for over 40 years he certainly was ‘an old inhabitant’.
His house was an interesting old place. It was originally built by a Mr. Hughes as a pleasure house for his parties and dances. The hall was paved with large square of black and white marble and its ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill after the style of his work in the Painted Hall (the whole canvas of this ceiling came down bodily in the night during our residence there). The house was built on piles and under it were brick arched cellars perfectly dry like those under the College.
Mr. Hughes was apparently rather a reprobate for the story goes that on Sunday evenings he sat on the window sill of the upstairs ballroom dangling his legs outside and blowing a horn to disturb the service held in the Thames Church Mission ship, the swan, which was moored just opposite the jetty. Between the garden and river was the right of way footpath to Woolwich and watermen using the jetty and footpath would lean over the hawthorn hedge gazing at the primroses which covered the grassy bank inside and call to us children’ don’t you pick those Missy, they are the prettiest things we ever see’.
The field beyond were then meadows with cows and buttercups and several in a line with the back of Wheatleys farm were full of cowslips. They were separated by hedges of pink and white hawthorn and the larks sang over them all day long. The market gardens were then only on the upper part of the Marsh, really the lower, for toward the river the ground rose several feet so the pilot.doc and Ceylon Place were free from the damp and the consequent fevers which were prevalent nearer Greenwich. The ditches had willow trees here and there on their banks and being tidal were never stagnant.
A Working Man’s Institute
Mr. F. C. Hills, owner of the chemical works of which Mr. Davies was manager fitted up a large room over Mr. Chaney’s shop as a working men’s institute with a library and weekly and monthly papers and magazines and the service held there on Sunday evenings was conducted by various friend’s (Mr. Thomas Hodges a deacon of Maze Hill Chapel was a frequent and welcome ‘supply’). Fortnightly ‘Penny Readings’, concerts, lectures etc were given here for several winter seasons beginning about 1867. Among the speakers were George MacDonald, Mr. Hale White (then door keeper at the House of Commons, the father of ‘Mark Rutherford’) W.C. Bennetts, the poet, The Rev Benjamin Waugh, and others.
Miss Anna Williams, the well-known soprano, made her debut there (and soon afterwards sang before Queen Victoria, who presented her with a gold bracelet). To this concert a gentleman famed for his love or practical joking, undertook to conduct a party of Greenwich friends. He led them by cart tracks over garden ground and across several ditches, telling them it was the only sway. So they reached the concert very late, very hot and very muddy.
The custom was for performers or speakers and their friends to adjourn afterwards to our house for coffee and sandwiches (and talk) before facing the lane again. I do not remember any of these gatherings being prevented by bad weather. In later years the Thames Church Mission, the ‘Swan’ being removed, used the Institute room.
A Great Snowstorm
In the great snowstorm of January 1881 the lane was impassable until a gang of men had dug a road through, making snow walls of 6ft or so in height and as we walked up it, that afternoon one man shouted ‘make way mates, and let the beauties of the valley pass’.
Fogs were worse obstacles then wind, rain or mud. One night we were all caught in an extra dense one and called at Mr. Tindley’s (the oilshop in Trafalgar Road) for links or torches. His stock was already sold out but he gave us huge candles rolled in brown paper and carrying these and with our own ‘bulls eye’ lantern held low to show the grass edge of ditch we walked slowly in single file and at the long last reached home safely (with a good supply of tallow on our gloves!)
But for the greater part of the year the walk down the old lane was pleasant as well as interesting and at its end our beautiful home with its gardens and trees and the ever changing panorama of the river made ample compensation for the times of difficulty.

April 1932
More Recollections
No doubt, like many other old Greenwich residents I read in your last weeks issue with great interest the article by JEW under the headline, which with your permission I should like to amplify.
The baker he mentions, Robert Govan, I knew well. A somewhat portly man noted for his hot cross buns also for the very impressive gold chain he wore so tightly stretched across his figure that he used to boast no one could steal it. One day a ragged urchin entered his shop for a penny bun and asked Mr Govan to tuck it under the back of his coat as he feared the other boys outside would steal it. Mr Govan kindly leant over the counter to do this relaxing the strain on his watch chain which the boy deftly removed with the watch. To ask Mr. Govan the time was anathema for some time after this.
The members of the Irish colony mentioned by JEW were nearly on employed upon Messrs. Sheppard’s and Messsrs Roberts’ farms and market gardens, extending from the river to Westcombe Park, most of them suffered with rheumatism, ague and low fever. No doubt owing to the dampness of their dwellings and their working on the marshes. Wakes were frequent and kept up until h departed was perforce buried. My father who employed some hundred of these Irish asked one whose daughter had died some time back whether she had been buried yet to which he replied ‘Begorrah, no Surr, she’s as sweet as a nut yet’. At one wake I recall the calico catafalque caught fire, the house was burnt ands the corpse prematurely cremated.
Spratted Eels
With all their trials and vicissitudes the Irish were as usual a very humorous and cheery set. When sprats were in season an itinerant Irish vendor of this savoury fish used to perambulate Blackwall Lane calling out what sounded like ‘Spratted eels’. As a boy I could not understand what these piscatorial freaks could be but I discovered it was his method of calling his customers attention to his wares by shouting ‘Sprats, you devils’.
Mr. Davies who lived at the end of the lane was the manager of the factory adjoining his house in the riverbank and many times have I walked to Maze Hill Chapel with him, the Rev, Benjamin Waugh being the then pastor.
With regard to the huts in the marshes – these were used for manufacturing fireworks, not gunpowder and unfortunately explosions used to occur occasionally. Loss of life was however minimised as only one, or at most, two girls were employed in each hut, Mr. Dyer was the proprietor of this business and lived in a detached house opposite Napier Villas at East Greenwich, just at the rear of this house was Mr. Wheatley’s Farm. Mr. Wheatley owned the old service of horse busses running from Greenwich to London, these were superseded by the horse trams about 80 years ago.
With regard to JEW’s remarks about the administration of the land taken over by the London County Council although not always seeing eye to eye with that august body, it appears to me that it was very wise in preventing houses for the working classes being erected in the marshes which are water logged and far from being an ideal site for dwellings. I have in several cases that at high tides water rises to within two or three feet of the ground level which cannot be very sanitary

Return to Bugsby’s Hole some background


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