Deptford history - a tale of two rivers


Deptford’s history is rich and varied. The name is derived from the deep ford across the River Ravensbourne which was located where today’s Deptford Bridge now stands. It was part of an ancient route which ran from London to Canterbury and Dover and Deptford is even mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Deptford actually originated from not one, but two, riverside locations. One was beside the original deep ford, and the other was at a spot beside the River Thames called Deptford Strand. It’s thought that these two parts of Deptford still had fields separating them until at least the 19th Century.

The maritime history of Deptford

Deptford history has a strong maritime presence due to its location on the River Thames. The Royal Dockyard, famous in Deptford history, was founded in 1513 by King Henry VIII to build ships for his Royal Navy. The Dockyard remained open until 1869 before it began to be used as a cattle market and for other military and industrial purposes. The surrounding area - originally The Victualling Yard in the days of the Royal Docks - now forms the Pepys Estate, named after none other than Samuel Pepys, the famous London diarist. 

Pepys often visited the Royal Dockyard as Clerk to the Navy Board, and often called on his friend John Evelyn at his manor house, Sayes Court.

Deptford’s shipbuilding and maritime history was a key factor in its prosperity, particularly at times of war. Fine houses rose up along High Street and Albury Street, some of which can still be seen today. But with the decline of shipbuilding in the early 19th century came a decline in Deptford’s fortunes. Other industries struggled to fill the gap, and Deptford became overcrowded with a high unemployment rate.

This led to the Deptford Fund being set up by the Duchess of Albany to address some of the problems caused by poverty - you can read more about The Albany here (link to Albany piece). The Deptford Fund was one of the biggest charitable acts in Deptford history, but other, smaller, charities were also created to help alleviate poverty. 

Education in Deptford history

Education also features strongly in Deptford history. The need for education of the poor became more and more vital as Deptford grew rapidly during the 17th century. The first school opened in Flagon Row in 1680, followed by another small school at Deptford Green in 1707.

But it was in 1714, when the local vicar, George Stanhope, worked with other leading citizens of Deptford, that a new charity was formed to clothe and educate 25 boys and 25 girls.

Located in the High Street, it became known as Dean Stanhope’s or the Bluecoat School. It eventually merged with John Addey’s charity to become the Addey & Stanhope School, with the old building in the High Street being replaced by shops before the new school moved to New Cross Road in 1899.

Two local women, Margaret and Rachel McMillan, are also an important part of Deptford history. They became known as the pioneers of nursery education when they set up their nursery school in Deptford over 100 years ago.

Deptford and Greenwich

Deptford and Greenwich may be geographical neighbours, but they were very different places in centuries gone by. Deptford was the poorer industrial town with Greenwich being a wealthier, more fashionable place to live due to its Royal associations. The towns were also physically separated by Deptford Creek which had no permanent bridge until 1815.

The first railway in London was built in 1836 and ran to Greenwich through Deptford. The railway line meant a bridge was needed to cross the creek, but this unfortunately didn’t bridge the cultural gap between the two communities.

The Guild of Trinity House

The establishment of the Guild of Trinity House in the 16th century was a key moment in Deptford history. The Guild was responsible for monitoring river traffic on the Thames, issuing licences to river users and developing offshore navigation such as lighthouses. 

Based at Deptford, the Guild had a great hall and 21 almshouses to its name and provided homes for mariners and their families. The original alms houses - built for “decayed Masters of Ships and their Widows” - were demolished in 1660. Although replacements were built, residents finally left the houses around the middle of the 19th century. 

Some coloured glass panes from the original great hall can still be seen in the windows of the library at the current Trinity House, although nothing remains of the original estate. Today, Trinity House perfectly illustrates Deptford history and the organisation continues to uphold the safety and well-being of seafarers.