Surrey Docks and Royal Victoria Yard walk by Sue Littledale

Our walk started at Canada Water, a small freshwater lake and wildlife reserve in central Rotherhithe that was once the site of a nineteenth century ‘timber pond’.  Originally constructed by the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Co., ‘Canada Pond’ was absorbed into the much larger Canada Water Dock which opened in 1876.

Riverside warehouses, Deptord

Riverside warehouses, Deptord

This dock was built by the newly formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company to handle large iron vessels specialising in the thriving Anglo-Canadian trade of grain and timber.  When the trade finally fell away and the dock closed in the 1970s the whole area was regenerated.  A small section of the dock was retained for the wildlife reserve but most of it was filled in and now sits under the Surrey Quays Shopping centre and car park.

The walk continued round the lake and down a passage leading to Surrey Quays Road and thence onto Redriff Road, which overlooks Greenland Dock.  Here we passed a large red lifting bridge which once covered a waterway cut from the Greenland Dock to Canada Dock.  Greenland Dock itself is arguably the most impressive reminder of London’s dock history.  Originally called the Howland Great Wet Dock it was built in 1699 as a re-fitting base where ships could be repaired and berthed in a sheltered anchorage.  From the 1720s, Greenland whalers also used the dock and extensive usage by the whalers led to its’ renaming as the Greenland Dock.

In 1806 the dock was sold to William Richie, a Greenwich timber merchant and founder of the Commercial Dock Company (1807).  In 1904 it was greatly expanded and the lock enlarged to provide access for ships up to 15,000 tons. We walked round the dock to the point when the Grand Surrey Canal, built in 1810, once passed on the western side en route to its exit in the north of the borough.  When the Greenland Dock was extended across the route of the canal all cargo destined for its Surrey wharves came in through the Greenland Dock and entered the canal through a new lock introduced on the southern side.

We left Greenland dock via Greenland Quay and turned left into Plough Way.  Passing the site of the old Baltic quay we entered South Dock, which is now a marina.  This dock, built in 1807–1811, was originally called the East Country Dock.  It was renamed in 1850 when the Surrey Commercial Dock Company purchased and enlarged it.  Severely damaged during the Second World War, it was drained in 1944 and used as a workshop to manufacture components for the famous Mulberry Harbours. It then re-opened but struggled to survive and in the 1980s it was developed as a marina.

1888 plan of the Victualling Yard. Copyright National Archives.

1888 plan of the Victualling Yard. Copyright National Archives.

Leaving South Dock we crossed Plough Way into Grove Street and the entrance a few yards down to the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard.  Grove Street appears to have changed its name more than once.  Originally called Grove Lane, it then became Grove Street.  For a brief period in the late 19th century, at the bequest of Queen Victoria, it was renamed Victoria Street at the top and Albert Street at the bottom.  Grove Street was home to many of the victualling yard employees.

The yard itself and the work carried out by the Victualling Office is described in some detail in Sue’s presentation of 13th March this year.  Our walk gave members the opportunity to see at first hand a number of buildings erected in the late 18th century when the Admiralty officially moved the Victualling Office and all its activities from Tower Hill to Deptford.  The first of these buildings, all of which are now listed, is the main entrance gate off Grove Street.  Built circa 1768, probably by Samuel Wyatt, it remains virtually unchanged, although the entrance now has two white arches joined by a lamp holder instead of its original large iron gates.

Just inside the gate is the Colonnade Building, built some ten years later to accommodate naval officers.  The attractive two blocks of two storeys, named for their imposing colonnades, would have been occupied by naval officers who were civilian employees of the Navy Board, not sea officers.  In the 1960s they were converted into flats by the Greater London Council.

The Terrace, Deptford

Walking eastward through the Pepys Estate, a social housing complex built by Lewisham Council, we came to an elegant row of houses, simply called ‘The Terrace’, which was built in 1791.  The terrace of 7 houses, each with three stories and a basement, was also converted into flats with some internal features remaining.  According to an 1888 plan of the yard, which can be viewed at the National Archives, each house was allocated to one of the senior yard officials.

Continuing along Longshore past the terrace we soon came to the riverside which still retains some of its eighteenth century features, not least the river wall itself which is also a listed historic ‘building’.  The wall had collapsed during the Napoleonic Wars and was rebuilt by John Rennie in 1816.

Turning right along the riverside we quickly reached two fine large warehouse buildings.  Historic England records that they were built in 1781-98 and that ‘the inner returns of the buildings and 3 bays of main fronts, were formerly the Commandant’s House and the Administrative Offices’.  The 1888 plan of the yard shows that the rest of the buildings were given over to the bakery and biscuit lofts on one side and an implement and raison store on the other.  This contradicts the widely held belief that these two buildings were in fact rum stores.  On the riverside, facing these buildings, are the Royal Victoria Yard River Gate and stone steps with wrought-iron gates between stone capped piers.

Turning away from the river and walking down between the two warehouses we passed 3-5 Foreshore, the last of the listed buildings which was previously a stable block.  Many of the old buildings on what was eventually a 35 acre site have vanished without trace.  However, those that remain – when studied alongside the detailed 1888 plan of the yard – provide a vivid picture of the yard at the end of the Victorian era.

All this land was once part of the Red House Estate, owned and nurtured by the diarist and polymath John Evelyn in the 17th century.  It was appropriate therefore to end our walk in Sayes Court Park at the bottom of Grove Street, the small piece of land that is all that now remains of John Evelyn’s famous garden.

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