On Monday Peter talked to us about the Thames Marshes of Erith, Slade Green, Crayford and Dartford. He says that the title of this talk is a little misleading; these places do not appear in their own right but do ring around the land side of the marshes which survive as mostly open land on the south shore of the Thames and were the subject of a 2005 masterplan for keeping them that way.
There had probably been a presence on the marshes from at least Roman times and certainly an Anglo-Saxon presence from the 5th century. Following the Norman conquest the manor of Hoobury was given to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (who also took Erith, Plumstead, Charlton, Lea and Eltham – a large chunk of present day southeast London). The manor passed down through centuries, its name slightly changing to the present Howbury and at the turn of the eighteenth century being in the ownership of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell who, aside from naval duties was also the Commissioner for Sewers, having responsibility for the upkeep of Thames embankments from Deptford to Gravesend. I am not sure when the marshes were first drained and embanked but almost certainly several centuries before Shovell’s day. They have since been raised twice, in 1879 and after the great flood of 1953 along with the construction of a raising barrier to the river Darenth where it enters the Thames.
The manor of Howbury survives in the form of a moated enclosure near to Slade Green. The house within the moat, of uncertain date, probably 17th century, does not survive but a large Jacobean tithe barn remains in the adjoining farmyard.
In the westerly angle between the Darenth and the Thames aerial photographs from 1953 show a more-or-less orderly scatter of small, well-spaced buildings typical of works making or handling explosives. The Thames Ammunition Works had been opened here in 1879, one of several firms operating in the Erith area concerned with armaments. Vickers were in Erith, later in Crayford, and the local industrialist Sir William Anderson, co-founder of the firm Easton and Anderson, initially concerned with hydraulics, moved into ordnance and became Government Director of Ordnance Factories. Thames Ammunition Works took advantage of its being quite near Woolwich and having a location on the river which enabled it to bypass risky road transport. In WW1 it was taken under government control and after the war passed to W.B. Gilbert Ltd who broke munitions there. Taking apart munitions is every bit as dangerous as putting them together and an explosion in 1924 killed twelve women workers. Very briefly, during WW1 the works had a rail link known as the Trench Warfare Light Railway. Nothing of it survived beyond the end of the war and it seems never to have appeared on an OS map. The works themselves remained until the 1970s since when the sheds and yards of an industrial estate have taken over the ground.
On the opposite bank of the Darenth an isolated pub, the Long Reach Tavern stood, being strangely well-patronised both by river workers and by devotees of cock-fighting and bare knuckle boxing, both illegal. The pub survived into the post WW2 era latterly popular with off-duty workers from the isolation hospitals. In 1911 the Vickers company took an area of marsh extending south from the pub and foreshore, boarded over the drainage ditches to make runways and used it as an airfield for testing their new aircraft. This was taken over for use as an air force training facility. Sheds were built to house the tiny planes, and various ancillary buildings. This was not a very sensible location for such a facility: rookie pilots having trouble with their plane could crash into the explosive works or an isolation hospital or a sewage farm or the Thames and the attempt to turn back could itself lead to a crash. The accident rate and death toll were both far too high. The site closed at the end of the war.
Opposite the Long Reach Tavern smallpox hospital ships were moored, in use until 1903 when the Long Reach Hospital was opened on the neighbouring shore, a little downstream from the airfield. This lasted until 1974 ever less used and was demolished in 1975. Nothing of the hospital stands but the line of the tramway which connected it to the two isolation hospitals Joyce Green and Orchard built on the slightly higher ground at the back of the marsh. These too no longer stand and have been the subject of other talks in PLSG and are not described here.
Close by the track which leads out onto the marsh and the site of the airfield is an orderly scatter of small corrugated iron huts now falling apart and being invaded by vegetation. This was the factory of Joseph Wells, makers of firework. The company was founded in 1837 in Dartford and operated until the 1970s producing both domestic fireworks and major display works with a world-wide clientele. On its closure, some of the staff had taken the name to West Sussex. The company continues active there, specialising in stage and special effects pyrotechnics.