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Deptford Market.jpg
Deptford High Street
Grid reference: TQ365775
Location: 51°28’41"N, 0°1’35"W
Post town: London
Postcode: SE8
Dialling code: 020
Local Government
Council: Lewisham / Greenwich
Lewisham Deptford
Greenwich and Woolwich

Deptford is a town and ancient parish on the south bank of the River Thames in north-western Kent, long since swallowed within the London conurbation. It is named after a ford of the River Ravensbourne. Part of the town spills over too into Surrey.

From the mid 16th century to the late 19th Deptford was home to Deptford Dockyard, the first of the Royal Dockyards. This was a major shipbuilding dock and attracted Peter the Great to come and study shipbuilding. Deptford and the docks are associated with the knighting of Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth I aboard the Golden Hind,[1] the legend of Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cape for Elizabeth,[2] Captain James Cook's third voyage aboard Resolution,[3] and the murder of Christopher Marlowe in a house along Deptford Strand which has in our own time if not then generated many conspiracy theories.[4]

Though Deptford began as two small communities, one at the ford, and the other a fishing village on The Thames, Deptford's history and population has been mainly associated with the docks established by Henry VIII. The two communities grew together and flourished while the docks were the main administrative centre of the British Navy, and a few grand houses like Sayes Court, home to diarist John Evelyn, and Stone House on Lewisham Way were erected. The area declined as first the Royal Navy moved out, and then the commercial docks themselves declined until the last dock, Convoys Wharf, closed in 2000.


View over Deptford towards Lewisham

Deptford borders the areas of Brockley and Lewisham to the south, New Cross to the west and Rotherhithe to the north-west; Deptford Creek divides it from Greenwich to the east, and the River Thames flows across its north-eastern shore, across which lies the Isle of Dogs in Middlesex. The northern boundary, which also forms the county border with Surrey, follows the line of the Earl Sewer, long since built over.

The name Deptford — anciently written Depeford meaning "deep ford" —[5] is derived from the place where the road from London to Dover, the ancient Watling Street (now the A2), crosses the River Ravensbourne at the site of what became Deptford Bridge at Deptford Broadway. The Ravensbourne crosses under the A2 at roughly the same spot as the Docklands Light Railway crosses over; and at the point where it becomes tidal, just after Lewisham College, it is known as Deptford Creek, and flows into the River Thames at Greenwich Reach.[6]

Deptford is mostly located in the Blackheath Hundred of Kent, while the Hatcham part is in the Brixton Hundred of Surrey.[7] It was regarded as two parts and in 1730 was divided into the two parishes of St Nicholas in the north and St Paul in the south.[5] The southern part by the ford was known as Deptford and the northern, riverside area was known as Deptford Strand.[8] It was also referred to as West Greenwich, while the modern town of Greenwich was referred to as East Greenwich until this use declined in the 19th century.[9] The whole of Deptford came within the Metropolitan Police District in 1830 and was included in the area of responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855.


St Paul's, Deptford

St Nicholas' Church, the original parish church, dates back to the 14th century but the current building is 17th century. The entrance to the churchyard features a set of skull-and-bones on top of the posts. A plaque on the north wall commemorates playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was murdered in a nearby house, and buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard on 1 June 1593.[10]

St Paul's was built in the 18th century, between 1712 and 1730,[11] acclaimed by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England as one of the finest Baroque churches in the country.[12] John Betjeman is attributed as referring to the church as "a pearl at the heart of Deptford".[13] It was designed by the architect Thomas Archer, who was a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, as part of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches with the intention of instilling pride in Britain, and encouraging people to stay in London rather than immigrate to the New World.[14]

Adjacent to the church yard is Albury Street, which contains some fine 18th century houses which were popular with sea captains and shipbuilders.[15]


Deptford began life as a ford of the Ravensbourne (near what is now Deptford Bridge station) along the route of the ancient trackway which developed into the mediæval Watling Street; it was part of the pilgrimage route to Canterbury from London used by the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and is mentioned in the Prologue to the "Reeve's Tale".[16] The ford developed into first a wooden, then a stone bridge, and in 1497 became the scene for the Battle of Deptford Bridge, in which rebels from Cornwall, led by Michael An Gof, marched on London protesting against punitive taxes, but were soundly beaten by the King's forces.[17]

1623 map of Deptford Strond

A second settlement developed as a modest fishing village on the Thames until Henry VIII used that site for a royal dock repairing, building and supplying ships; after which it grew in size and importance — shipbuilding remaining in operation until March 1869.[18] Trinity House, the organisation concerned with the safety of navigation around the British Isles, was formed in Deptford in 1514, with its first Master Thomas Spert, captain of the Mary Rose; and remained until 1618, then moving to Stepney. The name "Trinity House" derives from the church of Holy Trinity and St Clement, which adjoined the dockyard.[19]

Originally separated by market gardens and fields, the two areas merged over the years,[20] with the docks becoming an important part of the Elizabethan exploration.[21] Queen Elizabeth I visited the royal dockyard on 4 April 1581 to knight the adventurer Francis Drake.[22] As well as exploration, Deptford was important for trade - the Honourable East India Company set up their own yard in Deptford from 1607 until late in the 17th century.[23] It was also connected with the slave trade, John Hawkins using it as a base for his operations,[24] and Olaudah Equiano, the slave who would later became an important part of the abolition of the slave trade, was sold from one ship's captain to another in Deptford around 1760.[25][26]

Diarist John Evelyn lived in Deptford at Sayes Court from 1652. Evelyn inherited the house when he married the daughter of Sir Richard Browne in 1652. On his return to England at the Restoration, Evelyn had laid out meticulously planned gardens in the French style of hedges and parterres. In its grounds was a cottage at one time rented by master wood carver Grinling Gibbons. After Evelyn had moved to Surrey in 1694, Russian Tsar Peter the Great studied shipbuilding for three months in 1698.[22] He and some of his fellow Russians stayed at Sayes Court, the manor house of Deptford. Evelyn was angered at the antics of the Tsar, who got drunk with his friends and, using a wheelbarrow with Peter in it succeeded in ramming their way through a fine holly hedge. Sayes Court was demolished in 1728-9 and a workhouse built on its site.[5] Part of the estates around Sayes Court were purchased in 1742 for the building of the Admiralty Victualling Yard, renamed in 1858 after a visit by Queen Victoria as the Royal Victoria Yard.[27] This massive facility included warehouses, a bakery, a cattleyard/abattoir and sugar stores, and closed in 1960. All that remains is the name in a public park called Sayes Court Park, accessed from Sayes Court Street off Evelyn Street, not far from Deptford High Street. Today, the Pepys Estate, opened on 13 July 1966, stands on the former grounds of the Royal Victoria Dockyard.[28]

The Docks had been gradually declining from the 18th century; the larger ships being built found The Thames difficult to navigate, and Deptford was under competition from the new docks at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham.[29]

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 the need for a Docks to build and repair warships declined; the Docks shifted from shipbuilding to concentrate more on victualling at the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, and the Royal Dock finally closed in 1869.[30]

From 1871 until the First World War the shipyard site was the City of London Corporation's Foreign Cattle Market,[31] in which girls and women butchered sheep and cattle until the early part of the 20th century.[32] These "gutting sheds" were the subject of the play "The Gut Girls" by Sarah Daniels</ref> At its peak, around 1907, over 234,000 animals were imported annually through the market, but by 1912 these figures had declined to less than 40,000 a year.[33] The yard was taken over by the War Office in 1914,[33][34] and served as an Army Supply Reserve Depot in the First and Second World Wars.[35][36]

The site lay unused until bought by Convoys (newsprint importers) in 1984, and eventually came into the ownership of News International.[37][38] In the mid 1990s, although significant investment was made on the site, it became uneconomic to continue using the site as a freight wharf.[39] In 2008 Hutchison Whampoa bought the site from News International with plans for a £700m 3,500-home development scheme.[40] The Grade II listed Olympia Warehouse will refurbished as part of the redevelopment of the site.[38]

Deptford experienced economic decline in the 20th century with the closing of the docks, and the damage caused by the bombing during the Second World War - one V-2 rocket alone destroyed a Woolworths store outside Deptford Town Hall, killing 160 people.[41][42] High unemployment caused some of the population to move away as the riverside industries closed down in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[43] The local council have developed plans with private companies to regenerate the riverside area, and the town centre.[44]

Sights of the town

Grade II listed 18th century buildings on Tanners Hill

Deptford railway station is one of the oldest suburban stations in the world,[45] being built (c.1836-38) as part of the first suburban service (the London and Greenwich Railway), between London Bridge and Greenwich.

Close to Deptford Creek is a Victorian pumping station built in 1864, part of the massive London sewerage system designed by civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette.[46]

The former Deptford Power Station, in use from 1891 to 1983, originated as a pioneering plant designed by Sebastian de Ferranti, which when built was the largest station in the world.[47]

Albury Street (previously Union Street) contains a fine row of early urban houses largely dating from 1705-1717 which were once popular with naval captains and shipwrights.[48] Tanners Hill in the St John's or New Deptford area to the south of New Cross Road,[49] is part of an Area of Archaeological Priority due to the longevity of settlement and early industry,[50] and contains a set of commercial buildings from numbers 21 to 31 which are survivors from a row of 31 which were built in the 1750s on the site of cottages dating from the 17th century.[51] These timber-frame buildings have a Grade II listing from English Heritage[52] and are home to established businesses such as bicycle maker Witcomb Cycles.[53] Of Deptford's two important houses, Sayes Court no longer exists, but the Stone House in St Johns, built around 1772 by the architect George Gibson the Younger, and described by Pevsner as "the one individual house of interest in this area", still stands by Lewisham Way.[54]

Deptford Dockyard

Deptford Dockyard in 1747 (John Cleveley the Elder)

Deptford Dockyard was established in 1513 by Henry VIII as the first Royal Dockyard, building vessels for the Royal Navy,[55] and was at one time known as the King's Yard.[56] It closed as a Dockyard in 1869, and is currently known as Convoys Wharf. From 1871 until the First First World Wart was the City of London Corporation's Foreign Cattle Market. In 1912 The Times reported that over 4 million head of live cattle, and sheep, had been landed.

From 1932 until 2008 the site was owned by News International, which used it to import newsprint and other paper products from Finland until early 2000. It is now owned by Hutchison Whampoa Limited and is subject to a planning application to convert it into residential units,[57] though it has safeguarded wharf status.[58]

Other notable shipyards in Deptford were, Charles Lungley's and the General Steam Navigation Company's yards at Deptford Green and Dudman's Dock, also sometimes referred to as Deadmans Dock at Deptford Wharf.

Death of Christopher Marlowe

The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed during a drunken brawl in Eleanor Bull's house in Deptford Strand in May of 1593. Various versions of Marlowe's death were current at the time. Francis Meres says Marlowe was "stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love" as punishment for his "epicurism and atheism".[59] In 1917, in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee wrote that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight. Theories are that he was assassinated have been circulated in modern times.[60] It is commonly assumed that the fight took place in a Deptford tavern.[61]

The scholar Leslie Hotson discovered in 1925 the coroner's report on Marlowe's death in the Public Record Office which gave fuller details.[62] Marlowe had spent all day in a house owned by the widow Eleanor Bull, along with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley.[63] Witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill, exchanging "divers malicious words." Later, while Frizer was sitting at a table between the other two and Marlowe was lying behind him on a couch, Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly.[62] The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford, on 1 June 1593.[64]


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  • Nathan Dews, The History of Deptford (Deptford: J.D. Smith, 1883)
  • Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: The History of Everyday Deptford (New Cross: Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd, 1993), ISBN 1-898536-00-7
  • Ellen Chase, Tenant Friends in Old Deptford (London: Williams & Norgate, 1929)
  • Dan Colman, I Never Saw My Father Nude (London: Arthur Barker, 1981), ISBN 0-213-16791-2
  • George Glazebrook, Where No Flowers Grow. A child's eye-view of Deptford: 1921-1931 (Rainham: Meresborough Books, 1989), ISBN 0-948193-37-9
  • Jim Rice, Deptford Creek (Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, 1993), ISBN 0-948797-77-0

Outside links