haystack in blackwall lane
From Co-partnership Journal. Captioned ‘A rural scene in East Greenwich’

(Since this book was written we have seen the discovery of a 12th century tide mill on Granite Wharf – thus considerably pushing back the date of Greenwich an industrial area)

Industry came surprisingly slowly to Greenwich Marsh – despite the fact that Greenwich itself was a bustling manufacturing town from at least Tudor times. Early industrial development spread from two areas – a settlement at the end of the road now known as Riverway and from Enderby Wharf. Much of the central area of the marsh retained a rural character into the late nineteenth century. There is even a photograph of a small haystack that dates from the 1920s. (Co-partnership Journal 8/1926 captioned ‘a rural scene in East Greenwich’). It clearly shows the East Greenwich gas holder and appears to have been taken in Tunnel Avenue – since the trees, now mature planes, are saplings. Is it some sort of joke?

‘Rural industry’ is a commercial activity and it is different to subsistence farming. Such activity was undertaken on Greenwich Marsh. Morden College records show that, although some fields were let to the tenants of surrounding farms, many who grazed cattle and sheep on the marsh were ‘butchers’ who kept stock on a short-term basis before sending it to market. One leaseholder was a ‘basket maker’ growing reeds and willow as a cash crop – a typical commercial use. Marshlands have a particular economy of their own and meant eel traps and wild fowling alongside grazing and reed beds. Before 1800 the Thames supported a major fishing industry and Greenwich was one of the main ports for fish sent to market in London. ‘Watermen’ used the marshland – one was evicted from his landing place for unknown reasons in 1694. (Info. Barbara Ludlow. This is contained in an unpublished paper on the Greenwich fishing industry – copy in the Heritage Centre. It might be conjectured that the reason the waterman was evicted was the construction of the gunpowder depot that year. Since this book was written contact from several family historians has demonstrated that there were a number of local families working in fishing and small scale boatbuilding along the Greenwich riverside.). The River provided a means of transport – and this is the main reason why no effective road system developed until the twentieth century. In 1803 some workers were injured in a boiler explosion at the end of Riverway – and a wherry was called which could quickly take them to St.Thomas’ Hospital by London Bridge – a clear example of how the all-encompassing River was the natural form of transport. (This is the explosion in the boiler of the the Trevithick engine. The account of the wherry is contained in the papers of the only inquest report on this accident which I have been able to find. That is for Thomas Nailor and is in the City of London Record Office)


Some elements of a rural economy were to remain on Greenwich marsh for many years. Throughout the early nineteenth century fields were let to a Mr.Wheatley, who ran a local horse omnibus service – a reminder that the factories described were surrounded by meadows used for grazing. Wheatley had run a major network of routes but by the 1860s was reduced to plying between the local railway stations. (Neil Rhind. Blackheath Village and Environs  1790-1970. Vol.1. The Village and Blackheath Vale. Bookshop Blackheath Ltd. 1976 and R.G.Thomas, London’s First Railway). Nevertheless there were horses to feed and throughout the nineteenth century Wheatley could be found renting meadows from Morden College.

At the end of the seventeenth century a large building, by any definition ‘industrial’, was established on the west bank of the marsh. This was a Crown establishment and it marks a change in the way the Marsh was exploited.

The Royal Palace in Greenwich had been the site of arms manufacture since Tudor times. (Information about the military complex at Greenwich and its gradual moves to Woolwich and elsewhere can be found in detail in Oliver Hogg, The Royal Arsenal, Vol.1. OUP, 1963.The foundation of these arms establishments was a process that accelerated after the English Civil War). In Tudor times Greenwich armour was world famous, and on the Lewisham borders stood the ‘armoury mill’ which later produced small arms (Sylvia Mcartney & John West, The Lewisham Silk Mills and the History of an Ancient Site. 1998. The Lewisham Mill eventually moved to Enfield)

Work on ammunition was carried out in the Tilt Yard at the Palace and later moved to Woolwich to become, in due course, the Royal Arsenal. Greenwich lay between the two Royal Dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford – both producing warships in need of guns and ammunition.


A complementary activity to armaments manufacture was the storage and distribution of gunpowder. Up until the seventeenth century the Ordnance Office stored this in the Tower of London. In 1694 the Principal Officers to the Office told the Treasury that they needed money for a new ‘Powderhouse’ somewhere convenient where gunpowder could be delivered by the manufacturers, then tested and distributed as required. What was needed was a remote riverside site near London, and the area of Greenwich marsh must have seemed ideal. The site chosen for the gunpowder depot was on the West Bank of the Marsh – near where Enderby House stands today. (Basic information about the magazine can be found in Hogg, pp. 106-7. Hogg gives references to material in the Public Record Office – one of these, relating to its purchase by Vansittart, I was unable to find. More details of the day to day running of the depot can be found in the Minute Books of the Ordnance Department – from them a very detailed picture indeed could be built up but it would take time and patience to work through the volumes. Of great help in this context is Jenny West’s Gunpowder, Government and War in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Royal Historical Society Studies in History 63, 1991. Since writing the book I have to thank Peter Jenkins, who did have the patience to go further through the records, discovered a minute which established a closing date for the depot as 1770, and this was duly reported in the Newsletter 25, October 1998 of the Gunpowder Mills Study Group. Most importantly reference must be made to Peter Guillery’s, article, with P.Pattison, The powder magazine at Purfleet, The Georgian Group Journal, VI 37-52. Other references by the Gunpowder Mills Study Group are: No.22 June 1998. Alan Crocker – Review of my article about the depot in Bygone Kent . No.21 August 1997. Mary Mills. Critique of Peter Guillery’s article (see below) on the Purfleet depot on its siting of the Greenwich works. No. 19 August 1996, Wayne Cocroft comments on an illustration of the depot. In addition, I have written The Explosive Magazine at Greenwich, Bygone Kent, Vol. 18. No.12 Hugh Barty King wrote ‘A Scratch Surveyor’ , the history of Drivers Jonas which is described as a ‘pastiche’ written in a ‘factual, fanciful and imaginative’ manner. However, it is claimed, with no source given, that in 1799 Nr. A.P.Driver executed a plan of the Greenwich Powder Magazine commissioned by the Surveyor General).

The main building was a ‘proof house’ where gunpowder was tested for quality. This was large, featureless, and square. It was built of brick at an estimated cost of £2,306 15s. It was almost magazine greenwichwindowless and must have looked very grim from outside. The gunpowder was protected from damp by special arrangements inside, perhaps an internal false wall. There were two wings – one with a chimney – and there was a spire on the roof for venting the controlled explosions during testing. (pro WO 47, 9/10/1694)

Gunpowder was made in privately owned mills throughout the south east of England – (the best possible source of information is the successive newsletters of the Gunpowder Mills Study Group. In addition is the invaluable Gunpowder Mills Gazetteer, black powder manufacturing sites in the British Isles compiled by Glenys Crocker for the Gunpowder Mills Study Group. (London Wind and Watermill Section, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings , 1988) in the Lea Valley at Sewardstone and Enfield, on the Thames at Bedfont, south of London at Chilworth, and Wimbledon, and down river at Faversham. It was transported to the Greenwich magazine by water – for reasons of both convenience and safety. Supplies were then sent to naval depots at Portsmouth, Chatham, Woolwich, and so on, as well as to garrisons around the country and naval bases as far away as Minorca, Antigua, Jamaica and Nova Scotia. (Jenny West’s Gunpowder, Government and War in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Royal Historical Society Studies in History 63, 1991)

gunpowder depot plan
Plan of the gunpowder depot taken from a deed in the Morden College collection. With thanks to them,

The use of water transport meant that wharfage arrangements at the riverside were most important – it would be a very busy area with some large vessels calling. The wharf itself was known as ‘the bridge’ and there were two pairs of gates to the waterside from the factory.

Thousands of barrels of explosives passed through the Greenwich depot every year. Each consignment was issued with the Board of Ordnance’s written permission, which meant that there was an army of clerks as well as the skilled workers who tested the powder. These labourers were all ‘settled’ – that is, they had a permanent job in the government service. They had to wear specially provided clothing – ‘calfskin leather aprons’ and ‘worn pumps’. Two ‘proofmasters’ were in charge of the depot and there was a storekeeper who lived in a single storey building on site. In 1754 his name was Robert Furnis (WO47, 7/1754)


Not surprisingly Greenwich residents did not appreciate the presence of this large store of explosives on their doorsteps. In 1718 and again in 1750 they petitioned Parliament to have it removed.

“Reason for removing the Magazine of Gunpowder at Greenwich to some more convenient place and further Distance from the said Town and the Cities of London and Westminster.

The apparent Danger the said Magazine is exposed to, of being blown up by Treachery, lightning and other Accidents, arising from its present defenceless Situation and ruinous condition, and the extensive and scarce repairable Damage with which the Explosion of perhaps 6 or 8,000 barrels of powder must be attended, cannot but cause terrible apprehensions to all who seriously consider it. (BM 816 m7)

It is probable that other petitions existed and are buried in Ordnance Office records. Eventually, four Government inspectors decided that the Greenwich Depot did indeed present a risk and recommended that it should be moved to Purfleet. The last powder was delivered in 1768 and the depot closed soon after. The entire workforce went to Purfleet except for a Robert Dyer, who was old and ill and so retired with a pension (WO 80 22nd March 18968)

What happened to the buildings after they were closed? The Government inspectors had said that they were ‘improperly and dangerously situated’ and ‘utterly incapable of being effectually repaired’ and they appear to have been demolished in 1770. ( Since writing this I have passed information by Peter Jenkins for a WO order for demolition.) Thirty years later the site was apparently sold, to Henry Vansittart – a Vice-Admiral and father of the future Lord Bexley (This reference is taken from Hogg. I was unable to trace his footnoted reference in the Public Record Office. However the 1770 St.Alfege Poor Rate’s list ‘Henry Vansittart’ as owner of ‘Dog Kennel  Field’. This is not the site of the gunpowder depot but it is adjacent to it and it may be that Vansittart was consolidating land holdings in the area. Beryl Platts. [A history of Greenwich,  Proctor Press 1973] notes a mansion at the bottom of Maze Hill, demolished in 1821 for the construction of Park Vista. This house was bought by Henry Vansittart in 1768 and his family lived there while he worked for the East India Company as Governor of Bengal. He died in 1769 and his son Nicholas remained in Greenwich to become the future Lord Bexley. Hence ‘Henry Vansittart’ in both of these records refer to someone who was already dead).

There was an echo of the public disquiet about the works in 1815 when a private gunpowder magazine was planned in Charlton. A petition was quickly put together pointing out the fears that local people had had about the old magazine.

In 1846 a pub in Eastney Street was burnt to the ground. It was a dreadful fire – a bedridden old lady was only rescued through the ‘bold daring of a young sailor.’The pub’s name was the ‘Royal Magazine’ – evidence that the Gunpowder Depot was remembered, if only by Greenwich drinkers. (story taken from Kentish Mercury. 31st March 1846).


As the eighteenth century progressed there were signs of the arrival of new industries. There may have been a bleaching business before 1770 at Dog Kennel Field, described as a ‘Whiters House and Garden‘. (This appears as a reference in the 1770 St.Alfege Poor Rate book. In such bleaching processes cloth would be stretched out on a ‘tenters ground’ having been treated with a chemical to accelerate the process. A sulphuric acid solution might have been used, which may be associated with the copperas industry locally. The only way to guess the location of plots in the rate books is to assume that they are sometimes listed sequentially – although this is not always the case. If in this instance they are sequential then the plot is next to ‘Dog Kennel Field’ , noted above, and thus is on the south side of the Gunpowder Depot). This probably meant it was used for the bleaching of paper or cloth. If so it was in effect the first commercial industrial premises on the marsh. Seventy years later a ‘bleaching house’ appears on a deed covering an area at the western end of Bendish Marsh Maybe it had some connection with the Enderby family’s ropewalk.

Traditional bleaching methods needed space and water. There were flourishing bleach fields close by Greenwich – north of the Thames in the Lea Valley (Peter Flood, British Calico Printing Industry 1676-1840, CIBA) and east along the Darenth Valley. Samuel Parkes, a writer on chemistry who knew east London well, commented in 1839 that from around 1750 sulphuric acid began to be used in bleaching processes. (Samuel Parkes, An Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, upon the basis of the Chemical Catechism. London, 1839). In this context it should be noted that there may also have been a vitriol – sulphuric acid – factory established nearby. (Bleaching House is shown on a Morden College plan attached to a deed for a lease of 1846 to members of the Enderby family for ‘marsh land and wharf formerly reed or osier ground messuages’ – in effect to rent a portion of land adjacent to the main Enderby factory – by the 1840s on the site of the gunpowder depot. The ‘Bleaching House’ is marked to the west of the plot customarily known as ‘Bendish Field’ – and thus could well be described as adjacent to ‘Dog Kennel Field’. If so this implies that a bleaching house was in existence alongside the gunpowder depot site for at least seventy years. I find this difficult to accept since there is no other mention of it. Perhaps ‘Bleaching House’ was a customary name used to describe a location, rather than a real works, or perhaps it was an outhouse used as part of the ropeworks which was built on the gunpowder depot site.)

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