Guided Walk: Emirates Airline and Royal Victoria Dock to Barrier Park by Sheila Dobner

Emirates Air Line. Source: Nick Cooper at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This week our guided walk included an unexpected adventure:  our trip started with a ride on the Emirates Airline cable car, which took us from North Greenwich to the Royal Victoria dock to enjoy the views of the Thames, the Thames Barrier and the docklands areas.

Arriving at Royal Victoria Dock, we strolled along the water side towards the Excel centre.  The Royal Victoria Dock was built on Plaistow marshes – a place of smuggling, illegal prizefights, gibbets and prison hulks on the river.   The1844 Metropolitan Building Act restricted the use of populated areas for noxious industries so the area became attractive to such industries.  The land was acquired cheaply and industrial development began with the building of the North Woolwich Railway (from Stratford) which opened in 1847. The Victoria Dock was constructed 1850-55 and was designed to take the new large iron steamships. The indented shape gave increased docking space. It was equipped with hydraulic lifting machinery, newly introduced by Sir William Armstrong, which gave it an advantage over existing docks. The entrance was from the west (now blocked by Silvertown Way) and land was bought to the east in order to build the Albert Dock and an eastern entrance. “Royal” was added to the names in 1880 when the Albert opened. Stothart and Pitt cranes from 1962 remain as a feature of the redeveloped dock. The Royal Docks specialised in the import and unloading of foodstuffs and were lined with granaries and refrigerated warehouses. The docks closed in 1981.

Lightship 93. By Mark Milligan, London History Group.

Near Excel we viewed  the Dockers statue by Les Johnson, installed 2009, and the remaining warehouses which were mostly bonded stores for tobacco.  Here also is the Transporter Bridge designed by Lifschutz Davidson in 1997. Originally it was planned to have a passenger cabin underneath. However the lifts no longer operate, so we continued along the dockside to view more of the dockside features.  Overlooking the dock are the Spillers Millennium Mills built between 1933 and 1954 and was one of many granaries which lined the Royal Victoria Dock. It has been derelict for many years, but there are plans for development into flats.  Within the dock itself, ships include Lightship 93, built in 1938 at Dartmouth, ordered by Trinity House in 1938 built by Philip & Son of Dartmouth and named Light Vessel 93.  She is now privately owned and is used under her present name as a photographic studio.  The nearby SS Robin is the world’s oldest complete cargo-carrying steam coaster and the last of her type in the world. She was built in 1890 at Orchard Yard, Bow Creek, on the River Lea and was restored between 1974 and 1975 by the Maritime Trust.

The DLR from Prince Regent station took us via Canning Town to Pontoon Dock station, with views of Silvertown and the Lyle’s Golden Syrup factory. Founded by Henry Lyle,  the factory amalgamated with Tate in 1921 to become Tate and Lyle’s. Lyle Park nearby was given to the workers and local people by Henry Lyle 1924. Inside are the gates from the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding yard in North Woolwich.  Silvertown itself was named after Stephen Winckworth Silver who opened his India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph works here in 1852. Many other industries in Silvertown included several manure works, Knights Castile soap, James Keiller’s preserves, and Silvertown lubricants (which refined Russian crude oil). Charles Dickens described the area as “a refuge for offensive trades, oil burners, varnish makers, printers-ink makers and the like”.

The Millennium Mills following the explosion. Source: Wikipedia

The Millennium Mills following the explosion. Source: Wikipedia

In 1917 Silvertown was the site of the terrible Silvertown explosion. The Brunner Mond Chemical Works here made soda crystals from ammonia and caustic soda. During WWI they were asked to convert to produce TNT for the war effort. They were reluctant as there were 30,000 residents in the area, a school and a church, but eventually had to agree. On Friday Jan 19th 1917 a fire started in the melt pot room and caused the largest explosion ever experienced in London. 69 were killed and 2000 made homeless. The blast was heard on the south coast. It was probably caused by poor safety procedures. The memorial to the victims has now been moved into the new housing development at Royal Wharf and was too far to walk to on this occasion.

Pontoon Dock station gives good views over the area. Pontoon Dock was originally the Victoria Graving Dock for ship repairs. It was equipped with a revolutionary ship lift and opened in 1858. The ship for repair was lifted out of the water on pontoons by hydraulic jacks, and lowered into the repair docks. By 1896 the ships were too large and this dock closed.  Another notable feature is D-Silo, a former Grain silo, built of reinforced concrete 1920. Bulk grain was lifted from ships and barges into the central silo and 2 side towers by bucket and suction elevators.

From here we entered the very attractive Barrier Park with its 400 metre long “green dock” (never actually a dock).  The park was developed by LDDC and opened in 2000. It was built on one of the most polluted sites –PR Chemicals. Decontamination took years. At the riverside there is a Pavilion of Remembrance to civilians who died in World War II. Here we viewed the Thames Barrier, constructed 1974-82 and became operational 1984, before returning to the park café for lunch.

We all thank Sheila for an excellent and superbly thought out walk.  It was scenic at both the start and finish and thoroughly interesting in between!  A true microcosm of 19th Century east London.  The café overlooking the park made a relaxing place to finish.

Thames Barrier Park by Alan Stanton. CC-BY-SA-2.0. Wikimedia Commons.


Guided Walk and Visit: Bow and the Raw Materials Exhibition by Jill Napier

Perhaps less historically glamorous than Spitalfields or Whitechapel at present, Bow is a fascinating area at the far end of the Mile End Road.  Both Bow and neighbouring Bromley grew up as settlements close to ancient fords on the River Lea. Bow was probably named after a “bow” shaped bridge built in 1110 by Matilda, wife of Henry 11. She needed to cross the River Lea to survey her own estate lands and to visit Barking Abbey. The Bow crossing superseded the Roman crossing at Old Ford and led to Stratford – literally “the paved way to the ford”.  In 1966-7, the Greater London Council (G.L.C.) built the current bridge and flyover leading from the Blackwall Tunnel.  It is hard to believe that both Bow and Bromley – the latter was always the lesser settlement – were once rural hamlets of great charm and desirability on the far outskirts of the City.

St Mary’s Parish Church, Bow. Photograph by Sue Flockton.

The land seems to have been quite marshy.  In 1311, the people of Bow petitioned for their own chapel of ease rather than take the awkward and muddy journey to St Dunstan in Stepney.  In 1719 St Mary’s became a parish church in its own right.  Isolated now on a traffic island opposite the Nunnery gallery, it once formed part of a street of historic buildings, all of which have disappeared. We were able to visit the Church and view the parish room designed by C.R. Ashbee, who ran the Guild of Handicrafts from a 17th Century house lower down Mile End Road towards the City. Appalled by the destruction of historic Bow in the late 19thC, Ashbee started the Survey of London in Bow in 1896 with the intention of recording the fine buildings being demolished at that time to make way for the new factories and worker housing.

The Nunnery Gallery run by Bow Arts since 1996 is on the site of one of these historic mansion houses dating from the 17th Century.  Sophie Hill, the Director, introduced us to the current exhibition there, called “Raw Materials.”  She explained that this was an Heritage Lottery Fund funded project created to look at the vanished industrial heritage of the Lea Valley. It focused on wood with a special emphasis on the furniture trade.  The exhibition presented an evocative mix of objects – furniture, tools, printing blocks for wall paper – archive materials, maps and photographs as well as oral testimonies and the work of a commissioned artist, Silke Dettmers who created new pieces especially for the exhibition.  There were also carefully crafted pieces from the Building Crafts College in nearby Stratford – a training college sponsored by the Carpenters Company, which owned lands in Stratford nearby on the Olympic site and whose name is remembered in the nearby Carpenters Road.

The River Lea, which runs close by Bow, was edged with large timber yards – for example, Gliksten & Sons Ltd, E. Sherry, James Latham Ltd, and Bambergers.  All took in timber supplied from the Surrey Docks and brought up the River Lea by canal.  It was used in a variety of ways – for packing cases, building materials and matchsticks.  The project looked particularly at the production of furniture in the East End. It traced the history of small scale factories in the Shoreditch area, often run by immigrant Jewish families, to the development of large scale concerns – most particularly Lebus which moved from small premises in Curtain Road to a vast factory site next to the River Lea at Tottenham.  Lebus was once a supplier of furniture to all corners of the British Empire, a maker of aeroplanes in two World Wars and a major supplier and developer of Utility Furniture.  An enlightened and major employer in the area, it did not survive the 1970s and very little remains on site.

Blue plaque commemorating Annie Besant and the Match Girls Strike. Photograph by Sue Flockton.

Bryant and May were also a major manufacturer in the Bow area producing matches on site from 1862 to 1979. Two Quakers set up the business using Swedish technology and bringing both timber and chemicals down the River Lea.  Poor working conditions and dreadful exploitation led to the Match Girls Strike of 1888.  The present vast red brick complex was built as a new factory in 1910-1911 and produced 10 million matches a year. When it closed in 1979, the buildings were eventually re–developed as The Bow Quarter by O.R.M.S. Architects in 1987. Today it houses 733 one and two bed room apartments. We were able to look beyond the gates and visit the courtyard to view inside the complex.

The walk continued past the nearby tram shed built by the London County Council in 1907-8 and now used as a bus station. On the corner of Fairfield Road – so named after the annual Whitsun Fair re-located to Bow from the west End in 1764 but closed in 1862 – stands Poplar Town Hall. One of the important public buildings located on Bow High Street, it is now used as office space and a café. Designed by Clifford Culpin in 1938, it is a reminder of Bow’s proud past and association with the Docks. Mosaics above the entrance show wine, sugar and other Empire produce.

Across the road, stands Bromley Public Hall which was the former vestry hall for nearby Bromley and is now the Tower Hamlets Registry Office. The nearby Police Station at 111 Bow Rd was built in 1903 and added to in 1937-8. The Thames Magistrates Court stands opposite replacing an older Court House and designed by Phillip Arrand in 1990.

The Bow area was once the site of three railways. There are hints in the names of streets and in the name of The Little Driver pub – although not everyone agrees on the latter. The nearby Tredegar Terrace, rebuilt as a training school for nurses in 1911, was once the home of Joseph Westwood.  A builder of iron ships and bridges across the Empire, Westwood is buried in a grand tomb in Tower Hamlets Cemetery just down the Mile End Rd.  He is a reminder of the importance of Bow in the past, when it was once not just a place to pass through en route to leaving central London.

To visit the Raw Materials website go to

Our many thanks to Jill for organizing and hosting a really excellent day.


Bow Quarter. Photograph by Sue Flockton.



Guided Walk: Shakespeare Land and Southwark from Blackfriars to London Bridge by Tony Keen

College of Arms. By Andreas Praefcke, CC BY 3_0.

Our second guided walk of the season started at Blackfriars Station.  We proceeded along the Thames Embankment, pausing to admire the College of Arms which is a fine, late Georgian building with its attractive gold leaf gates and its startling embellishments, situated half way between the bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge, heading south towards the imposing presence of the Tate Modern, we went to inspect the house where St Christopher Wren is often purported to have lived whilst St Paul’s was under construction, along with several other famous names from the 17th Century.  But all is not as it seems, because the house actually dates to Queen Anne, was erected in 1710, and the plaque over the door appears to have been a romantic twist dating to 1945.

Heading east, we passed Sam Wanamaker’s modern Globe Theatre replica into Park Street where the Blue Plaque on the wall proudly boasted the site of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where despite the modern frontage plays are performed in a time-warped atmospheric setting.  Just beyond, partially under Southwark bridge, is the original site of Shakespeare’s Globe.  There is a very good description of the site and the development of the theatre on the display boards, explaining that the theatre is known as “Shakespeare’s Globe” not merely because his plays were performed here, but because it was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

We then continued to Clink Street under the railway arches and to the remains of the great hall of Winchester Palace with its magnificent medieval stone rosary window.  The famous Clink Prison dates back to 1144 was one of England’s oldest prisons, spanning over 600 years of history.  In its heyday, it was in fact a dungeon – part of the Winchester Palace estate – that provided accommodation for those who displeased the Bishop.  It is now open to the public as a tourist attraction, showcasing some of the darker and more gruesome stories of life in Medieval London.

Francis Drake’s Galleon Golden Hinde. By Jose L. Marin. CC BY 2.5

A replica of Sir Francis Drake’s astonishingly small and brightly coloured galleon Golden Hinde greeted us next, always a remarkable sight as one turns the corner from the Thames Path.  The information boards gave informed us that he had navigated under the orders of Elizabeth I to  negotiate new trade agreements with nations never before encountered, to acquire land, to discover new shipping routes and to acquire treasure from Spanish ships.  This project, led by Drake, who was accompanied by five other ships, was designed to undermine Spanish dominance in South America and improve British links across the globe.  thereby weakening the Spanish dominance of South America. He did this successfully, and to liberate treasure from Spanish ships.  As well as securing around £600,000 in Elizabethan money, Drake was the first navigator to successfully circumnavigate the globe.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hinde.  Although it was intended that she be preserved as a museum to commemorate the Queen’s achievements, Golden Hinde was not maintained and had disintegrated by the mid-17th century.  Today it is a popular tourist destination and wedding venue, due both to its novelty and its link to an important historic event.

Southwark Cathedral’s Shakespeare Window. Source: The Looking At London website

Tracing our way through the streets behind London Bridge we entered the precinct of Southwark Cathedral.  This beautiful majestic and imposing monument, with its colourful effigies, is London’s oldest and finest Gothic structure.  From the early 1100s it was the church of the Augustinian Southwark Priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It was badly damaged in a fire of 1212 and the following rebuild gave it its present form.  Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, it became a parish church dedicated to St Saviour.  Entering the building, we encountered the memorial stained glass window dedicated to many of Shakespeare’s most well beloved plays, designed by Christopher Webb in 1954, with a reposing figure of the bard beneath.  Shakespeare’s elder brother Edmund is buried in the nave and there is a memorial slab in the floor.  We were treated to a wonderful organ recital whilst we were there, the decibels alone impressing with their sheer magnificence.

Outside the group continued through the sights and smells of Borough Market. There has been a market on the site since at least 1014, and its millennium was celebrated in 2014.  More formally it dates to 1756 when the Borough Market website reports that in February 1756 advertisements were placed stating that a “commodious place for a market is now preparing on the backside of Three Crown Court on the west side of the high street of the Borough and will be ready by the 25th March next for the reception of all country carriages and others bringing any kind of provisions to the said market.”  Today it is a vibrant hive of busy stalls selling high quality food products, visited by serious buyers and tourists alike.

The George Inn, Borough. Photograph by Ewan Munro. CC BY-SA 2.5

We wrapped up our walk with a visit to London’s oldest surviving galleried inn, The George, built in 1570.  Although damaged by fire and having suffered the indignity of the loss of its north wing to the railways, the inn retains many original features and was frequented by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Pepys, Johnson, and thousands of their contemporaries.  Today it rejoices in the presence of the likes of you and I, tired and hungry after a satisfying sightseeing expedition.

With many thanks to Tony Keen for leading us through the winding streets of north Southwark and introducing us to so many superb insights into the Port of London’s rich and fascinating history and heritage.  Shakespeare was a recurring figure in our travels, but the echoes of many other voices were heard too.

Panorama of London, with Southwark in the foreground by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

Guided Walk: The Highway and its Byways by Ian McBrayne

The Royal Foundation of St Katherine. By John Salmon. CC BY-SA 2.0

Ian launched our summer term of visits and guided walks with a fascinating walk through the old riverside districts of Ratcliffe and Shadwell, exploring the area around two parallel east-west roads, The Highway with its thundering traffic and the much quieter Cable Street.

Our first stop was outside the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, a religious house founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, whose royal origins saved it from dissolution by Henry VIII.  As some of us discovered, its café in a yurt in the grounds serves rather good coffee.  We then passed artists’ studios in a former sweet factory, two charming rows of Victorian cottages and two late 18th century warehouses converted into flats – an early indication of the very mixed past and present economy of the area.

We then walked through the first public park in Stepney, opened in 1922 close to Ratcliffe Cross where several 16th century explorers set sail in search of the North West Passage.  This brought us to Shadwell Basin, the easternmost and best surviving part of the former London Docks, and Shadwell’s parish church, St Paul’s.

The funeral of the Marr family, victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. London Chronicle 1811.

A little further west, we heard the gruesome story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which shook London in December 1811.  A seaman was convicted posthumously of the seven very violent killings, but the evidence was flimsy and the truth has never been established.  Walking on through the welcome greenery of the recently created Wapping Wood, we then admired the house where wealthy local brewer Henry Raine set up a free school for poor children in 1719.
We speculated on the prospects for the Grade I listed warehouse at Tobacco Dock.  When the docks closed, it was turned into a top-end shopping centre, but this was one of the slowest areas in Docklands to regenerate and the shops failed.  Twenty years later it is being marketed as a business and events venue, but uptake seems slow.

Back on The Highway, we came to the site of Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, set up in the 1840s to import exotic animals for onward sale to zoos and menageries.  We heard the high Victorian tale of the tiger which escaped and captured a small boy.  Thanks to the quick-witted bravery of Jamrach and his staff, the story had a happy ending.

Modern mural of the Battle of Cable Street. By jo-marshall CC BY 2.0.

We continued to St George’s in the East, a Hawksmoor church rebuilt within its shell after bombing in the Blitz.  We were divided on the success of the new design.  On the side of St George’s Town Hall, we admired the large mural which commemorates the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when local people turned out in numbers to prevent a Fascist march from passing along the street.

In Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, we saw houses and shops surviving much as they were in the early 19th century.  By contrast, we then passed through the area where two fashionable squares were built in the 17th century: Prince’s Square, completely obliterated in the 1960s; and Wellclose Square, where the layout remains but the original buildings have all been lost.

Our last two stops provided contrast.   At the first we admired a survivor of the 1960s purge which destroyed the nearby squares: Wilton’s Music Hall, created out of a row of four houses in the 1840s and 1850s and functioning as a theatre today, though with a long period in between as a Methodist meeting hall, followed by decades of uncertainty and gradual restoration.  The final stop was the site of a short-lived disaster, the Royal Brunswick Theatre, built in 1828 and demolished after collapsing three weeks later.  The subsequent 1830 building, originally a seamen’s home, largely survives, alongside the 1890s home of the Mercantile Marine Office, which regulated the employment of seamen – a fitting reminder at the end of our walk of the maritime origins of the area.

Our many thanks to Ian for all his research and planning, and for a very enjoyable and informative guided walk.

The front entrance to Wilton’s Music Hall. Photograph by James Perry CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our Summer Programme Commences

Jamrach and the Tiger. Source: BBC

Jamrach and the Tiger. Source: BBC

Our finalized summer programme of splendid walks and visits is now available on our Programmes page.

We begin the new term with a walk led by Ian McBrayne, entitled “The Highway and its Byways”.  During the walk we shall explore the history of the two small districts of Ratcliffe and Shadwell.  The districts are based around two roads which run east-west, parallel and very close to each other, The Highway and Cable Street.  We shall be looking at places of interest on or just off those two streets.  Among other things, we shall be considering two great pieces of real-life 19th-century melodrama, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and Jamrach and the Tiger.

If you would like to join us for our summer walks and visits, please get in touch with our secretary Frances Bulwer:


End of Term Art Shorts

Amelia Curran’s portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We usually end the term with a series of short presentations on a literary or arts theme followed by lunch. Today did not disappoint – on 20th March we had a very varied programme followed by a delicious lunch in Wapping.

Tony began with a reading of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, which was inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition of a seven and a half ton portion of a statue of Rameses II from Thebes in 1816. It offered Shelley an opportunity for reflection on greatness and its passing. His poem is well known – unlike the poem written by his friend and rival poet, Horace Smith. Tony drew our attention to this poem as a comparison with Shelley’s. Interestingly, Smith’s poem is related to London and envisages a time when the great city no longer exists – all is impermanence – a melancholy but sobering thought perhaps…..

Sarah discussed an art installation created by Stephen Willats in 1978 sponsored by the Port of London Authority and bought by the Museum of Docklands in 2006 – displayed until recently on Floor 2 of the Museum. This work was commissioned at a time of great change in the Docks (and Britain). The traditional industries were disappearing and the impact on communities – like those in the Docklands – was hugely significant. The old landscapes would disappear for ever.  Willats believed that art should be created in the community and that the community should participate in its creation. This work – like the parallel work involving the women of the Ocean Estate in Stepney/Mile End – made use of hours of oral interviews. For this work entitled “Concerning our Present Way of Living”, he interviewed dockers as their industry was coming to an end. He produced 4 large panels 5ft tall x 2ft overlaid with photos, quotations and geometric designs still in the Museum’s ownership and occasionally displayed elsewhere – for example in the Whitechapel Art Gallery at exhibition in 2014.

Lorries Transporting Landing Craft, Royal Albert Docks, London (1945) by Rupert Shephard (Imperial War Museum ART LD 5293). Source: Wikipedia

Continuing an art theme, Fran introduced us to two examples of the work of Rupert Shephard (1909-1992). Shephard trained at the Slade and became part of the Euston Road School for a while with Pasmore and Coldstream. He spent some time in South Africa and during WW2 he was on the Artists Advisory Committee. The two shown were “Lorries Transporting Landing Craft, Royal Albert Docks, London” – a watercolour – and a lino cut from 1975 of the River Lea from the “London: the Passing Silence Series.”  His grandson is the newly appointed Director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt.

Ian gave us an excellent quiz on artists visions of London Bridges from Canaletto’s “Westminster Bridge” (1746), via Fox Talbot, Whistler, Atkinson Grimshaw, Pisarro and Monet, Brangwyn and William Wylie to André Derain and Hugh Casson. He finished with the startlingly colourful John Duffin’s “Albert Bridge” from 2014.

Sue followed up her excellent presentation on Royal Navy Victualling with the unexpected treat of home baked ship’s biscuit and a further discussion of this very basic naval fare!

Barry took us along the Thames from central London to Richmond on a leisurely 18th Century boat cruise. Samuel Leigh was a publisher of travel books and itineraries – his illustrated panorama, some 50ft long, gives a rare, illustrated view of both banks of the Thames as it was developing in the 18th Century. We see the Millbank Penitentiary, the colour works at Chelsea, Mark Brunel’s Saw Mills and the beginnings of a number of industrial manufacturers and isolated villas on the almost empty banks of the River towards Richmond.

Peter concluded the morning with his own panorama of photographs which he is producing as part of his ambitious and continuing plan to walk across London from east to west.

We begin our own series of walks and visits with the Group in the Summer Term on Mondays from 8th May.

Canaletto’s Westminster Bridge with the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames. Source: Google Art Project

Royal Navy Victuallers and the Port of London by Sue Littledale

Sue’s presentation to the Group on the 13th March 2017 took us into the world of naval provisioning, called victualling.  Early histories of the Royal Navy tend to focus on the building of battleships and the growth of the naval dockyards in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  What is sometimes overlooked is the huge and complex administrative system required to keep that navy adequately fed and watered.  Henry VIII built more than forty battleships and all the sailors on those battleships had to be fed for protracted periods, particularly at times of war.  In 1546 he set up the Navy Board, which originally had responsibility for victualling the Royal Navy.

Tower Hill Yard site. Source: Ian Grainger and Christopher Philpotts ‘The Royal Navy Victualling Yard, East Smithfield, London‘ (MOLA 2010 – used with kind permission)

It was his daughter Elizabeth I who, on acceding to the throne in 1558, first created the post of Surveyor General of the Victuals ‘to take care always to have in store a stock of victuals to supply a thousand men at sea for one month at a fortnight’s notice’.  In 1560 Elizabeth also established a Victualling Office and Yard at Little Tower Hill after purchasing the manor of East Smithfield and a former monastery for £1200.  The complex included storehouses, ovens, brew houses and bakeries. Milling took place across the river at Rotherhithe. Most of the other supplies came from private agents.  This yard served the navy with varying degrees of success for the next hundred years, although shortages often arose.

The Victualling Office was put under more and more strain as the size of the navy increased, particularly during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid seventeenth century.  By the end of the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667 the number of seamen to be supplied had risen to 35,000 and the Tower Hill Victualling Yard had long been inadequate.  In 1672, therefore, a new victualling yard was established at Deptford, where a slaughterhouse for the navy had already been acquired in 1650.

The Royal Victoria Victualling Yard in 1937. Source: PLA collection/Museum of London

New lodgings for the workforce were also built at Deptford and in 1683 an independent Victualling Board was set up.  During the wars of Spanish succession (1701-1714) it met in the Tower Hill offices on a daily basis, and strict regulations and instructions were introduced.  However, it wasn’t until 1742 that the Board took the first step toward making Deptford the centre of its operations.

The move to Deptford took some time but the Victualling Yard at Little Tower Hill was finally closed in 1785. The buildings became government warehouses before the Royal Mint was transferred to the site from the Tower of London in 1806.

In 1742 the Victualling Board had leased 11 acres of the Red House estate to the north-west of Deptford.  Stretching up river from the northern wall of the dockyard, it was part of the Evelyn family estate.  The site already had an 800 foot timber wharf that could accommodate four vessels as well as a collection of warehouses and storehouses.  Recent fires meant some of these would have to be rebuilt although some could be repaired.  By the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1793 the yard’s slaughterhouse could accommodate up to 260 oxen; the hog hanging house 650 pigs; the bakehouse had 12 ovens and the spirit vats held 56,000 gallons.

During the Napoleonic wars the navy expanded from 125,000 men in 1800 to over 140,000 in 1810.  The common seaman’s weekly ration in Nelson’s navy was:

  • 7 lbs (3.2 kg) of ship’s biscuit,
  • 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of beef, 2 lbs (907 g) of pork,
  • 2 pints of peas, 3 pints of oatmeal,
  • 6 oz (180 g) of butter,
  • 12 oz (360 g) of cheese
  • a gallon of beer a day

Victualling Yard gates at Deptford, 1841. Source: Old Deptford History website

The relative peace that followed the Napoleonic wars saw a dramatic decline of boat building and maintenance in the Deptford dockyard.  It finally closed in 1869.  However the Victualling Yard just to the north of it continued to thrive and eventually grew to 35 acres as more land was acquired.  The demands of warfare were replaced by the demands of empire and in 1848 it was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard.  According to the National Archives Deptford remained the largest of the home victualling establishments in the 19th century.  Biscuit, chocolate, mustard, pepper and other foodstuffs were manufactured on site and large supplies of clothing, food, tobacco, rum and naval stores were maintained.

It was not until the mid-20th century that the yard eventually outlived its usefulness.  It finally ceased operations in 1961. The Pepys Estate in Deptford, built in the same decade, now occupies the site. The yard’s few surviving 18th century buildings have been incorporated into the estate.