Chapter 4 – Enderby Wharf and the Enderby Family



The first factory to be built on the Greenwich Peninsula stood on the site of the seventeenth century gunpowder depot. Since then the site has been in almost continuous occupation – and, in effect, in the same ownership. Items made there have had world-wide importance. It is still known by the name of a family who used it over 150 years ago – Enderby Wharf. Beside it on the riverbank stands their home, Enderby House.


The gunpowder depot buildings must have stood unused for many years until, around 1800, George Moor opened a ‘vitriol’ works on ‘Crown Land’. (‘Crown Land’ Greenwich St.Alfege Poor Rate Books 1800.) It is very likely that ‘Crown Land’ refers to the old government gunpowder depot – by then unused. George Moor (or Moore) was most probably a copperas manufacturer who was using this as a raw material for the manufacture of vitriol (sulphuric acid). Copperas works had been found on the Thames estuary since mediaeval times. It was made from pyrites or ‘copperas stones’, which were picked up on the beaches of the Thames Estuary and then steeped in tanks of water for several years. A liquor was produced which could be used to make dyes, mordents or processed for more sophisticated chemicals.

(Vitriol and Copperas – the original interest in this subject lay around  Deptford Creek, the production of copperas there, the Pearson family, the gas industry, and Frank Hills. Cf. my ‘Heavy Chemicals on Deptford Creek’ (Journal of the Greenwich Historical Society Vol.1.No.6. pp. 173-180, Copperas – there are several works which deal with copperas production generally and with its exploitation in the Thames Estuary in this period. W.A.Campbell, The Chemical Industry, London 1971 (which includes details of Daniel Colwall’s 1677 description of the Deptford works to the Royal Society), R.H.Goodsall, The Whitstable Copperas Industry, Arch.Cant. LXX (1957). There are also several other works about the Whitstable industry, as well as that on Sheppey. Most recently Copperas: An Account of the Whitstable Works and the First Industrial-Scale Chemical Production in England by Tim Allen Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd, 2004).

The Deptford copperas works, opened by Sir Nicholas Crispe, was described to the Royal Society in 1678. (‘Nicholas Crispe’ this is the Sir Nicholas Crispe who was based in Hammersmith and who undertook several enterprises in the Greenwich and Deptford areas in the Restoration period. He is not (almost unbelievably) his contemporary Sir Nicholas Crispe of Quex Park who was involved with the Whitstable copperas industry). There were more works on the east bank of the Ravensbourne (Deptford Creek) in Greenwich – one of which had been associated with a Mr. Moore. ( because the Deptford copperas works had been well written up in 1677, and because most Thames copperas works were in the hands of the Pearsons by c.1800 it had not been recognised that there were works on both banks of the Ravensbourne – those on the Greenwich side being in a different ownership. Hence the Greenwich rate books of 1718 list for Lamb Lane (Bardsley Lane) ‘Mr. Moore, copperas house’.) From the 1730s Thomas Moore had been in occupation of Coombe Farm (Coombe Farm – this was in the area of Westcombe Park Station, a building hidden behind houses may have belonged to it . See: Barbara Ludlow ‘The Early History of Coombe Farm) and it is possible that he and George Moore were related. After 1800 a George Moor was to take on leases for several areas of Greenwich Marsh. (Morden College archive) The vitriol works on Greenwich Marsh did not necessarily make acid by traditional methods using copperas, but could have used the ‘chamber process’. This had been developed about fifty years previously under conditions of great secrecy. A list drawn up by a chemist many years later mentions seven such works in London, but Moore is not included. (J McTear, “History of the Technology of Sulphuric Acid”, 1900, Proc.Phil.Soc., Glasgow, 1881, pp.701). Several new industries, including copperas, had been developed in Greenwich following the Civil War. Some historians have pointed out that a chemical industry needed to be in place as a forerunner to the industrial revolution. (A. & N. Clow, The Chemical Revolution, London, 1952.) Greenwich was thus well placed to be in the forefront of new industrial developments.

The vitriol works may have had some connection with the bleaching house mentioned above. It might also have had some investment or impetus from Henry Vansittart who is said to have bought the Government Magazine site and also had some connection with the bleaching business. Vansittart was a much travelled Admiral and explorer – and, in 1803, brother to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The family had strong local links both in Greenwich and the immediate Kent countryside – and with some of the grandees who lived in Greenwich, Blackheath and beyond. (see above)


The vitriol works was still in place on the Peninsula thirty years later, but owned by a Lewis Price. (Greenwich Commission of Sewers Minutes 12th October 1832 ‘Lewis Price and Co. vitriol works near Bendish sluice’.) Meanwhile a Mr. Littlewood had opened a ropewalk nearby. (Greenwich Poor Law Rate Books for 1808). This ropewalk connects Greenwich with one of the most successful ironfounders of the late seventeenth century. Ambrose Crowley III had come to Greenwich in 1704 with a successful business as an iron founder in both the Midlands and North East England. (cf. Michael Flinn, Men of Iron. The Crowleys in the Early Iron Industry. Edinburgh, 1962; Sally Jenkinson, ‘Crowley House and the Crowley Ironworks, Gordon Teachers Centre, nd), In 1782, because there was no Crowley heir, a partnership was set up which included Isaiah Millington who had been Crowley’s salaried Manager. (Millington – the Diary of Elizabeth Pearson – a
family member of the early nineteenth century – gives details of the relationship between them and the Millingtons. Present whereabouts of the diary is unknown but Greenwich Heritage Centre. has some copied extracts, and there were also extracts in the Whitstable Museum. My thanks to Geoffrey Pike of Whitstable for information). By the early nineteenth century the Millingtons were the leading industrial family in Greenwich with strong links to the Pearsons, who owned copperas works throughout the Thameside area. The ropewalk was developed by the Millingtons in partnership with an otherwise unidentified Mr. Young. Thus it was an investment by the leading Greenwich industrialist of the day. (Greenwich Poor Ratebooks 1820.)

alcatel gates
Riverside gates – the Enderby ropewalk ran from these gates on the riverside east to Blackwall Lane

Rope making is sometimes thought of as a very traditional kind of manufacture. (students of rope making could do a lot worse than go and see the ropewalk at Chatham Dockyard.) Around 1800 it was one of the many processes which were undergoing change and improvement. There was an increasing need for more and better rope – for all the great ships in the navy and the merchant marine. Joseph Huddart had set up a factory in Limehouse to make rope by a revolutionary new method and it may be that some of his ideas were used in Greenwich. Rope is made in long narrow buildings called ‘rope walks’. The ropewalk at Enderby Wharf remained in place for nearly a century and the shape of it can be seen by looking inland from the riverside path through the gates to the Alcatel works. It was slightly to the left of the long path which goes down through the centre of the factory buildings. (new building in the Alcatel factory and on the path itself in the 2000s have now destroyed this view – sorry, you will just have to guess!)

By the late 1830s the Enderby family had acquired the ropewalk. They had a number of industrial interests but are best known as whalers. Their ships went all round the world and their Greenwich works made the sort of items sold by ships chandlers – rope, sacking and so on. Greenwich was also home to a whaling fleet. (the expert on the Enderbys is Barbara Ludlow. However Sally Jenkinson’s, Enderby Wharf., nd. Gives a good introduction. The mention of Samuel Enderby in ‘Moby Dick’ has given them some publicity outside Greenwich. At a Conference on Whaling held ion 23rd March 2013 at the Museum in Docklands a paper was given on the Enderbys, and another promised. The author of the paper does not want publicity for it, but says a book is forthcoming)

In 1814 Samuel Enderby had an ‘oil and white lead’ works in Loman Street, in The Borough, Southwark. (A plan of this works is in the Associated Lead Collection in the Tyne and Wear Archive in Newcastle) Earlier family members had been involved in a tannery in Bermondsey – the national centre for the tanning industry. Samuel Enderby had helped pioneer a process to make white lead in which tannery waste was an important ingredient. (this is the Fishwick process. Details in Clow (above)) He was also in the ‘oil and Russia’ trade, (The Oilman’s Vade Mecum and Useful Assistant, London, 1809) which probably meant that he processed mutton fat imported from the Baltic together with oil from whales slaughtered by the crews of his ships. He owned an oil processing plant at Rotherhithe, where oil, removed at sea from the dead whales, was dealt with. (St.Mary Rotherhithe Rate books 1810). Oil had all sorts of uses but, in the days before coal gas, was often used for street lighting.

Mary Buxton’s family were ship owners and when she married a Samuel Enderby he took over her family business. Their ships were among those chartered to take tea cargoes to Boston, Massachusetts – with obvious links to the earliest days of American independence. Samuel’s ships went out to hunt sperm whale and by 1790 he was a rich man controlling sixty-eight whaling ships working in the Southern Oceans. These ships began to set new standards of success – an Enderby crew were the first to harpoon a whale in the Pacific and one of his ships was the first to round the Horn with a cargo of sperm whale oil. Two hundred years ago this was considered heroic and the crews of the ships and the Enderby family gained a great deal of respect. (Sally Jenkinson says that it has been speculated that their ships carried tea to the ‘Boston Tea Party’. I think that this should be regarded with extreme scepticism! Enderby ships certainly went to North America. At and associated web sites Dan Byrnes describes these stories as ‘mischievous’ and analyses Enderby’s role in the ‘Tea Party’. He also notes that some historians have claimed that Samuel Enderby actually came from Boston Massachusetts, but finds no evidence of this. He comments however that ‘inaccuracy does not completely divorce the history of English whaling from the event which helped provoke the American Revolution. …. the American Revolution inconvenienced Enderby by ruining (the Southern Whale Fishery) this venture.’ This comment by Dan Byrnes and other material contained on his various web sites do however illustrate that the Enderby’s were involved in commerce on an international level and that their economic links go far and wide in this period).


Until 1830 the Enderby business headquarters was at St. Paul’s Wharf in the City of London. (Oilman’s Vade Mecum (above). It is likely the wharf was taken over from the Buxtons). Later they moved away from the riverside to Great St.Helens, near Bishopsgate (This was their later business address. i.e. used in correspondence with the City Gas Company 14th December 1837) but by this time Samuel’s sons were in charge. The family was very numerous but the best known after the two Samuels, father and son, are grandsons, Charles and George. A later family member with Greenwich connections was Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon. (the relationship was noted by Sally Jenkinson).

The Enderby family had lived in Greenwich for a long time before they opened their riverside factory. In the 1790s Samuel, Jnr. had occupied a large and impressive house on Crooms Hill. His mother lived on Blackheath and was involved in a long argument with Morden College about her tenancy. (the Morden College minute books of the period chronicle endless complaints from Mrs. Enderby.) Family members were active in local good causes. Elizabeth Enderby – wife of another brother – opened a School for Orphan Girls in Royal Hill; George Enderby was patron of a local savings bank; several of the family subscribed to St. Mary’s church, which was built in 1823 near the southwest gates of Greenwich Park. (‘Elizabeth Enderby’, ‘George Enderby’, ‘St.Mary’s’ – noted in Greenwich Heritage Centre ‘Enderby’ file – mainly MS notes collected by Barbara Ludlow from local archive material).

enderby house
Enderby House. Drawing by Sally Jenkinson, and reproduced with permission

Once the Enderby brothers bought the Greenwich riverside site Charles and George Enderby are said to have lived there. Perhaps they did so because of the wonderful riverside views since there could have been no need for people so rich and successful to live in this remote and marshy location. Enderby House, which still stands on the riverside, was probably built in the 1840s and replaced other houses which had been burnt down. (in 1846 the Greenwich Commission of Sewers noted that ‘Charles Enderby has covered Bendish sluice for a coach road to the new house’. Enderby House is the only candidate for the ‘new house’ mentioned here.) Charles entertained the rich and famous here. He had a number of ‘curiosities’ including a Tudor bedstead and a stuffed ‘parson bird’ from New Zealand, which, when alive, had been a pet. (quoted by Sally Jenkinson). Enderby House is now used as offices and is not accessible to visitors. It contains some beautiful and unusual rooms ‘an octagonal room. Large bay window, elegant pilasters, heavily decorated cornice and glass domed roof”. (A single page leaflet on the House was produced by STC when they owned the factory. Although the House was used as Board Room and meeting rooms when the book was written in early 1999 Alcatel sold it to West Developers with the riverside strip in the 2000s. It was then left unoccupied and with scant security, vandalised and squatted. Its current condition is not known. Its listing notes say “Early-mid C19 building of 2 storeys 2 windows and with wide projecting bay placed diagonally across left corner, Modern rendering with incised lines. Stone cornice and blocking course. Sash windows, some with vertical bars. Nondescript external appearance but contains a handsome octagonal first floor room (giving onto the diagonal bay, from whence the ship owner saw his vessels approach). At angles narrow columns, with leafy capitals, support enriched entablature. Above this a domed roof light with cast iron tracery. Oval landing outside has doors curved to wall shape.”)


The Enderby’s factory consisted of two large waterside buildings where spinning machinery and looms were used to make canvas. There were also rooms where hemp was spun and a flax mill on site. Outdoors were buildings to house a steam engine and boiler, houses for the foremen, stables, a smithy, and a joinery. (details of the factory are given in Newspaper  reports of the fire on 8th March 1845. Cf. Kentish Mercury, Illustrated London News, etc.

A feature of the factory was a ‘pitch house’. Experiments had been carried out in the Naval Dockyards with coal tar – produced by the new gas industry – for ropemaking. At first Royal Dockyard workers had refused to handle it because of the smell but it was probably used here by the Enderbys’ workers. The brothers negotiated seven-year contracts with the gas companies for a supply of tar and there was also a project with the City of London Gas Company for making ‘composition’. This most often means a coal tar based mortar used by the cheaper end of the building trade and something that was to be made by other east Greenwich manufacturers in due course.

The brothers also maintained their whaling interests. Their most famous ship was built on the Isle of Wight – and called the ‘Samuel Enderby‘. A picture of it hangs in Enderby House. For her first voyage an experimental rot proofing was used. This was Kyan’s extremely poisonous sublimate solution – more usually used as a treatment for syphilis. As a result there was some nausea among those who worked on it as is shown in evidence given to an enquiry on the subject. (Parliamentary Enquiry into Mr. Kyan’s patent. Copy of the report of the committee appointed to enquire into Mr. Kyan’s patent for the prevention of dry rot. Admiralty 9th July 1835)

Such uses of chemical products still under development in the 1830s shows how close the Enderby brothers were to many of the new ideas about chemistry and its development at that time.


In 1837 the Enderby brothers were approached by William Cooke, the pioneer inventor of the telegraph, who asked for help in developing a specially insulated rope. This was for the earliest experiments in setting up the electric telegraph in which Cooke wanted to establish an electric telegraph across the Thames. It was possibly this cable that was used in the first trials of the telegraph on the railway up Camden Bank between Euston and Camden Town. If so, this means that the earliest effective telegraph cable was made in Greenwich.Later owners of the site made cables that stretched across the world and in so doing followed on work already done by the Enderby family. (Details of this are given in J.L.Kieve, Electric Telegraph, Newton Abbott, 1973.)


A younger generation of Enderbys had money and leisure. Charles was to be one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society and used his ships for exploration – something that also helped his whaling interests. (Some details in Sally Jenkinson. The Heritage Centre ‘Enderby ‘ file contains cuttings and extracts from a number of articles and books about such explorations. There are also a number of relevant web sites. The most widely cited Enderby captain in this context is John Biscoe). Enderby ships became identified with Antarctic exploration and the stories of the explorers with their, sometimes harrowing, adventures make exciting reading. They named the new lands which they discovered ‘Adelaide Island’ after Queen Adelaide, ‘Mount William’, after William IV – and, of course, ‘Enderby Land’.

The Enderbys were part of that circle of merchants with strong government and establishment links – the same people who ran Morden College and the East India Company. Exploration was an expensive business: in theory, it was undertaken to discover new areas for whale fishing but this trade was soon in decline. In 1847 Charles Enderby got a concession to set up a whaling station in the Auckland Islands in Antarctica – the ‘Southern Whale Fishery’. It was a short lived and unsuccessful venture in which he, and the other members of his family, lost a lot of money. (Barbara Ludlow has drawn attention to The Mackworth diaries, published in New Zealand. She herself has researched and lectured on the episode in the Auckland Islands and I am aware of a number of family history researchers who have found the Greenwich Industrial History web site and contacted us to tell about their ancestors who sailed with the Enderbys. Barbara wrote a short article on the subject ‘The Enderby Settlement Diaries’ in Greenwich Industrial History March 2000, Vol.3. Issue.1.)


In 1845 the Enderbys planned to extend the Greenwich works by building right up to the river’s edge. Before the work began a serious fire left the works in ruins. The factory’s own fire engine fought the blaze joined by two from the Parish, another from the Royal Dockyard and one from the London Fire Brigade Establishment.

A detachment of Royal Marines was sent to help but there was never very much hope of saving the ropewalk. By the next morning all that remained were the ‘lofty walls‘ of the factory – and they were blown down by the high winds in the next few days. It was said in the Kentish Mercury that the fire was either ‘spontaneous combustion’ or that it was ‘wilfully raised by some incendiary’.

Work on a replacement building seems to have begun but was probably never finished. Charles Enderby seems to have continued to live on site until about 1849. The future was to be much more exciting


The fire which destroyed the Enderby factory. Illustrated London News 1845

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