Sunday, June 29, 2008

One week later

After a week in Italy, looking at staggeringly beautiful architecture, drinking birra alla spina beneath sun umbrellas in the seething sunshine, eating wonderful food and drinking rather nice wine, it has been something of a change to come back to London!

Yesterday was gorgeously sunny so I picked up my poor over-worked camera and put it to use in the RDW.

Since I began the blog I have been frequently staggered how much difference a few days can make in the park. There wasn't much bird life around yesterday, but the plant life was absolutely rampant and hugely rewarding to see - the greenery is so bright, the flowers are everywhere and the fruit is just beginning to emerge, with cherries and blackberries the most prevalent.

The Yellow Flag irises have been replaced by a profusion of purple on Globe Pond and elswhere, and the vetches are proliferating in vast amounts all coloured with various different shades of mauve. Everything looks as though it has very much enjoyed the recent mixture of rain and sunshine. The Buddleia globosa has gone over, each of the bright orange marbles now a dry rusty brown colour, but its leaves are still a deep happy green.

Because it was such a nice day there were lots of people over there enjoying themselves and there was a really festive atmosphere.

The heron was on his usual perch overlooking the Downtown Pond (currently under threat from planning applications by Barratt Homes), and a huge terrapin in Globe Pond was creating quite a stir with the local children. All the chicks on the ponds are growing up, but are still in that in-between stage where they have not yet grown out of their adolescent fluff and into their adult uniform.

I knew from the state of my much-loved garden that there had been a lot of wind and not much rain, but I was amazed at how little water there is in some of the ponds - and there was none at all in some of the channels. Downland Pond, in particular, has lost a considerable amount of water while I've been away, leaving behind a muddy beach.

I could hear what sounded like live Caribbean music playing somewhere not far away, but I never did find out what that was all about.

New contract issued to Barratt Homes for Downtown site

Thanks to Steve Cornish for the news that on the 24th June 2008 Southwark Council’s Executive Committee decided to grant Barratt Homes a 'new contract' for the sale of the Downtown site. The Downtown Defence Campaign put its case to the executive but they decided to go with the Planning Department recommendation to delegate the power of sale to an un-elected council officer. One executive member stated “How do you think we will get the pot holes in our roads repaired if we don’t get the money in capital receipts from this type of development?”.

Barratt Homes will now put in their revised application some time in September 2008. If this gets the nod then the 300 + trees on the downtown site will be cut down before Christmas 2008. Its now down to you, the local public, to make your voices heard loud and clear.

We will be holding our D.D.C AGM very shortly (before September) to decide on on our future plans. All is not lost, Barratts still have to address the three grounds for refusal received after the last planning failure.

Please see the Deputation presented by Steve Cornish on behalf of the Downtown Defence Campaign on its own page on the Friends of Russia Dock Woodland website. If you want to know more about the Downtown Defence Campaign have a look at the Friends website, which is one of the best places to find information about this issue, and will continue to be updated with the latest news on the subject.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

An American invasion of England

I've mentioned the grey squirrels that inhabit the RDW in previous posts. I've seen so many of them in the RDW that I thought that I would provide a more detailed summary of the grey squirrel than I gave in my previous offering on the subject.

A friend of mine refers to them as rats with tails, but they have supporters because of their endearing features, the bushy tail and their gymnastic abilities. They are often audacious, quite tame and can be very entertaining to watch.

Their detractors consider them to be vermin, with good reason. They steal bird eggs and eat baby birds, dig up and eat spring and summer bulbs and new shoots, and they chew through tree bark, leaving the tree vulnerable to disease. They also carry squirrelpox (to which they are themselves immune, but to which red squirrels are vulnerable), and they replaced the far less destructive red squirrel, which is now confined to more marginal areas.

The American grey squirrel was brought to England deliberately in 1876 by a Cheshire landowner. It was hunted and eaten in the U.S. and was probably introduced into England for that purpose (they are still eaten in the US). There were so many in Woburn Abbey's grounds that betweeen 1905 and 1907 they were released into Regent's Park, from where they spread to London's green areas. Their apparent impact on the red squirrel and the damage to trees, bulbs and new shoots was very unwelcome and between 1917 and 1937 four thousand grey squirrels were shot in Kew Gardens alone. By the 1930s it was already considered to be a pest and had spread over a big distance. Between 1945 and 1955 a reward of a shilling a tail was paid in some rural areas and squirrel shooting clubs began to grow in number.

By the 1940s the grey squirrel had completely replaced the red in most areas. The Guardian quotes a 1995 report which says that red squirrel populations in the UK (1995) revealed that there were 161,000 in the UK, with 121,000 in Scotland; 30,000 in England and 10,000 in Wales. Things have changed since then, the grey squirrel is more efficient on British soil, better at finding food supplies and carries a deadly disease (called squirrelpox virus) that it is immune to, but kills red squirrels. It is estimated that grey squirrels outnumber reds by more than 60 to one in England. But there are still red squirrel strongholds on islands (Isle of Wight, Brownsea in Poole Harbour, Anglesey) and in the north of England and Scotland.

Although there are a number of well-aired urban myths on how this replacement took place (which typically takes between 15 and 20 years), academic research projects have actually failed to identify the process by which the red squirrel is ousted in favour of the grey. There is one theory that they abandoned the struggle mainly because the areas in which grey squirrels survive is not their favoured habitat anyway. Whilst grey squirrels prefer deciduous parkland, the red squirrels are far better adapted to confierous woodland. It is thought that the above-mentioned virus may have contributed significantly the demise of hte red squrrel. It could be that it was it was not one circumstance but a number of different ones that saw the retreat of the red squirrel and the diminishment of their numbers in favour of the American interloper.

Perhaps (just a joke) we should take the advice of the Guardian newspaper's Caroline Davies who suggests that we emulate the Americans and eat them into controllable numbers: "It tastes sweet, like a cross between lamb and duck. And it's selling as fast as butchers can get it. It's low in fat, low in food miles and completely free range. In fact, some claim that Sciurus carolinensis - the grey squirrel - is about as ethical a dish as it is possible to serve on a dinner plate." Or perhaps not! (See the article on The Guardian's website for the full story).

I opened the door of my house to a delivery man a few days ago, and there was a grey squirrel in Russell Place trying to get into the front door of the Moby Dick. Somehow, I don' think that he would have received much of a reception if he had succeeded in gaining access.

The Forestry Commission have advice on how to control grey squirrel damage to woodland on their website (in PDF format).

If you want to know more about the red squirrels then the Friends of the Anglesey Red Squirrels website is a good place to start.

Finally, there are grey squirrel support sites too, including

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More wildflowers in Stave Hill

I bought a couple of extra books to help with the plant identification thing, but I'm not expecting overnight miracles :-). Still, I thought that a few less references to things like "pom-pom plants" might be beneficial to the world at large, even if some of my identifications are dubious. It will take me a while to narrow things down to a level of detail that I am happy with, and some of the identifications may be distinctly wobbly (indicated by question marks), but one has to start somehwere.

The bonus with wild flowers is that not only the blooms and sometimes the scents are wonderful, but that the common names are often such fun. As ever, click on the small image to see the full sized photograph.

Creeping Thistle

Viper's Bugloss

Bladder Campion

Ribwort Plantain

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pigeon Pie

Needless to say, there is not a day of the week or a time of the year when you don't see pigeons in the park.

The humble pigeon turns out to be two different entities in the UK - the feral pigeon (below) and the woodpigeon (left). Thanks to Mike Scott, who would be a much better candidate for running this blog, for putting me straight.

The whole pigeon family was put firmly in its place a few weeks ago by nine year old Charley who asked very disaprovingly why I was taking a photo of something as boring as a pigeon. The bird under discussion was actually a fine specimen, all his coloured plummage thrust to the fore to attract a somewhat doubtful female. But Charley's attitude captured our general approach to pigeons. At best they are big and ungainly, somewhat boring to observe, and at worst they are the opportunistic greedy scavengers of bird tables. Their droppings blemish and even cause the erosion of buildings and monuments, and in rural areas they are very destructive to cereal crops, root crops and and peas. There's an interesting article on the BBC News website which address the question Why do we hate pigeons so much? - it has inspired quite a few comments on the page in response. They are legally categorized as pests and as such can be destroyed by landowners.

But the pigeon was no always seen as such a disruptive force.

The rock dove is the ancestor of the feral pigeon (but not the woodpigeon). As its name suggests it favours rocky landscapes and cliff faces. It still survives in Scotland where it lives wild on coastal rock faces. The affinity of the pigeon for buildings is probably explained by that ancestry. Pigeons don't actually need green vegetation - they can survive quite happily on bread, meat, seeds, and berries.

The feral pigeon had a more central role in history, when its benefits overcame its disadvantages. Not only has it been an important foodstuff for many countries through time, but its astonishing homing instincts gave it an important role as a messenger and contributed to the world of sport as a racing bird.

The pigeon has been used as part of the daily diet in many countries. I was only posting about pigeons and dovecotes on my Egyptology News blog the other day because have always been of great importance in Egypt, where they have been kept in pigeon houses which are a feature of the architectural landscape. Examples are known dating back thousands of years, and that post shows a pigeon house in Karanis, in the Faiyum Depression, which dates to the Roman period. I

In England the rock dove was domesticated so that their young, called squabs, could be taken for food. Not only were their wings clipped but their legs were broken to prevent movement. Medieveal homes usually had dovecotes which supplied their owners with young pigeons, particularly during the winter months when other species were in short supply, but they declined in popularity when other species became more reliably available over the winter. Pigeons returned to the wild, effectively becoming feral. Today in the UK they are still served as game.

The ancestors of the rock pigeon that survived the change in eating habits were the messengers and the racers. In both roles, it is the bird's homing instinct which makes it so valuable. The value of the pigeon as a messenger was recognized in Mediaevil times. There's a good summary of homing pigeons on Wikipedia. They were used for carrying messages during both the First and Second World Wars by the British Army. In 1944 a bird named Winkie was honoured with a medal for carrying a message from a fighter plane that had ditched in the North Sea back to headquarters.

Pigeon racing has declined over the years, but it used to be very popular. It was apparently developed in Belgium in the Nineteenth Century. The patron for the Royal Pigeon Racing Association is the Queen. Again, there's a survey of the sport on Wikipedia. A fascinating article on the subject is Pigeon Racing and Working Class Culture in Britain c.1870-1950 by Martin Johnes

Physiologically they have the unusual feature of making a type of milk with which to feed their young for the first two weeks of life, which they make within the crop which usually stores food. The fluid is generated by the processing of edible rubbish and is rich in fat and protein. They share this rare skill with emperor penguins and a member of the flamingo family.

I was impressed recently by a BBC News 24 report about a Gateshead school which uses a set of its own racing pigeons in order to help teach children mathematics and other subjects. There's a video report of the school's project on the above page on the BBC News website.

A truly fascinating look at the origins of the modern feral pigeon is The Feral Pigeon, by Prof. Dr. Daniel Haag-Wackernagel from the Research Group Integrative Biology at the Institute of Anatomy, University of Basel. Other papers on pigeons by the same author can be found on the Professor's home page.

Finally, does anyone remember that fabulous song "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" by Tom Lehrer? An old family favourite.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More wildflowers from Thursday

The pea family (Pisum), which includes vetches, trefoils and clovers, is very well represented in the park and the woodland. Pisum species are amongst the world's earliest cultivated plants, part of a Near Eastern package which included wheat, barley and lentils. They were valued for their fruit, as some of the family members (most notably Pisum sativum - the garden pea) are today. Various members of the family have also been used as natural remedies and animal fodder.

One thing that all these vetches have made me realize is that I need a bigger book!

Vetch? (but I haven't found which one)

I'm fairly sure that this is Sainfoin, but I need to go and have another poke at it with a book in my hot little hand.

Vetch, judging from the leaves? (Crown Vetch?)

Hedge mustard

Hypericum calycinum, Rose of Sharon
A garden escapee, although there are wild versions of Hypericum too

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Greenland Dock Coots

The main obvious difference between coots and moorhens, from the point of view of identification for the bird-challenged, is that coots have a white bit on their heads and bills and moorhens have a red bit with a yellow-tipped bill, in each case known as the "frontal shield". In the case of the coot this white patch is an area of bare coloured skin. If trivia is your thing then you may like to know that the coot is the only British bird with a white bill. I always remember how to distinguish coots from moorhens by thinking of the vibrant colours of the moorish people when I think of moorhens. In fact their name comes from the Anglo-Saxon term mor, which means mere or bog.

Confusingly, the young coot chicks are far more colourful when born than the moorhen chicks, but as you won't usually see them without their parents this confusion is minimal in practical terms.

One of this adolescent's parents was having a wonderful time creating its own custom-made jacuzzi in the dock, churning up the water and looking distinctly waterlogged!

Only a week or so ago I was photographing these coots when the chicks were tiny. I am absolutely staggered at how fast they are growing. They are still fluffy, but they are now all leg and neck. This family has quite a strong local following. I've never been there when someone isn't there leaning over the chains and enjoying the sight and the sheer volume of noise that such small things can produce.

Coots search underwater for food, although they are very happy to take bread when offered. They are excellent divers from a young age. I was standing on the bridge that now crosses the lake in Kew Gardens a couple of weeks ago, watching an adolescent dive in the clear waters - it was quite astonishing to watch its agility and speed. Like penguins, they are so ungainly on land but become almost fluid beneath the water.

Coots are very argumentative, particularly in Spring and early Summer, when the males defend their territory with legs outstretched and very noisily. They can create real problems for the parents of other chicks, and may kill when they perceive as a threat. They are small but potentially deadly, with those vast splayed claws.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rotherhithe Tunnel 100 year centenary

I cannot believe that yesterday was the centenary of the Rotherhithe Tunnel and I've only just found out about it quite by accident. I will be astonished if there was not some sort of commemorative event that I managed to miss, for which I will be kicking myself.

I am going to post about the construction in detail at some point in my series of heritage posts. But here's a brief summary of its background to mark the occasion.

First off, the Rotherhithe Tunnel should not be confused with the earlier Thames Tunnel, the construction of which was achieved eventually by the remarkable engineering Brunels, father and son (of which and whom more on a later post).

The Rotherhithe tunnel was the project of engineer Maurice Fitzmaurice and it was opened on the 12th June 1908 by HRH the Prince of Wales. It was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages, which goes a long way to explaining why the designers had no consideration for the fact that for 10 years between 1996 and 2006 I would have heart failure every time I took my beloved and somewhat enormous classic Mercedes round that dog-leg bend! The tendency of Ford Transit van drivers to treat it like a personal Grand Prix circuit was truly terrifying (I now drive a Volvo and simply don't care).

When the Rotherhithe Tunnel was first opened it used to handle an estimated 2600 carriages daily, but according to Transport for London it now takes 34,000 vehicles on a daily basis to and from Rotherhithe and Tower Hamlets (and beyond). It is 4,860 feet long, of which 1500 feet are beneath the Thames, and it has a 27 foot diameter.

The above photo shows it in 1909. Today, it is absolute bedlam!

The Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Group has posted a very good centenary history of the Rotherhithe Tunnel on their website, written by Dr Amanda Squires and accompanied by some super photographs. I particularly like the photo of the men excavating the tunnel.

Wildflowers in Stave Hill Ecological Park

These flowers were all showing their beautiful faces in Stave Hill Ecological Park yesterday, late afternoon.


Tufted vetch

White Clover

Bird's Foot Trefoil

Red Clover

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mid June in RDW and Stave Hill

I'm back after a superb week in Wales and the state of my Inbox is horrendous - 391 emails which claim not to be Junk mail to just one of my accounts. Sigh. It has been raining on and off all day today but I risked the showers to go and inspect the Russia Dock Woodland - and duly ended up being fairly well soaked. It was worth it, though.

The main thing that one notices about both Stave Hill Ecological Park and the RDW are that the plants are so very green, the little wild flowers are spreading far and wide, the Yellow Flag irises have gone over, and there is an air of expectation about the entire area. The shrub roses are going over but the bramble flowers are in full bloom. My orange pom-pom bush, actually a Buddleia globosa, is going over slowly - but is still very pretty.

The bees and butterflies were safely hidden away from the rain but the birds were out in full force. The usual crowd of pigeons who always centre themeselves on the St John's bridge were up in the trees, but there were magpies, the blackbirds were cheerfully turning over leaves and there was a thrush. I have never seen a thrush in RDW before, and this one was quite lovely, with a fabulous singing voice. I've diligently checked my bird identification books but I cannot work out which of the thrush family this one belongs to.

I walked up along Greenland Dock to buy a French stick from Elgar Street. The coot family on the pontoon under the foot bridge were loud and demanding, leggy and improbable - I cannot believe how much they have grown in a week! The plastic bags still form an integral part of their home, but they don't seem to have harmed the birds so far. One of the parents was enjoying a fabulous bath. Four great crested grebes floated sleepily in the dock, idly letting the water move them.

I'll post pictures from today over the next few days.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rotherhithe Heritage 3 - The 1700s

In the Eighteenth Century Rotherhithe was still separated from Bermondsey by fields and market gardens, and was still fairly marshy.

One of the earliest dates of note, south of the river, was that the Seamen's Hospital opened in Greenwhich, which took in wounded and, in John Evelyn's terms "emerited" seamen. Emerited seamen are those who were judged to have completed their public service and therefore received honorable discharges. During the reign of William III (William of Orange) it was the wish of his wife Queen Mary (Mary Stuart) that injured sailors, hurt during the wars, should be supported. Mary died in 1694 from smallpox and William raised a Royal Charter in her memory in the same year to build the hospital. The hospital was built in Greenwich near the birthplace of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The hospital was not thrown together by any old architect – its first designer was no other than Sir Christopher Wren. John Evelyn was appointed to the position of Treasurer for the project, and mentions his role briefly in his diary. The Greenwich Hospital opened in 1714 to care for old and wounded sailors, and a school was founded at the same time. The hospital met its true potential during the Napoleonic wars when the casualties reached extreme levels.
Either side of the lock leading into Greenland Dock (now blocked off but clearly visible) were the Greenland Dock (South) and Greenland Dock (North) shipyards. The dry dock that was included in the South yard is thought to date to 1700, but the North yard may have had a dry dock here as early as 1660. In 1702 the South yard was leased to the Burchett family. One of their first projects was the rebuild of the warship Monck.

The HMS Monck had originally been built and launched in 1659 in Portsmouth as a 52-gun third rate frigate. She was rebuilt in Rotherhithe and launched in 1702, now as a 60-gun fourth rate ship of the line. She was wrecked in 1720 in a severe storm off British shores, although her crew and much of her cargo were saved.

The river had been recorded breaking its banks in Rotherhithe since Mediaeval times, and in 1705 it did so again, flooding St Mary's Church and its graveyard. The original church had dated to at least Mediaeval times and probably earlier. Christopher Jones, Captain of the Mayflower, and two of the ship's co-owners, were buried in the graveyard but their graves were destroyed by the flood. The reconstruction of the church was carried out in 1715-1717 to a design by John James in the style of Sir Christopher Wren, whose influence on post Great Fire London can be seen in many buildings in which he himself did not have a direct hand. Although a request had been made by the parish for government money from the Fifty New Churches Act (funded by the coal tax) this was rejected and the church was actually rebuilt by money raised from voluntary donations and burial fees. The new construction work of St Mary's had not been completed in the mid 1700s, but the skills of local ship builders were employed and the four internal columns were made of ships' masts. The new tower was started in 1747-8 by Lancelot Dowbigin who was the architect of the church of St Mary Islington, but it was probably constructed along the lines originally proposed by James. The organ was created by John Byfield in 1764-5, and although it has been restored some of the original pipes and its original case survive. The first organist was Michael Topping who was paid £30.00 per year. Some of the original Eighteenth Century furnishings survive in the church's interior. More of the church on a later post.

The London Online website says that the following is a list of public or watermen's stairs in use at the beginning of the eighteenth century, about 1707 in the Rotherhithe area: Tooley, Battle, Bridge, Pickle Herring, Still, Old, New, Savory's Mill,East Lane, Three Mariners, Fountain, Mill, Rotherhithe or Redriff, Cherry Garden, King, Elephant, Church, Swan, Globe, Shepherd and Dock, Pageant, and about nine or ten more until Deptford and Greenwich are reached. Comparing this list with those marked on John Rocque's map, 1746, and then again with Maitland, 1756, some had disappeared, others renamed. The Dog and Duck stairs, surviving to the south of Greenland Dock's entry lock, was established at least as early as 1723 and are still shown on maps of 1896. The stairs were all named after either a local landmark or a locally relevant story. In the case of the Dog and Duck there was a public house of the name in the immediate vicinity.

In the 1700s the two water mills were acquired by the Commissioners of Victualling the Royal Navy, to be a secondary victualling yard, supporting the one at Deptford. Victualling yards were established during the Dutch wars for the provision of goods and supplies to the Royal Navy. Ovens for the baking of ships biscuits were added at that time. There's a brief but very informative article on the National Archives website about the Deptord victualling yard which had been established in the 1600s.

In 1710 St Paul's Cathedral was officially finished - and if you go to the top of Stave Hill you will be able to see it very clearly.

In 1720 Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was published, and Rotherhithe, under its alternative name Redriff, gained some slight publicity because in the story it was Lemuel Gulliver's home village. It does not, however, have a large part to play in the tale!

In the 1720s Mayflower Street was an elegant road of sea captain's homes. Sadly these are long gone and in their place are now modern office blocks. I often visit a village on the west Wales coast called Aberdovey where the original sea captains' homes survive - they are substantial and very attractive. It would be lovely to know how the buildings would compare with those that once existed in Mayflower Street.

Rotherhithe and surrounding areas were beginning to expand towards each other. In 1722 Daniel Defoe encountered Redriff in his tour through Great Britain, which he published in three volumes between 1724 and 1726. His comments about London were less than complimentary about the way in which it had spread "in a most straggling confused manner, out of alls hape, uncompact and unequal". He goes on: "We see several villages, formerly standing, as it were, in the country, and at a great distance, now joined to the streets by continued buildings, and more making haste to meet in the manner; for example, Deptford, this town that was formerly reckoned, at least two miles off from Redriff, and that over the marshes too, a place unlikely ever to be inhabited; and yet now, by the increase of buildings in that down itself, and the many streets erected at Redriff, and by the docks and building-yards on the riverside, which stand betweeen both, the town of Deptford, and the streets of Redriff, or Rotherhith (as they write it) are effectually joined".

The British History Online website has a fascinating comment about an attempt to grow vines in Rotherhithe:
Few Londoners, at first sight, would suspect Rotherhithe of having a soil or situation well suited to the growth of vines; but such would appear to have been once the case, if we may believe Hughson, who tells us, in his "History and Survey of London and its Suburbs," that an attempt was made in 1725, in East Lane, within this parish, to restore the cultivation of the vine, which, whether from the inauspicious climate of our island, or from want of skill in the cultivation, was at that time nearly lost, though there are authentic documents to prove that vineyards (fn. 2) did flourish in this country in ancient times. It appears that about the time indicated a gentleman named Warner, observing that the Burgundy grapes ripened early, and conceiving that they might be grown in England, obtained some cuttings, which he planted here as standards; and Hughson records the fact that though the soil was not particularly suited, yet, by care and skill, he was rewarded by success, and that his crop was so ample that it afforded him upwards of one hundred gallons annually, and that he was enabled to supply cuttings of his vines for cultivation in many other parts of this island.

Ship building continued to be of substantial importance in Rotherhithe with most of the river frontage turned over to ship building, repair and breaking. Other activities included rope and sail making.

The Birchett family who rebuilt the Monck had apparently left Greenland Dock (South) Shipyard by 1725, when the South Sea company (which was formed in 1711 and had somehow survived the South Sea Bubble disaster of 1720) appear to have held the lease as part of their whaling operation. The lease seems to have expired in 1730, which is almost certainly due to the failure of the operation. Whaling had changed radically since the early 1700s, with the main whaling operations moving away from previous bays to more remote and deeper locatitions at the edge of the Arctic ice fields (known as "ice whaling"). Ships had to be modified and reinforced to handle these conditions and experienced crew were required for these waters. It was difficult for the British to compete, but a final attempt was made by the South Sea Company during the 1720s and early 1730s. This venture was very costly and ultimately failed.

The most prestigious of the ship building complexes were engaged in work for the Royal Navy and the East India Company. The best known of the Rotherhithe docks was Nelson Dock, now part of the Hilton Hotel complex. The adjacent Nelson House, which stands today and is quite lovely, was the ship builders house, and was built in the 1730s.

Another shipyard was located where the scotch derrick is currently located (just off Odessa Street). Commercial Wharf was part of the Bedford Estate and ships were being built here from the 1740s. The shipyard was operated by timber traders Kemp, Collins and Co., but was certainly used as a shipyard by Thomas Stanton who, in partnership with one of the Wells family, built the East Indiaman the Royal George here in 1747 and The America in 1757. In 1758 Stanton built the Active and in 1759 the Carcass.

The HMS Active was a Coventry-class oak-built frigate. She was taken by the French navy off San Domingo in September 1778. She was one of a special set of 12 ships built to the design of Sir Thomas Slade, all 28-gun sailing frigates (sixth rate). Several of them were built at Rotherhithe, all of oak: Lizard (built by Henry Bird, launched 1757, hulked as a hospital ship in 1800 and sold for breaking to Sheerness dockyard in 1828), Aquilon (built by Robert Inwood, launched 1758, sold at Deptford 1776), and Argo (built by Henry Bird, launched 1759, broken up at Portsmouth 1776).

The HMS Carcass has a connection with Horatio Nelson, one of the "Infernal" class also designed by Sir Thomas Slade. She saw military action and was repaired and refitted several times before being sold to Constantine Phipps in 1773 when she was taken on an expedition to the North Pole. Nelson served on board as a midshipman. The expedition never reached the North Pole, arriving close but forced back by ice and returning to Britain in the same year. She was sold again several times, the last record of her being sold at Woolwich in 1784.

The transport infrastructure was as in much trouble by the 1700s as it seems to be today. Turnpike Trusts were established to manage the key roads that lead into London and one of these was the Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Deptford Turnpike Trust which was established in 1748. Until 1750 the only bridge across the Thames was London Bridge, but as part of the improvement in the transportation infrastructure another bridge were now added: Westminster in 1750 and Blackfriars in 1769.

Humphrey (see Bibliography) lists the following Eighteenth Century ships which were all built in Rotherhithe docks: The Chesterfield, the Sphynx and the Tartar.

The Chesterfield was a Fourth Rate warship of the line with 44 guns, launched in December 1743 from the yard of John quallet at Pitcher's Point, which Humphery says is opposte todays Amos Estate on Rotherhithe.

The Sphynx was a sloop (a single-masted sailing vessel) with 24 guns, built at Allen's shipyard and launched in 1747/8.

The Tartar was a 6th rate, or Flower Class, with 28 guns, and was launched in April 1756 from Randall's shipyard. Her first captain was Captain Lockhart. She was wrecked off San Domingo in 1797.

Randall's (Randall, Randall and Brent, Samuel and Daniel Brent and Randall and Brent at different times), was one of the most important ship building companies on Rotherhithe, with three separate yeards of which only Nelson Dock survives. Amongst many commissions for the Royal Navy and the East India Company they build third rate ships of the line with 74 guns, the largest every to be built by private shipyards.

Here are other Rotherhithe-built ships, just as examples. The Minerva was built by John Quallet, Rotherhithe and launched: in January 1759. She was captured by the French in 1778, retaken in 1781, and renamed The Recovery in the same year. The Southampton was built by Robert Inwood, Rotherhithe and was launched in May 1757. She was wrecked in the Bahamas in 1812. The Nonsuch was built by John Quallet and launched on 29th. December 1741. She was broken up in Plymouth in 1766. But if you want to get a full sense of the volume of ships produced by Rotherhithe shipyards go onto the Ships of the Old Navy website and type "Rotherhithe" into the search engine - you won't be disappointed!

The Peter Hills School, which had been founded in 1613, continued to thrive. In the early 1700s it gained funding for 65 boys and 50 girls. It was expanded in 1739, when it included 77 boys, and was rebuilt in 1746 in St Marychurch Street. In 1731 it had 37 trustees, of whom 17 were sea captains. The surviving school building was moved to on the other side of St Marychurch Street in 1795 and it dates from the early 1700s, consisting of three storeys made of red brick. It is located next to St Mary's Church and is easy to spot thanks to the first floor figures of school children in blue and white. The building still has its Eighteenth Century doorcase and fanlight.

In 1755 a second charity school was built, called the United Society's School, located on the east of Rotherhithe.

In the 1760s the Wells family took over Commercial Wharf from Thomas Stanton, and purchased it from the Bedford estate. At the shipyard they constructed the Cornwall in 1760, the True Briton, also in 1760, and over 70 East Indiamen.

In 1765 a major fire in Princes Street on Rotherhithe was caused by the spillage from a pitch kettle which overboiled. Over 200 houses and warehouses, burned down. As with the Great Fire of London, the speed with which the fire spread was probably caused by both construction methods and the proximity of the buildings to each other.

The expeditions of Captain Cook to the Antipodes between 1769 and 1774 led to the establishment of trade between Great Britain and Austarlia and New Zealand. William Pitt became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1783. The slave trade continued to be of considerable economic importance to Britain which had coastal holdings in Africa, and the West Indies provided both staple and exotic items (imports of wheat, leather, cotton, rum, fruit juice, sugar, tobacco and mahogany, amongst other commodities) for an increasingly demanding western world. In the late1700s the increase in trade with the New World (U.S. and Canada). This caused numerous logistical problems because the Thames was only able to hold 600 boats in docks and on piers at any one time. Boats moored mid-Thames were always vulnerable to piracy. Part of the problem was not just that trade had grown threefold but that the average tonnage carried by ships had doubled. Up to 1400 ships with extra tonnage were now competing in a system designed to cope with a fraction of the cargo handling capacity.

One of the local stories associated with this increase in trade concerns Rotherhithe resident Captain Henry Wilson and Prince Lee Boo. Captain Wilson lived on Paradise Street (now part of Jamaica Road) and commanded the Antelope for the East India Company. When the ship was near the Pelew (now Belau) Islands in 1783 it was wrecked, badly damaged and was forced to beach on the island of Coo-Raa-Raa. The native inhabitants of the island were able to communciate with the sailors because one of the tribesmen and one of Wilson's servants both spoke Malay. The presence of the ship's dog seems to have helped bridge the two cultures - it was a Newfoundland named Sailor and the islanders had never seen a dog before. The two groups worked together to build a new ship, and when it was time to depart Abba Thule, the tribe's king (or rupack - which is the origin of the name Rupack Street), asked Wilson to take his son to England so that he could receive an English education. Sadly, Prince Lee Boo was only twenty years old when he died from smallpox in 1784, a mere six months after his arrival in England. See the St Mary's Rotherhithe website for more details.

In 1760 the Bedford estate leased the Greenland Dock (South) and (North) shipyards to John Randall (who was also operating out of Nelson Dock) and in 1763 the Howland Great Wet Dock (now Greenland Dock - see earlier heritage post), was purchased from the Fourth Duke of Bedford by the Wells family of shipbuilders. The Randalls, however, continued to hold the lease as per the original agreement.

A public house named the Acorn on Rotherhithe Street dated back to at least 1767 and gave its name to the Acorn Watermen's Stairs.

In the late 1700s new roads were added to improve connection between other major roads and the new bridges. In St George’s Circus the 1771 obelisk, which was built to commemorate the parish in which this network of roads met, still survives. It was named after the parish in which it was located. Other streets in and around Southwark were built in the later 1700s, crossing fields and leading to new roadside building, and increasing the traffic through the surrounding areas, including Rotherhithe.

The Bermondsey Spa was opened in 1780, managed by Thomas Keyse.

In 1789 a barge building and repair yard was established in Rotherhithe. by Charles Hay and Sons Ltd. However only a later building belonging to the company, dating to the Nineteenth Century, survives today.

War with France broke out in 1793, and Marc Brunel fled Paris, going to America to make his name as an architect and engineer. He came to the UK in 1799. His impact on Rotherhithe was to be considerable in the 1800s.

Bellamy's Wharf, today known as King and Queen Wharf, near Rotherhithe Village, was built by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790’s.

In 1792 the first deaf and dumb school in the UK was established at Bermondsey.

It was only at the very end of the 1700s that ambitious plans for the development of new docks in Rotherhithe were made. In 1796 the surveyor Charles Cracklow proposed a new dock system, and William Vaughan, Director of Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation (founded in 1720) and spokesman for the West India Merchants, identified Rotherhithe, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs as suitable riverside sites for potential expansion of dockland areas. The new docks were proposed in order to meet the challenge of London's ambitions to become a global centre for trade. The following dockland developments were staggering, with architects and engineers hired to plan and build new docks in the late 1700s, many of which opened in the first years of the 1800s.

The earliest part of Grice's Granary on Tunnel Road (now the Sands Film Studio and Rotherhithe Picture Library) dates to 1796-1800. It was extended at least once, but the oldest part consists of three section which are topped by three kingpost roofs. Kingposts are vertical wooden posts which sit on horizontal cross beams. The top of the kingpost forms the apex of the roofing rafter. The Grice family owned the building until 1857, but the name was apparently retained even after it changed hands.

In 1796 the Wells family, who had played such an important role in Rotherhithe ship building, purchased a share in a shipyard in Blackwall (Perry and Green) and ceased to operate in Rotherhithe.
I will keep adding to this post (and earlier heritage posts) as I learn more, so if you're interested it might be worth keeping an eye on it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Michael Rizzello sculpture on Stave Hill

I've been piecing together the local history surrounding the Russia Dock Woodland and Stave Hill Ecology Park recently, and it has been interesting to locate the extant remains of the former network of docks and timber ponds, of which more on future posts. I used to have an O/S map of the Surrey Commercial Docks which I have now mislaid, but various books have been published about the dockland background, and these have been more than sufficient to find the seams between past and present. One of my favourite maps of all is the three-dimensional version of it - the bas-relief sculpture on top of Stave Hill. I though that I would mention it in case people visiting it wonder what it is all about.

Stave Hill itself is formed of rubble left over from the tidying of the docks, which were filled in in 1984,. It was designed as a viewing area, it is has lovely views over a massive distance, with landmarks like Canary Wharf just over the Thames and, further off, Tower Bridge, St Paul's Cathedral and the London Eye clearly visible.

The sculpture itself was created by Michael Rizzello O.B.E. in 1989, and was commissioned by the London Dockland Development Corporation. A bas-relief, it is made of bronze and is mounted on a granite base. It shows the Surrey Commercial Docks as they were in 1896. One of the charms of the map is that when there has been rainfall each of the docks and channels fills with rainfall. If you know where Greenland Dock and South Dock are located in the real world it becomes quite easy to use the Stave Hill map to locate where other docks and ponds would have been. I can lose track of time looking at it because the detail is so fascinating. Each of the docks is clearly labeled.

Michael Rizzello (1926-2004) created sculptures (particularly portraits), reliefs, coins and medals for both private and public purchasers. Many of his portrait subjects are well known public figures. He was awarded the Prix de Rome for Sculpture and served two 5-year period terms s as President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He was awarded his OBE in 1977. For someone so highly rated by the art world his work is very little known by the general public. If you are interested in finding out more, there is a website dedicated to a retrospective of his life's work.

Rizzello also sculpted the bust of James Walker, which stands overlooking Greenland Dock, near the Moby Dick public house. I'll be talking about that sculpture and James Walker later.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Howland Great Wet Dock 1699-1807

Greenwich from One Tree Hill by Johannes Vorsterman
By the time of its closure in 1970, Rotherhithe was a dense mosaic of commercial docks and ponds, linked by a series of canals and channels, connected by locks to the Thames. Rotherhithe's dockland past evolved over nearly 250 of years. The body of water now called Greenland Dock is a much larger extension of the original Howland Great Wet Dock, which was built in the late 1600s.  The Thames already had a number of shipbuilding dry and wet docks, just large enough to fit a single ship, inserted along its banks.  These included the Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich, which were established between 1515 and 1520 by Henry VIII, and were responsible for building and repairing most of England's warships, including the Mary Rose.

A fascinating painting by Johannes Vorsterman dating to 1690 entitled “Greenwich from One Tree Hill” shows a view over Greenwich and Deptford towards Rotherhithe around 10 years before construction of the Howland Dock was completed. Henry VIII’s tiltyard is visible beyond Greenwich, but Rotherhithe is simply a flat green expanse with windmills dotted along the river bank. At this time Greenwich, Deptford and Rotherhithe were considerably separate from the City and town of London and were still partially rural, in spite of all the ship and barge building and repair work taking place along the banks of the Thames.

Portrait of Wriotheseley Russell and
Elizabeth Howland, 1695 by John Riley.
Source: London Borough of Lambeth.
In 1695 a parcel of land on Rotherhithe and a substantial financial settlement were given as a wedding gift by the Howland family of Streatham to their daughter Elizabeth (aged 13 ½) and her new husband Wriotheseley Russell, the Marquis of Tavistock and future Duke of Bedford (aged 14 ½).  Elizabeth was the daughter of an East India merchant and granddaughter of Sir Josiah Child, Chairman of the East India Company, whilst Wriotheley's father had been executed for treason.

Originally the plan was to use both the land and the financial settlement to create just a dry dock, but it became clear that a big open wet dock would offer far more benefits to its potential customers and its investors, so after the dry dock had been established, an application was made in 1695–6 for an Act of Parliament to open a large wet dock.  The names of the application were  the Duke of Bedford, his widowed daughter-in-law, Lady Rachel Russell, and Elizabeth Howland, the mother-in-law of the son of Lady Rachel, named Wriothesley Russell, the Marquess of Tavistock.  It was also partially financed by the John (1662-1702) and Richard Wells of a very successful Rotherhithe shipbuilding family, whose main shipyard is now partially occupied by the Surrey Docks Farm, who had built several East Indiamen for Wriotheseley's grandfather.   The reason for the decision to build a dock on this scale, a unique enterprise at the time, has been lost, but it is entirely likely that the Earl of Bedford, grandfather of Wriotheseley Russell, had input into the idea.  At his estates in Cambridgeshire he was involved in land reclamation schemes, the engineering of which was not dissimilar from that involved in dock construction.

The Howland Great Dock was completed in the early 1700s following the granting of an Act in its favour in 1696, and which was probably the largest dock in Europe at the time (about half the size of  Greenland Dock today).  The main responsibility for the dock's design is usually credited to John Wells, a local shipwright who was one of the dock's investors and managers, but it is also possible that a Rotherhithe carpenter, Thomas Steers was responsible or contributed to the design.  Steers had gained experience of engineering in the military, and in 1710 was hired to work on the development of Liverpool's earliest enclosed dock, implying that he had already gained some experience in this line of work.

Howland Great Wet Dock by John Kip
Howland Great Wet Dock was timber-lined and covered an area of 12.25 acres, measuring c.1000 x 500ft in area and it was 17ft deep. Its wooden lock was 150ft long by 44ft wide, and was also 17ft deep. The construction was supervised by Wells but the contractor for the construction work was a Stepney carpenter named William Ogbourne, who was responsible for lining the dock with timber and building the lock.  Although Rotherhithe had been the focus for ship work for many years Howland Great Wet Dock was the first of all of Rotherhithe's big enclosed bodies of water, with direct access out onto the Thames.  It could handle up to 120 ships.  The dock was managed on behalf of the Bedford family by John and Richard Wells, who had loaned money for the construction of the docks. The total cost of the dock was £12,000.

Unlike the later enclosed docks that eventually filled Rotherhithe peninsula, the purpose of the Howland dock was not for cargo handling but to provide protection against storms and to provide facilities for for ship refitting and repair.  Until Howland great Dock was opened ships were forced to moor on the river itself, where they were were vulnerable to gales, ice and river pirates. Piracy was a big problem for ship and cargo owners alike, especially when carried out with the collusion of crew members. Within the dock, 120 merchant ships could moor against the quay-sides either for shelter alone, or for refit work to be carried out. Rows of trees planted around the rectangular dock offered protection from the elements for the ships, and this is depicted in a 1705 etching by Kip (now housed in the National Maritime Museum, London).  It is believed that many of the ships that were moored here were those of the East India Company, which did long distance trips on an annual basis, receiving severe wear and tear in the process, and were laid up on their return for repairs, refits, ready for the new season.  The value of the dock to ship owners who used it was demonstrated during a particularly fierce and well documented storm in 1703. Ships moored on the Thames suffered serious damage and many were blown aground. Elsewhere 100s of people died and the Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed. But all of the boats in Howland Dock survived unharmed.  There were no cargo handling facilities, and no cargo was stored or moved in the dock.  There were no warehouses associated with the dock, but there were buildings that stored materials required for repair and refitting work.   

The mansion at the end of the dock
At the same time, the dry dock that was originally planned for was also constructed, and these were leased by some of Britain's top private ship builders for the construction of contracts for the Royal Navy and the East India Company.

A mansion was built at the west end, complete with ornamental gardens. This was probably intended for the Marquis of Tavistock and his young bride Elizabeth Howland but they never occupied the house, which was taken down in the early 1800s.  It would not have been a peaceful place to stay even when ships were using it to shelter, but when it later came into use for the processing of whale carcasses it would have been actively unpleasant.  Even so, there are records that it had various occupants, including members of the Wells family.

By the early 1700s the entrance to the dock was flanked by shipyards, clearly visible on Kip's illustration, above.   Two of these were of considerable size, capable of handling shipbuilding projects for the Navy and the East India Company.  To the north of the shipyards, upriver, more trees are shown, apparently forming an avenue, and these are associated with fairly substantial houses.  A carriage drawn by horses is shown heading out of the area, through a flat, rural area.

Rotherhithe in 1746
In 1725 a lease was taken out on the dock by South Sea Company and from this time Howland Dock began to be used for as a base for a whaling fleet and a processing plant for whale carcasses. Although the South Sea Company's venture failed, the dock remained in use for whaling for over 80 years, the area surrounding the dock becoming a busy hive of homes, shops and small businesses.

The map on the right shows what Rotherhithe looked like in 1746, during the period when the dock was in use for whale carcass processing, a thin band of ship and barge building and related activities on the western edge of Rotherhithe, a pattern of streams and drainage ditches dissecting the marshy interior and the Howland Great Wet Dock accessible by a road and just upriver of the Deptford Royal Docks.

In 1763 the dock was bought by a new generation of the Wells family, John (1761-1848) and William (1768-1847) Wells, for the sum of £18,000 from the fourth Duke of Bedford.  John and William were partners in the Blackwall ship building form Perry, Wells and Green.  It remains somewhat unclear if it was now renamed Greenland Dock or if this had happened earlier, in 1725. The dock was now wholly devoted to whaling with over 1000 tons of blubber processed and boiled there annually. John and William Wells sold Greenland Dock to William Ritchie, a Greenwich timber merchant, in 1806.  It was acquired by the Commercial Dock Co. in 1807.

For the whaling history of the dock see a later post: