Sunday, 20 March 2011

Deptford's royal dockyard; the case for statutory protection

Quite aside from all the other issues raised by the Convoy's Wharf planning application - housing density, transport planning, the number of car parking spaces, and the provision (or not) of public services for this new development - is the ongoing campaign to have the historic value of the former royal dockyard fully recognised and given appropriate protection.

Chris Mazeika at the Shipwright's Palace blog has undertaken an extensive review of the heritage assets that are being put at risk by the current plans, and has persuaded English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to review their previous decisions not to protect the former dockyard structures.

Although some buildings survive - the Master Shipwright's house adjoining the site and the Olympia warehouse actually on the site, which is listed and is being retained as part of the development - there is understood to be much, much more below ground that is at risk of simply being built over and lost forever.

As Chris points out, the current plight of the former dockyard structures at Deptford is nothing new; they have always been undervalued by heritage officialdom and overshadowed by the neighbouring World Heritage status of Greenwich. In 1954, at the same time as a dry dock was being built in Greenwich to house the Cutty Sark, Henry VIII's Great Storehouse in Deptford, the oldest naval building in the country, built in 1513, was being demolished.

Thirty years later, in 1984, the last remains of the 1720s storehouse with its fine early Georgian clock tower and belfry were swept away. And now while millions of pounds is being spent on rebuilding the Cutty Sark, the docks, slips, basins and mast ponds of Deptford dockyard are facing a dark future.

In his extensive blog post, Chris seeks to explain how this lamentable situation has arisen. In short it seems that English Heritage has failed to allocate sufficient resources to assessing the significance of the dockyard, relying to a great extent on secondary source materials - three publications the oldest of which dates from 1989 - to carry out this assessment. The new research that EH had invested in was woefully incorrect.

Chris makes a strong case for the fact that the structures remaining below ground on the Convoy's Wharf site offer a unique opportunity for historians to study their contribution to the development and operation of the royal dockyards, domestic architecture, and to early civil engineering technology.

Chris has also pointed out that English Heritage guidance itself supports the argument that the heritage assets on the Convoy's Wharf site should not be assessed individually, but in conjunction with the other related assets nearby: the royal naval victualling yard to the west; the royal naval hospital at Greenwich; St Nicholas' Church in Deptford (the 'Westminster Abbey of the British Navy') and the grade II* listed Albury Street.

The post questions the procedure adopted by the archaeologists from the Museum of London who were responsible for carrying out the recent investigation, in particular the positioning of trenches. Archaeologists working on the site were surprised when they were shown historic maps as they were unaware of the extent of the underground structure.

Chris suggests specific amendments and corrections to the three main secondary source publications that English Heritage relied upon for its assessment of Deptford's significance. By going back to primary source material, he reveals the extent of the omissions in the assessment and the woeful disregard which Deptford dockyard has been subjected to for many decades now.

He concludes:
"Together, omissions in the studies by Coad, by Lake and Douet and other English Heritage authors, exacerbated by the lack of an authoritative comprehensive study of Deptford dockyard, have enabled the heritage assets at Deptford to be jeopardised by an over reliance on insubstantial secondary sources.
The information contained in this document is put forward in an effort to end the systematic disregard of Deptford’s historic cultural assets by the statutory agencies and to ensure the future enjoyment of a local and national, even international culturally significant environment, the former royal dockyard at Deptford."

Reading the extensive blog post that Chris has written (and I understand this is a shortened version of what he actually submitted to English Heritage) raises various questions. Most notably, how come a passionate amateur (and I use this term only in the 'unpaid' sense of the word, the depth of research seems to me to be professional in the extreme) can do a better job than the 'experts' that we pay to protect our national heritage? Is the heritage of our royal dockyard just as much at risk from the actions of English Heritage as it is from the actions of the developers?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great summing-up of the Shipwright's Palace post. The ongoing disregard of the buried heritage of the Royal Dockyard is a real scandal. Please remember also that the remains of John Evelyn's gardens and manor house of Sayes Court are included in the Convoys Wharf site. For info see my blog at

Robert said...

I am Very Supportive of Preserving the Tudor Remains of the Site of Deptford Royal
Dockyard and Restoring the Great Basin

Deptford is as much Part of British Naval Heritage as Greenwich

It would be Splendid For Deptford
Royal Dockyard Site to be Properly
Restoring as Living Heritage