Underground Greenwich (7) – An 18th Century Spat

Right folks. Today, I am going to whisk you back to the Age of Elegance. To the days when gentlemen wear periwigs, breeches and velvet frock coats, ladies titter behind their fans and the harpsichord rocks.

But underneath all that face paint, pox-patch and wig-powder, all is not well within Greenwich’s upper echelons. Or maybe I should say ‘lower…’

Much lower. Because once again Blackheath Cavern is causing a furore.

It is, as always, all down to cash – the usual playground arguments over who gets to mine the (frankly sub-standard – Sir Christopher Wren won’t touch the stuff) chalk from the cave. For even if Sir Chris is being fussy, there are plenty of developers who aren’t – London’s still being rebuilt after the Great Fire and there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t mind buying cheap chalk.

The Steers family is mining that chalk – and has been for years. Bill Steers and his old mum are fined regularly for undermining the King’s Highway or failing to support their extensive tunnels but they are mere pawns. There are bigger hitters in the chalk game and they are soon to come to blows…

Firstly, there’s The Crown – Lord of the Manor of East Greenwich – who, despite there not actually having been a monarch-in-residence for, ahem, some years, still owns much of the town and claims that the chalk being dug out of Maidenstone Hill is effectively waste from Royal land.

Limbering-up for a good ol’ punch-up, though, are the new (ish) boys on the block, the Trustees of Morden College, Lords of the Manor of “Old Court.” The Trust has also busily bought-up land around Greenwich and is playing the “good causes” card. They, of course, argue that the lime is waste from their land, their having gained dispensation from “the Queen” (Which Queen? Don’t ask me…)

The Crown points out that Old Court isn’t actually a manor at all – and as such it can have no waste. By the mid 18th century, they’re getting nowhere and it all gets handed over to The Lawyers.

Now, there’s nothing particularly unusual about a lands-right fracas, but what amuses me, as I read John Stone’s 1914 lecture notes, is the surreal direction the whole argument then takes.

Let’s get in The Tardis (bagsy not be Donna…) and set the dial to – oh, I don’t know – about 1750.

Scribbling furiously at his Chippendale desk, lit by a single tallow candle, sits Mr Brand, Treasurer and Principle Agent of Morden College. (I wonder if, in years to come, Brand Street will be named for him in thanks for Pedantry Beyond The Call Of Duty?) His quill is a blur of feather and ink as he scratches a letter to his opposite number. He talks about the Steers family’s discovery and exploitation of the mines – implying that they are working for Morden College. So far, so good.

But then he takes an interesting tangent. He goes on to talk about the workings from the point of view of people from the future. He says:

“…an accidental discovery of them two or three centuries hence, when the occasion of them is forgot may supply curious matter of speculation for the antiquarians.”

Ok – so it’s a bit oblique, but frankly, that sentence is just a phrase – it means nothing. If I had been Mr Roberts, the Crown’s Chief Steward, reading that missive over a morning cuppa in the local Coffee House, a copy of Lloyd’s List beckoning and half a dozen coddled quails’ eggs going cold in the dish, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

But no. He takes great exception to it – clearly realising Mr Brand is implying future generations will think Morden College morally superior to The Crown. So he too grabs his quill and gets straight to the point:

“In 1699 you encroached on another part of it and therewith granted, as you say, the very entrails of the hill, the loam, gravel, chalk and sand, which was dug in subterranean caverns under the very summit of it, the discovery whereof, as you very prettily observe, if accidentally made two or three centuries hence, would supply curious matter of speculation for the antiquarians.”

These guys are arguing over what WE will think of them. Not who’s in the right in their own time, but what Posterity will say. Am I reading too much into this or is that just weird? Mr Roberts is truly riled over the issue. He continues:

“However this ingenious letter, if it should happen to outlive the common fate of things of this sort, will set those inquisitions into antiquity to right.”

He neatly brings his argument back on course:

” The misfortune of it will be that if this letter and certificate live to rectify the antiquarians of future times, which it is very likely with this dispute between the Crown and the Trustees it may do, it will show that Mr Brand had too little regard to antiquity, who in looking into the title his clients had to this hill and to the subterranean caverns under it, looked only into the two Queen’s grants and their own, without going so far back into antiquity as the grants to Eldred and Whitmore etc.”

So. We’re back to history again. Their history – that will tell them who has owned the land before them. Something concrete over which they can argue.

But what I love about this little flurry is that it shows something I haven’t seen up until that correspondence – an awareness or, indeed, interest in what is to come.

Most writings I have ever seen about – well – pretty much anything before this, are concerned only with the day. With people’s own times. They are too busy living their lives to have any interest in things other than their immediate future. But these letters deal with something more – the idea of what will happen two or three hundred years ahead of them.

The way I see it is that this is more than an argument over land – to me, it’s a sign that concepts of The Enlightenment were beginning to pervade Society at all levels – even to prosaic areas such as land rights. With the coming of things such as travel (for the wealthy, obviously) The Grand Tour and questions about religion, philosophy and scientific experimentation; with discoveries of everything from Pompeii to sundry diggings in Greenwich Park, has come the birth of Antiquarianism, and with that an awareness of one’s own place in history. These men are not content to have the matter dealt with for their own time. For them it’s important to be seen by Posterity as having been morally in the right.

Ooops – sorry. I seem to have had a bit of a Melvyn Bragg moment there. Better go and have a sit down and a nice cup of that marvellous new invention, chocolate…

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