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History of Deptford

  • council: Lewisham
  • phone code: 020
  • postcode area: SE8
  • county: Greater London

Deptford is a lively area rich in history with a vibrant atmosphere. From the moody river scenes at the Deptford Foreshore to the bustling town centre with the famous tri-weekly market and plethora of small, independent specialist shops, Deptford is full of buzz. There is also a growing community of artists and designer-makers living, working and adding to Deptford’s creative energy.

Deptford History
Medieval Deptford was a small settlement consisting of the houses of fishermen, boat-builders and water pilots along the river. Behind the shore area lay fields and woods.

Deptford began to grow into a busy town after 1513, when Henry VIII founded the Royal Naval Dockyard on a site to the west of Deptford Strand. The Dockyard created plenty of jobs and sailors, shipbuilders, carpenters, ropemakers and many others settled in Deptford. By 1544 the Dock had become the most important in England and in the 18th century a Victualling Yard was established alongside, where ships' stores and provisions were assembled.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Deptford was an important town in its own right, in the same way that Greenwich and Woolwich were. Population expansion in the 1800s led to the development of Deptford New Town. The Royal Dockyard, other shipbuilding yards and maritime industries made Deptford a prosperous place, particularly in time of war. Many fine houses were built, of which some survive in Deptford High Street and Albury Street (Click here to see Places of Interest). As the area became more crowded, different types of housing tended to be grouped into districts. The poorest people lived in the riverside areas bordering the Thames and Deptford Creek, while the wealthy tended to live off the New Cross Road, in Brockley and Hatcham.

London's first railway, from London to Greenwich, was built through Deptford in 1836. The railway was carried on an 878-arch brick viaduct that started from Spa Road, Bermondsey to Deptford. By the end of the century Deptford had become engulfed by London’s suburban development spawned by the growth of the railways.

By 1869 the Dockyard had become outdated and unsuitable to launch ships, and closed permanently that year with the loss of many jobs. It then became a foreign cattle market (until 1913) and now Convoy's Wharf occupies the site. The Victualling Yard remained until 1961 and its site is now occupied by the Pepys Estate, where some 1790 buildings (officers houses and warehouses) remain today.

The history of Deptford in the 20th century is mainly a story of economic decline. Deptford suffered during the depression of the 1930s and during the Second World War when it was bombed. Large swathes were redeveloped in the 1950s and 1960s with modern public housing. The population loss however was mirrored by the decline of the riverside industries. Many of the large firms in Deptford closed down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in a high level of unemployment in the area. The history of the 21st century will be about economic recovery and urban regeneration.

Deptford Today
In Deptford today there is still a designated wharf and a project to regenerate Deptford Creek was launched in 1995 (For more information click here).

The historic core of Deptford town centre still survives largely intact and is protected by conservation area designation. In 1999 the Docklands Light Railway station opened at Deptford Broadway connecting to the Docklands and Lewisham.

Famous People
There are many famous personalities that have links with Deptford:

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) the 17th century diarist often visited the Dockyard when he was Clerk to the Navy Board.

His friend and fellow-diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived here in Deptford, in the manor house called Sayes Court.

Grinling Gibbons (1648-1720) was a famous wood-carver first discovered by John Evelyn when he was working near Sayes Court. He worked on the royal palaces and St. Paul's Cathedral.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) the Elizabethan poet and playwright was murdered in a Deptford tavern in 1593. He was buried at St Nicholas, along with other well-known seafarers and shipbuilders.

In 1698 Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, spent several months studying shipbuilding in Deptford, where he stayed at Sayes Court which belonged to the Evelyn family.

John Penn II (1805-1878), marine engineer, had factories in Deptford and Greenwich making ships' engines.

The novelist Joyce Cary (1888-1957) lived in Deptford.

Many of the great voyages of Discovery began at Deptford. Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and much later, in his ship the Endeavour, Captain James Cook sailed from here to Australia and New Zealand in 1768.

Living in Deptford
“ Deptford is one of the best places in London... It's full of history and heritage (the place where Christopher Marlowe died, the place where the opening scene of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is set). It's really vibrant, with a brilliant market, a great theatre (the Albany), good restaurants (e.g. the Kaya House [Malaysian] and Pure Lake [Vietnamese]), some nice old streets and great river views.” (Word on the Street, November 2002)

“I live in One SE8 overlooking St Johns and Brookmill Park....This has to be one of the best areas in London - at 7 in the morning geese fly past my window, followed by the DLR. The views are fantastic...big sky's and so close to Greenwich and Blacheath” (Word on the Street, April 2003)

“I have lived in Deptford since I was 4 years old... ...and I like the area, so full of friendly people and the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays is a great place to shop - all the people that shop there think so.” (Word on the Street, Nov 2002)

Shopping in Deptford
Deptford market
One of south London's busiest, the Deptford market has been in the High Street for centuries. A collection of new and used goods, with a prominence of food stalls spread out on the side streets and pavements, this vibrant market is filled with a hugely diverse range of stallholders.
The market is the kind of place you can buy stylish bargain clothes to go dancing in or fresh vegetables for your evening meal!

The market takes place every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, from around 7am until 4pm, in Deptford High Street, Douglas Way and the junction with Giffin Street.

Other shops
Also look out for A J Kennedy’s old-fashioned butchers, The Cod Father fishmonger for live eels and baby sharks and Champion (39 Deptford Broadway) for imported Japanese car kitsch, a specialist bodykit and accessories shop.

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