1. GREENWICH MARSH
The Greenwich Peninsula used to be called Greenwich Level – because a marsh is what it was – and what it still is, and a ‘level’ because it is flat. Before 1800 it was the most upriver point of the bleak and beautiful marshes on the south side of the Thames estuary – a place of ‘wet land and dry water’. (Michael Baldwin, The River and the Downs. Kent’s Unsung Corner. Gollanz. 1984. Baldwin, who was brought up in Gravesend, is describing the Dartford marshes.)
The area that the marsh covers is easily defined. The loops of the Thames as it winds between London and its estuary, are very clear on any relevant map. One such loop defines a finger of land projecting from the southern shore east of Greenwich so that the River forms a long main boundary to north, east and west. A southern boundary is neatly defined by the main road between Greenwich and Woolwich. An eastern land boundary is formed by Horn Lane, parallel to a sixteenth century flood barrier called Lambarde’s Wall – which is also the Greenwich parish boundary. (The line of Lambarde’s Wall is now a road called ‘Lombard Wall” among industrial units and used by heavy lorry traffic but it is named for the Tudor Kentish historian who once owned this piece of land}.
Until the late nineteenth century Greenwich was part of the county of Kent – so its inclusion in London is, in terms of its long history comparatively recent. Proximity to the capital helped determine how the land was used. The most northerly point of the Peninsula was once known as Lea Ness – the ‘nose’ of land facing Bow Creek, which is the winding estuary of the river Lea flowing south and emerging on the north bank of the Thames. More recently it has been known as ‘Blackwall Point’ – Black Wall being the sea ‘wall’ on the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs – Mill Wall is on the west side where there were a number of windmills. (‘Blackwall Point’ and its formation and reclamation from the river have for a long time been a matter of some speculation – none of it seriously written up but frequently hinted at. There have been rumours of Roman settlement on the site and currently I am told there are Roman relics in private hands which, it is covertly claimed, were stolen from the site while the Dome was being built – although the truth of these statements is anyone’s guess. There are similar claims that Roman walls, etc. were seen. Surveys of the site undertaken by professional archaeologists did not substantiate this. Whether or not this incidental ‘evidence’ has any truth there are other speculations about a Roman crossing point to ‘Coldharbour’ on the north bank of the Thames – ‘Coldharbour’ is sometimes cited as a name associated with Roman cattle stations. The other stories concern a possible Tudor defence structure have rather more reality and are based on a map of 1588 by Robert Adams which shows Elizabeth’s progress to Tilbury before the Armada. A boom across the river from Blackwall Point is shown as part of the Thames defences against the Spanish – but whether or not this left any permanent structures can only be guessed).
Through the mediaeval period Greenwich marsh was within ‘The Manor of Old Court’. (Bartlett, Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarians, Vol.7, No.2, 1964-5, pp. 68-84., which gives a reasonable summary of the manorial history of the area) .By the sixteenth century most of which was owned by the Crown and within the next hundred years, with some small exceptions, it had passed into the hands of charities, which leased land out to whoever wanted to use it. They are the bodies who have shaped the present.
THE MARSH SINCE 1315
The marsh has been drained and managed for so long that it is difficult to imagine what it looked like a thousand years ago – or what it would be now without constant care and maintenance. In 1315 a Commission was set up to look after the river wall and ditches. (this is mentioned by Bartlett. The main source for this information is taken from William Dugdale, The History of Embanking and Draining. London, 1772. The earliest known records of Greenwich relate to holdings by St.Peters’ Abbey in Ghent 964 -1414. Since a great deal of land improvement was undertaken by religious houses it might be conjectured that this was also the case in Greenwich). From the early seventeenth century management of the area was undertaken by the ‘Court of Sewers’ and the minutes of their meetings, dating from 1625, are held in a local library. (London Metropolitan Archive, Greenwich Commission of Sewers Records. Also referred to as “Wallscot’ Records – since they are in effect a record of management and rating administration). This body was made up of representatives of landowners and their tenants. Every year they would walk round the area and note what work was needed – ditches to be cleaned, brambles to be cut back and repairs to be made. Work was paid for through the Wallscot tax and non-payers were fined. A bailiff was employed to get the work done. The Court continued with its work for over 200 years until its duties were taken over by Greenwich Board of Works and the London County Council.
On eighteenth century maps, (primarily Roque) a lane is shown running through the marsh. It left the Woolwich Road at the Ship and Billet pub (today The Duchess Bar – before that The Frog and Radiator). Marsh Lane went north from the Woolwich Road and then divided into two – one arm went east towards the River and the other went straight ahead. These lanes were still there until the coming of the Dome, and anyone who has walked the area knows it as Blackwall Lane, and the easterly arm which was also known as Marsh Lane, and, more recently, Riverway. On the east, running straight between Woolwich Road and the river is Horn Lane (Horn Lane is an old ‘manor way’ running to the river. The name has been associated with the Horn Fair at Charlton and various stories about King John and the millers’ wife. The lane itself now barely exists and has become an area used only by aggregate lorries and a group of travellers – it is however an ancient right of way)
The marsh was made up fields – the boundaries of many of them still make up the areas of the factories, which were later built on them. Their names have now entirely disappeared – among them were The Pitts, Balsopps, Goose Marsh and Cat’s Brains. We can only speculate on why they were given. (Until the 20th century Morden College filed tenants under field names. Morden College also holds the original of estate maps which show locations. Skinners Map and the Greenwich Tithe Map also use these field names where appropriate).
By 1625 the most important work had been done towards establishing a drainage system, (this date is made clear in the earliest records of the Court of Sewers).in order to allow the land to be used for farming and similar pursuits. Bendish Sluice emerged by Enderby’s Wharf; Arnold’s Sluice entered the Thames to the north east of Blackwall Point; King’s Sluice was near Horn Lane and there was another to the south west of Blackwall Point. These sluices were a major civil engineering project carried out by experts whose names may never be discovered. It is thought that they were Dutch. Without them the Peninsula would not exist in the form it does today. (The various sluices are a matter of conjecture. A.L.Rowse in ‘The England of Elizabeth’ Macmillan, 1950, says that the draining of Plumstead and Erith marshes was done in the Tudor period by workmen from the Low Countries He cites Ernle, English Farming Past and Present, and, notes an Essay by Bernard Palissay, which talks about Dutch drainage of Erith marshes. Of the Greenwich sewers the more unusual name of ‘Bendish’ should be the easiest to trace. Barton Bendish, Cambridgeshire, in the Fens may give a lead – but not one that is easily apparent. My guess that there is some connection with Sir Thomas Bendish, a Tudor dignitary one of whose descendents was to marry Oliver Cromwell’s granddaughter).
THE SEA WALL
The other major work done before records began was the building of the seawall. It was called the ‘sea wall’ not the ‘river wall’ because of the power of the tidal river and the strength needed to hold it back. So important was – and is – care and maintenance of the wall that local taxes were called the ‘wallscot’.
Before 1625, the River broke its banks and the result was ‘Horseshoe Breach’, which was never repaired and is still there today. There was a constant sense of urgency in case a storm should lead to another such disaster. A few dangerously high tides would quickly lead to calls for something to be done.
A number of well-known engineers worked on the wall. In the late 1820s a serious problem arose on the west bank. The top civil engineers of the day were asked for their opinions. Thomas Telford thought the problems were caused by the large number of ships using the recently opened West India Docks. The Court of Sewers had great difficulty in raising the money to pay him even though an arrangement had been made with the wealthy charity, Morden College, to buy some of the land affected. They later refused to pay John Rennie, Jnr. also brought in as a consultant, and his arrogant complaint ‘Nothing annoys me so much as disputes about paymena‘ did nothing to improve relationships. Telford eventually undertook the job and his work lies somewhere on the west bank at the northern end of the Peninsula. (most of this story can be found in a packet of letters in the LMA GCS85 Greenwich Commission of Sewers archive filed under ‘John Rennie’. I have written this up in Bygone Kent. V.19. No.4. pp. 233-237 and
and more seriously in Newcomen Bulletin, No. 170, April 1998. The map included with correspondence in GCS85 is sketchy in the extreme and no location could be deduced from it. The site was however said to be ‘opposite the Folly House’ and this can be found at Blackwall on nineteenth century maps.)
There were other problems with the sea wall and the riverbank. For instance throughout the nineteenth century the Court of Sewers accused the lightermen who worked for Trinity House and the Corporation of the City of London of removing stone from the sea wall to use as ballast – something always denied by the authorities concerned. (these constant references can be found in the Court of Sewers Minute Books (LMA). They should be compared with a parallel set of minutes of the City of London Conservators (later Thames Conservators) in the archive of the Museum in Docklands, West India Quay, Hertsmere Road, E14.) Conversely in 1843 it was proposed to dump mud, excavated from the West India Dock on the wall itself. As late as 1890 a firm was operating a ‘mud shute’ there. (Kelly’s, 1890. Morden College Trustees Minutes 12th December 1843 ‘Mr.Flowers who is excavating the West India Docks wants to lay excavated mud on Horseshoe Breach’ . By the 1890s land on the tip of the peninsula was in the occupation of Messrs. Flowers and Everett ‘specialists in mud clearing’– it is still shown on a plan drawn up in 1925 for South Metropolitan Gas Co. of the dry dock in possession of National Gas Archive, Common Lane, Partington, Manchester, M31 4BR).
Before 1800 little was built on the marsh beyond a few sheds and barns. No one lived there and for many years there were gates with a gatekeeper to stop casual visitors. (Greenwich Sewer Commission 8th October 1803). A watch house, or perhaps a building connected with river defences, was built in the middle of the Marsh. It was in what could be described as the ‘bottom centre’ of the Marsh, an area later known as ‘House Marsh’. ( land in the ownership of Morden College was called ‘Watch House Field’ and, later ‘House Marsh’. It was to the east of Blackwall Lane, slightly north of Horseshoe Breach – thus probably making it the area covering the now demolished East Greenwich No.2 gasholder and the land to the north of it. Bartlett points out that the watch house itself is shown on the Travers’ plan of 1695 and is shown at K9). It is possible, but unlikely, that this might have something to do with Tudor defences. There has been some speculation about some sort of Tudor defence structure at Greenwich. For instance, Elizabeth Martin (The Armada Beacon in the Parish of Stone, Newsletter, Dartford Historical and Antiquarian Society, No.26, 1989) describes a ‘boom’ built across the river at Blackwall. No archaeological evidence has yet emerged although there is the possibility of an uninvestigated underground structure at the end of Riverway. At one time there a watchman was employed and in any case a depot of some sort would have been needed by the marsh bailiff and his staff – somewhere to keep their tools, and provide some shelter for meal breaks and during bad weather.
The one major building was the Gunpowder Depot. The military guard on it probably deterred much trespass – although the Court of Sewers complained bitterly about the behaviour of soldiers posted there. Even after 1800 few people lived in the area – apart from the little community in the east, around The Pilot pub, which grew up after 1802. In the south part of the marsh in the area adjacent to the Woolwich Road, housing of a good standard was provided under the supervision of Morden College from the 1840s and this area is still flourishing. In the late nineteenth century a number of factories provided homes for their workers and some speculative housing was built. (Barbara Ludlow, ‘Social Conditions on Greenwich
Marsh 1837-1901′, Transactions Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, Vol.
VII, No.3. 1968. Pp. 130-140) Most of the people who lived there probably had little choice but to put up with damp conditions in what was still a down-market area.
Gradually amenities were built – a church, mission halls, shops, more pubs, schools, ‘dining rooms’, and so on. Much of this community was destroyed by the local authority in the 1960s and 1970s because it was felt people should not live near such a heavily industrialised marshland area. (By the 1930s a considerable community of shops and houses existed on the Peninsula – mainly housing built by various factories for their workers. Both the Metropolitan
Borough of Greenwich and the London County Council stated on a number of occasions that the area was ‘totally unsuitable for housing’. (e.g. Kentish Mercury 30th May 1930). As late as 1972 remaining housing in Greenfell and Boord Streets (immediately south of the gasholder – where the weighbridge is sited) were compulsorily purchased by the London Borough of Greenwich for demolition as ‘the Council considered this an extremely unsatisfactory location for residential accommodation’. (Housing in East Greenwich. LBG Report No.2. Directorate of Housing Services November 1974).
OWNERSHIP OF THE MARSH
After 1700, although some plots of land were in private hands, most of the area was owned by large charities. They could afford to take a long term and detached view and, as we shall see, they were very important in determining how the marsh developed.
The Boreman Charity
At the Restoration of Charles II, after the English Civil War, a large parcel of land was granted to a Sir William Boreman by the King. Some of it was sold by his widow but the remainder went to help pay for a charity school which Boreman had founded in Greenwich.
This charity was, and is still, administered by the Worshipful Company of Drapers in the City of London. The remaining marshland was sold in the 1870s – but decisions taken by the Drapers Company’s on land management still have an effect. (The best source of information on Greenwich Charities is Julian Watson, Some Greenwich Charities. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, Vol. VIII, No.3. 1975. Pp. 90-102. Bartlett gives some details of Boreman’s work on the marsh. There is a small archive held by the Worshipful Company of Drapers, Drapers Hall, Throgmorton Avenue, EC2, which includes a map of the marsh dated 1734 and some other information. The charity still administers some land in West Greenwich. Drapers also administer the remains of Lambarde’s Charity – which before the early sixteenth century held land ‘Thistlecroft’ on Greenwich Marsh. ‘Lambarde’s wall’ provided the boundary to both parish and marsh.)
Trinity Hospital (Norfolk College)
On the Greenwich riverfront, near the London Underground Power Station, is a little ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ almshouse. This is another charity, often known as ‘Trinity Hospital’, which dates from 1613, and is administered by the Worshipful Company of Mercers in the City of London. Part of the marsh was owned by them until the early 1880s. Their decisions too had an effect on the industries that had premises thereabouts. (An archive which includes minutes of land
administration is held by the Worshipful Company of Mercers, Mercers Hall, Ironmongers Lane, EC2. The best account of it is still Julian Watson’s paper. The Charity still functions although it no longer owns land on the peninsula. An interesting feature of it is that, like Hatcliffe’s it has some connection with East Anglia)
A few fields were administered for the benefit of poor people in the parish of Farningham in Kent. This was land left by a benefactor, who was probably one of the Roper family. (This Charity is less obvious than some of the others. In Hasted (E.Hasted. History of Kent, 2nd ed. 1797). It is said, under Farningham ‘a person unknown gave certain lands and tenements in East Greenwich … the rents to be distributed among the poor of this parish’. It has however subsequently been established that the charity concerned belonged to one of the Roper family. A paper on this with research notes is held by the Greenwich Heritage Centre)
Another piece of land was owned by Hatcliffe‘s Charity – whose almshouses still stand in Tuskar Street in Greenwich and resulted from a Jacobean bequest. (Once again the best source of information on this is Julian Watson’s paper. This Tudor charity still functions and indeed
still owns some land in the area. Most of its holdings were in the southern part of the area adjacent to the Woolwich Road)
The land which Boreman’s widow sold in 1698 was bought by a merchant, Sir John Morden. He used it to endow Morden College, one of the most important, but least known, institutions in Greenwich.
John Roque‘s map of London, published in 1744, shows Greenwich Marsh and Blackwall Lane. South of it is the open space of Blackheath and on the far side is a large square building built around a quadrangle and marked ‘Morden College’. These buildings, shown on the eighteenth century map, are just the same today. So many modern institutional buildings are in the Wren style that it is sometimes difficult to take in that sometimes you are looking at the real thing. The only change is that the ‘decayed Turkey merchants’, for whom it was set up, are now in short supply and the charity houses, in accordance with its charter, those who have fallen on hard times in old age.
Sir John Morden died in 1708. In his will he laid down that the College was to be managed by nominees of the Turkey Company, if this failed the East India Company, and on their demise the Court of Aldermen of the City of London. This succession has duly proceeded. Should the City Corporation be abolished Sir John’s requirement in his will is that future management should be by ‘seven discreet and grave Gentlemen of Kent‘. (Patrick Joyce, Patronage and Poverty in Merchant Society. A History of Morden College, 1695 to the present. Gresham Books. 1982. Morden College is still very much a functioning entity – and indeed much of this book would not have been possible without access to their archive. Their address is St.German’s Road, SE3. The original college buildings in Blackheath are very rarely open to the public although it is just possible that special permission could be forthcoming on request. There is a reasonably modern commissioned history – Joyce noted above. There are also a number of guidebooks and picture books, which the College has produced and which are available from them. Most histories of Greenwich and guidebooks will mention the College with a varying amount of detail.)
Throughout the nineteenth century the Chairmen of Morden College’s trustees were bankers – often members of the Lubbock family, who were based in Farnborough, Kent. Another long serving member was Thomas Baring, a banker with extensive landholdings in neighbouring Lewisham. The trustees did the best they could, in the light of their experiences as financiers, to maximise land values for the good of the charity with which they were entrusted. It was a careful, and responsible, trusteeship and their successors continue with this charge today.
These grandees were members of a ‘charmed circle’ the small world at the top of London banking where vast empires were controlled from a City Office. (David Kynaston. The City of London. A World of its Own. 1815-1890 – I think an analysis of the bankers who were the
Trustees of the College would be a most useful and interesting exercise)
Much of the pattern of Greenwich marsh’s future was shaped by Morden College, and its surveyors. They were concerned with building standards and the type of activity to be allowed on their sites. For a period in the nineteenth century the same man, George Smith, held the position of surveyor to both Morden College and the Mercers’ Company and, as will be seen, he played a key role in the marsh’s development.
THE NATURAL WORLD
Greenwich marsh has not been ‘natural’ for many hundreds of years – if indeed it ever was. It became man-made when the River was kept out of it and the land has been managed from the time it was reclaimed from the River. When human economic activity in this area moved away from farming into what we think of as industry, then factories were built on the marsh to replace agriculture.
The land has been used for the economic benefit of those who did not live there. The area has been shaped by people, many of whom were bankers in the City of London – had probably never seen it.