Millennium Village site

MILLENNIUM VILLAGE SITE.

On 19th February 1998 there has been an announcement that an environmentally friendly urban village will be built as part of the Greenwich Millennium Exhibition site. This will be on a rectangular riverside site one boundary of which 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 occupied by heavy industry by covering an area not developed until the twentieth century,

The site is right on the edge of Greenwich marsh and one, in some ways, marginal to it and is, in fact, excluded from most maps of the marsh itself. From mediaeval times an earthwork called Lambarde’s Wall ran from the river to the Woolwich/Greenwich Road – it is remembered in the present road called ‘Lombard Wall’ . This bank was the point at which administrative and estate boundaries changed. Horn Lane runs parallel to it at a distance of perhaps ???? and thus the site can be seen to be on the far edge of a number of land use designations.

The stretch of river along which this portion of bank runs is called Bugsby’s Reach. This name probably dates from the early eighteenth century – on a map of 1588 it is marked as ‘Cocksell’s Reach’ and ‘Podd’s Elms Reach’. The 1744 Roque map shows a semi circle of trees stretching across both sides of Horn Lane – these trees, presumably planted, for whatever reason, by a Mr. Podd must have been a memorable sight from the river and perhaps it was when the trees died or were felled that the name changed.

Bugsby’s Reach is really a reference to ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ which seems to mean a part of the river at the end of today’s Riverway. Bugsby seems to be someone’s name. Bugsby is an unusual name in England but it is more common in America and the West Indies. It has been suggested that it is the name of a pirate, perhaps someone who was hung in this area, but no pirate of this name has been traced.

The archival material for this stretch of river is remarkable and comprehensive. A complete set of minutes and rate books exists from 1625 for the Commission of Sewers, a body of which managed the marshland between Lewisham and Lombard Wall. There is also a set of minutes exists for the Corporation of the City of London’s Thames Conservators from 1771 and for the Thames Conservancy after 1859. In addition there are several sets of extremly comprehensive records for the various charitable bodies which owned much of the land on Greenwich Marsh and, of course, the local authority rating records. This material consists of many, many volumes much of it written in very difficult handwriting. I cannot pretend to have looked at more than a tiny portion of it – but I have seen enough to say with some confidence that Mr.Bugsby was not a major landowner or a tenant on this stretch of riverside in the eighteenth century. The only faint trace of a reference is to a Mr. Busby, listed as a ratepayer somewhere in Greenwich in 1715.

‘Holes’ is one of several specialst terms used on the Thames for a particular stretch of river – it usuasally means a deep in the river bed where shipping could lie easuly. On the other hand the Greenwich Commission of Sewers had a lot to say in their minute books about another sort of ‘hole’. These holes were expensive problems in the sea wall and they were caused by ‘lytermen and watermen’ from the City of London, or Trinity House or ‘men from Stepney’ or from somewhere else on the north bank. These individuals were never caught at their nefarious ‘ballasting’ activities but the Greenwich Commissioners fired off a steady stream of complaints about them to any authority likely to have any influence.

The only other source of speculation for Bugsby has been, in a past issue of the PLA Journal, a suggestion that it is to do with bogeys and 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. How many of these were ever took place is not clear but a ‘Williams’ is said to have been gibbeted here in 1735. A rather strange picture from a 1782 magazine seems to imply that this gibbet was on the west bank. To my mind a gibbet implies that some security arrangements were involved – relations of gibbeted criminals naturally tried to reclaim the bodies and pirates had families like every one else. If so it would be more sensible to put it near the Government gunpowder depot where a guard was already in place – the Greenwich Sewer Commissioners were already complaining about soldiers tramping about everywhere without permission! Perhaps, on the other hand, if the gibbet was in Bugsby’s Hole it might explain that large dry cellars which Miss Davies remembered at East Lodge. Gibbeting was, however, a horrific practice and one that might well have ensured that the area was not used while memories persisted.

It might also be significant that the name change from ‘Podd’s Elms’ to ‘Bugsby’s’ took place around the time that this part of the river became much busier with East Indiamen and the opening of Blackwall Yard on the other side of the river. Does ‘Bugsby’ have some connection with these much large and important ships. Was a particular vessel launched, or moored here for a while. Was there perhaps an attempt to set up some sort of depot? In 1781 the ‘Busbridge’ was launched at Blackwall – to my mind a word much more easily corrupted into ‘Bugsby’ than ‘Bogey’. The closeness of Blackwall Yard to this site however means that from the start of the seventheenth century this part of the river was the exact opposite of an obscure backwater – it was in the forefront of enterprise, advanced technology and expansion into the modern world.

On the landward side 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 area 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, which was in the hoy Coromandel, on its way to larger ship, which was to take it the money India. The thieves were caught having left some chests full of money lying about on the foreshore. Perhaps these pirates are the ones that Rosemary Taylor recorded as having been 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 followed. At the eastern end, parallel and very close to Horn Lane, Mr. Angerstein built his railway in 1851 – this railway which is still in operation today and still performing the function for which it was intended. Eventually extensions from it were to cross Horn Lane and go into the site – and by the late 1880s had penetrated into the gas works on the other side of Riverway. Plans in the 1850s and 1880s for a dock and extended railway systems would have changed the area, but were never came to fruitition..

Although land based activities were very quiet, the river was busy. William Cory’s coal and lighterage business was based just a short way off, down river. In 1862 he had bought ‘Atlas’, a giant raft with six hydraulic cranes on its hexagonal deck. It could discharge coal from two colliers directly into barges at the rate of 1,200 tons a day. There were many complaints – in 1865 Frank Hills, whose chemical works was at Riverway, took a case to the Thames Conservancy against Cory for obstructing the river. Coal delivery traffic continued to increase however and this part of the river became a recognised point for colliers to wait.

In the 1890s the Blackwall Tunnel was built to the east of the area and spoil was dumped on this piece of land, thus made better foundation for buildings than the waterlogged marsh. In 1902 work began at last on industrial building here. This was for the Scottish structrual steel bsuiness of Redpath Brown who had extended to London with an office in Victoria Street and wanted a London depot. Despite the dumped spoil the land was still very unstable and foundations for Redpath Brown’s buildings procewd difficult andf so production did not begin until 1903. The jetty that they built to service Redpath Brown’s works from the river is that used today by Greenwich Yacht Club. The Yacht Club also claim that some of the buildings which they used were erected by Redpath Brown.

In 1922 Redpath Brown became part of Bolckow Vaughan and Company and then in 1929 were taken over by Dorman Long & Co. At Greenwich another works – known as Dorman Long – was built at the eastern end of the site. Their jetty is that now occupied by 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 eventually closed in the 1970s.

At the same time as the steel works was set up more traditional riverside activity continued. Between the two new jetties Dick Norton’s barge yard appears to have flourished. Photographs show his floating shed offering oysters for sale at 1/-s a dozen. Norton’s are said to have built sailing barges on this site – presumably in the early 1900s. These were Scout, Serb, and Scud. In later years the firm repaired and converted vessels as the Thames barge fleet gradually shrank. Even today on the riverside can be found odd pieces of wood, chain, planks and nails which locals will tell you are the remains of Norton’s.

Perhaps the last excitement on this site was in the mid-1980s 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 much noise as police practised with smoke bombs, gas canisters and water cannon. Questions were asked – in particular why no one had been consulted about this activity going on near to people’s home – 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 they were only the eighteenth century equivalent of muggers, and gibbeting was an utterly horrible practice. Perhaps the new village will change things.

This article has been compiled from a wide variety of sources including archival material in possession of the Museum in Docklands and London Metropolitan Archives. I would also like to thank Andrew and Arthur Turner for material about Redpath Brown.

Return to Greenwich Millennium Village

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