Chapter 7 – 19th Century Developers


George Smith continued to manage Morden College and the Mercers Company’s holdings on the Marsh. His energy and initiative transformed Greenwich Marsh, and much else in Greenwich beside. Site after site was parcelled up, a developer found, and the site leased with clear instructions for good quality buildings and respectable sub-tenants.

It is also remarkable that most of these chosen leaseholders were making an investment themselves in industries dependent on coal tar – a waste product of the new gas industry. Gas industry waste products in the period are usually thought of as a nuisance – polluting, dangerous and an expensive problem. However coal tar was being bought, processed and used as a raw material by people who had every expectation of making a lot money. (see my work on coal tar The Early East London Gas Industry and its waste .M.Wright. 1998.  The link given is to the first chapter of several dealing with the use of coal tar from the early gas industry in east London and can be followed successivey through the web site)

This is not just another example of a coal-based economy at work – these industrialists needed the processing ability of the gas industry. With some irony it might be said that the Greenwich Peninsula was made what it is on the one hand by George Smith and Morden College and on the other hand by the gas industry.


John Bryan and Gidley Howden were almost the earliest developers identified by Morden College. (Morden College Trustee’s minutes, and deed collection).  They had a works on Bankside and wanted to expand. They made coal gas manufacturing apparatus (Pigot’s Directory, 1836)  one of many companies in the iron trade who were then taking advantage of the rapidly expanding gas industry. A third partner in the business, who probably provided the finance, was a Charles Holcombe.

John Bryan had been responsible for the building and setting up of a number of gas works throughout southern England – with varying degrees of financial success and subsequent recriminations from local people.  In this he was typical of several operators in this trade. (John Bryan – see Marjorie L.Morris, Worthing by Gaslight 1835-1901, Sussex Industrial History, No.13. 1983 pp. 26-32. Additonal Info. on Bryan by Brian Sturt.  I have never discovered anything about Gidley Howden)

In 1837 Bryan and Howden took a ninety nine year lease on a plot, previously used to grow osier, to the north of Great Pitts. Anything they built needed to be approved by George Smith. Problems soon began to arise.

In 1839 Morden College discovered that they were unable to obtain insurance on the site because of the ‘extremely hazardous business‘ being carried out there. This was tar distilling and it was reported that the premises ‘consists of three brick buildings – one a cooperage, another for the boiler and rectifying plant, and another for the tar still‘.  (Morden College Minutes 23rd July 1838).  By this time coal tar from the gas industry was available at knock down prices and the flourishing shipbuilding industries of the lower Thames provided a ready market for weather proofing products. Throughout the area many entrepreneurs were experimenting with cheap coal tar in the hope of making a saleable product from it.

Complaints began to made about the nature of Bryan and Howden’s work from several quarters and it appeared that ‘oily matter was running about’. The partnership was in financial trouble and Charles Holcombe wrote to Morden College to say that he no longer had any connection with the partnership.

In 1841 Morden College offered the site to other potential tenants. One offer came from Holcombe himself and another from an Arthur Hills of Battersea. (Arthur Hills – see my Early East London Gas Industry. Arthur was to find a site on the Isle of Dogs at Millwall), He was the brother of Frank Hills and, as we shall see, the Hills family was to make their fortunes from gas industry waste products – as Bryan and Howden had tried to do and failed. The first tenant had been a failure, others were to do rather better.


It is not clear exactly when John Bethell (John Bethell –see my Early East London Gas Industry (
above and link to digitised version and successive posts on that blog). Burt Boulton & Haywood, A Century of Progress. 1848‑1948, London, 1948) first moved to his site on the west bank of the Marsh. The earliest correspondence in the Morden College archive dates from 1839 when he made an offer for 20 acres of land and was turned down. Two months later he was negotiating with them on buildings to be erected and the route of a road. His tenancy with them must be almost the longest on the Marsh, since his successor company, The Improved Wood Paving Co., lasted well into the twentieth century – they are still shown on maps in the 1930s. (Improved Wood Pavement – the transition of Bethell’s firm into this entity can be traced through successive Morden College deeds after his death, and, later, that of his wife).  Bethell’s work on the development of coal tar as a preservative will be taken up again.


In 1841 Morden College granted a lease on a large site – ‘Further Pitts’ – to Charles Holcombe who by then had taken over some of the land previously leased to Bryan and Howden. Like Coles Child, Holcombe acted as a developer, leasing part of the site to a network of other companies. (again, Holcombe’s career on the peninsula can be traced through Morden College records and deeds)

Holcombe was a rich man – only three years earlier he had taken occupation of Valentines Park, a large mansion in Ilford.  (Valentines – the house has been refurbished and is set in a wonderful park – see His family were local benefactors in the Ilford area. A younger generation were named ‘Ingleby’. A road alongside Valentine’s House is named after him ‘Holcombe Road’. Strangely, the adjacent road is ‘Bethell Avenue’ – and this is unlikely to be a coincidence – did Holcombe have some sort of partnership with Bethell? That these two Greenwich developers of coal tar products are remembered in Ilford road names must have some undiscovered significance.

In Greenwich directories Holcombe’s works on the marsh is given as a ‘brass foundry, tar and Asfelt works’, He is also described as a ‘refiner of coal tar, spirit, pitch and varnish‘. So, like many others in the 1840s, he was experimenting with gas industry tars for use in paint and varnish.

Holcombe built Morden Wharf. It is not known why he called it this – perhaps he had a special relationship with Morden College, or wanted to curry favour with them. He built a road, known as Morden Lane or Morden Wharf Road which still runs through the Amylum Works although it no longer gives access to the River. (The Amylum works is, of course, now gone – the site is that now leased by Cathedral who have put a large sign ‘Morden Wharf’ on riverside buildings).

Like Coles Child, Holcombe wanted to improve the property which he had leased and gave this as his reason when he asked Morden College for permission to lay asphalt on the river path. He also asked permission to build a draw dock and complained when permission had been given to someone else to deposit rubbish on the riverside. He built houses, inevitably designed by George Smith of Morden College.

These activities gradually added to the local amenities and made the area more attractive to other incoming industrialists.


On the riverbank Holcombe built a public house called the Sea Witch. The site of the pub is now covered by Amylum’s riverside laboratory block – a building that seems to look very much like its predecessor. (the riverside laboratory block was demolished without notice by a French company during 2012) The pub had a riverside garden separated from it by the roadway (Plan of Sea Witch, Martin Collection)

(Sea Witch.  I have covered this in an article for Bygone Kent, ‘Two Vanished Greenwich Pubs’, Vol. 20. No.8 August 2000, 481-486. I would also like to thank Melbourne Smith of the International Historical Watercraft Society for information about the project to rebuild the American clipper ship of 1864 – and for his comments on the other smaller Blackwall built ‘Sea Witch’).

In a photograph of the 1930s the brewery is shown as Whitbread,but earlier it had been Gurney Hanbury of Camberwell. (Photograph reproduced by Barbara Ludlow in ‘Greenwich’ in ‘Old Photograph Series” also info in Martin Collection). ‘Sea Witch’ was probably named after a ship – it was a common name but it might be speculated that it was named after the American tea clipper of revolutionary design which was soon to visit the Thames. The pub was destroyed in 1940. (info. Barbara Ludlow)


Another partnership which acted as developers was Willis and Wright, (who, again, can be traced through the Morden College Records) the owners of Champion’s Vinegar Brewery on the corner of Old Street and City Road in Shoreditch. Elizabeth Champion was a signatory to the lease. In the 1840s they were allocated the area of Greenwich Marsh known as ‘Horseshoe Breach’. By 1845 Willis and Wright had built ‘a tar factory, house, chemical factory, and buildings’. It caused some nuisance and complaints were made about leakage of ‘noxious matter‘ from the plant. It is not clear why vinegar makers should open a tar distillery but in 1846 they advertised that they made ‘vinegar, mustard, acetic acid and naphtha‘.(Pigot’s Directory). Naphtha is oil distilled from coal tar. Willis and Wright eventually signed a lease with Morden College in 1850. This was with the usual expectation on Morden College’s part that they would undertake development work at Horseshoe Breach. The site was inspected by George Smith and discussions on the work began. A year went by and nothing happened. Further discussion ensued about a wharf and buildings but complaints continued. Ten years later Morden College complained that nothing had been done.

Willis and Wright left Greenwich in the early 1860s having let some sub tenancies. Horseshoe Breach had an interesting future in other hands.

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