Millennium Village site 1998 – what used to be there

DOCKLANDS FORUM
APRIL 1998

MILLENNIUM VILLAGE SITE – what used to be there?

THE SITE

The site of the newly announced ‘Millennium Village’ is to be on a rectangular riverside site. One boundary will be Horn Lane, another the modern ‘Bugsby’s Way’ and the other a line drawn between a modern roundabout and the river. It will thus avoid most of the areas previously covered by heavy industry by covering an area not developed for industry until the twentieth century. It is an area that was marshland and farmland, on which Blackwall Tunnel spoil was dumped, and was then used for the manufacture and distribution of structural steel. It was right on the edge of Greenwich marsh – and is excluded from most old maps of the marsh itself. From the Middle Ages an earthwork called Lambarde’s Wall ran from the river to the Woolwich/Greenwich Road near the present road called ‘Lombard Wall’. This bank provided the point at which administrative and an estate boundary changed and was parallel to. Horn Lane – in itself an ancient road.

MR. BUGSBY

This stretch of river is called Bugsby’s Reach. This name probably dates form the early eighteenth century – a Tudor map describes it as ‘Podd’s Elms Reach’. On an eighteenth century map is shown a semi circle of trees stretching across both sides of Horn Lane – trees, presumably planted by a Mr. Podd and which must have been a memorable sight from the river.

‘Bugsby’s Reach’ is called after ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ which is the name for the area of river at the end of Riverway. Bugsby must be someone’s name although it is an unusual name in England and, because it is commoner in America and the West Indies perhaps it belonged to someone with connections there –was Mr. Bugsby a slaver, or a pirate?

The archives for this stretch of river are very comprehensive. There is a complete set of minutes from 1625 for the body of which managed the marshland itself. There are also sets of papers for the various bodies that looked after the river and the riverbanks, dating from the late 1700s. This material is made up of many many volumes of minutes much of it written in difficult handwriting. I cannot pretend to have looked at more than a tiny fraction of it – but I have seen enough to say that Mr. Bugsby was not a major landowner or a tenant on this stretch of riverside.

What does ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ mean? ‘Holes’ are one of those terms used along the Thames for a particular stretch of river – it usually means a deep part of the riverbed where big shipping could lie at anchor. However in the eighteenth century minute books there is a lot about another sort of ‘hole’. These holes were caused by the theft of material from the sea wall and were expensive to repair. These thefts were caused by ‘lytermen and watermen’ from the City of London, or Trinity House or ‘men from Stepney’ who needed ballast. There were endless complaints about their activities.

In a past issue of the PLA Journal it was suggested that the name ‘Bugsby’ really meant that this part of the river was infested with ‘bogeys’ or ‘bugaboos’. This is because it appears that Bugsby’s Hole was used as a site for gibbeting the bodies of pirates who had been hung, with due ceremony, at Execution Dock in Wapping. For instance, ‘the pirate, Williams’ is said to have been gibbeted here in 1735. In a magazine from 1782 magazine is a picture that shows a gallows, plus body, on what seems to be the West Side of the peninsula. Relations of those whose bodies were hung in chains usually tried to get the steal the bodies back and so any gibbet would have to be guarded by soldiers. Gibbeting was a disgusting and horrible practice that could blight a whole neighbourhood.

‘Bugsby’ might also have had something to do with eighteenth century changes in the river. Opposite, on the north bank, was Blackwall Yard, which was increasingly busy with the ships of the East India Company. These ships were the most technologically advanced of their day and were built to go out and take on the trade, and the navies, of the world. Blackwall yard made this stretch of the river one of the most important places in the development of the ‘modern’ world – ‘Bugsby’s Reach’ was anything but a backwater.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

During the nineteenth century, while the rest of Greenwich Marsh, began to fill with industry this area alone remained empty. There were some incidents – in 1802 a balloon fell into a field here having travelled all the way from Greenwich. In 1803 the boiler of Mr. Trevithick’s engine exploded at the eastern edge of the site and killed four men. Gibbeting clearly didn’t stop piracy and in 1816 a robbery took place, described by Rod Helps in Bygone Kent as ‘one of the greatest robberies ever to have taken place in this country’. This involved the theft of £13,000 in dollars in transit to India. The pirates were eventually caught having left some of the chests full of money lying on the foreshore. Perhaps they were the ones, which Rosemary Taylor notes were gibbeted below Blackwall Point in 1816.

The western boundary of the Millennium Village will run parallel with Riverway and by 1810 this area had been developed with housing and a large tide mill, a chemical works, and eventually a power station were to follow. In 1851 at the eastern end of the site parallel to Horn Lane the local landowner, William Angerstein, built a railway – which is still, performs the function for which it was intended today. In due course lines from it crossed Horn Lane to serve the factories on the marsh itself.

The river was busy. William Cory’s coal and Lighterage business was based just a short way down river. In 1862 he had bought ‘Atlas’ which was a raft with six hydraulic cranes on its hexagonal deck. ‘Anchor and Derrick Gardens’ in Charlton are named after this barge. It could discharge 1,200 tons of coal from two colliers directly into barges. Coal traffic increased and the area became a recognised point for colliers to wait before going to the gas works or other jetties.

In the 1890s the Blackwall Tunnel was built east and spoil was dumped on this piece of land.

TWENTIETH CENTURY INDUSTRY

In 1902 work began at last on industrial building on this site. This was Redpath Brown, a Scottish steel company, who anted a London depot. Despite the dumping of spoil the land was still very unstable and foundations were difficult to build. Production of steel did not begin until 1903. Their jetty is that used today by Greenwich Yacht Club.

In 1922 Redpath Brown became part of Bolckow Vaughan and Company and then in 1929 part of Dorman Long & Co. At Greenwich another works – known as Dorman Long – was built next door. Their jetty is that now occupied b y the Thames Barrier Yacht Club. After the Second World War steel was nationalised and the site became known as British Steel’s ‘Riverside Steel Works’. It was closed in the 1970s.

Traditional riverside activity also flourished. Between the two steelworks’ jetties was Dick Norton’s barge yard. Photographs show his floating shed offering oysters for sale at 1/-s a dozen. Norton’s built sailing barges on this site in the early 1900s – Scout, Serb, and Scud. As sailing barges began to go out of use firm repaired and converted them. On the riverside today are odd pieces of wood, chain and nails which locals will tell you are the remains of Norton’s Yard.

In 1984 when it was discovered that the area had quietly been taken over by the Metropolitan Police who were using it as a training ground. This involved staging mock riots with smoke bombs, gas canisters and water cannon. Questions were asked – in particular why no one had been consulted about this activity near to residential property – and the police, just as quietly, left.

This site hasn’t been a particularly exciting one. The activity of river pirates might sound romantic – but pirates were only the eighteenth century equivalent of muggers, and gibbeting was a horrible practice. Perhaps the new village will change things.

Mary Mills, 1998

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