Deptford And The Founding Of The National Trust

I don’t normally put two Old-Photo Days so close to each other, but I was reading in bed last night and was astonished to see this picture of Sayes Court in a book from the 1920s.

I’d always assumed that John Evelyn’s house was demolished in antiquity, but here was a photo of it, in glorious Sepia-Vision. To be honest it wasn’t what I’d imagined, but hey – Wonderful London told me it was his old gaff, and who was I to disagree?

Turns out that it’s only part of the place Czar Peter the Great trashed on his gap-year visit to Deptford. The main mansion where Evelyn wrote his diary, tended his beloved garden and entertained Sir Christopher Wren and Sam Pepys was demolished in 1728 for no good reason that I can see. What was left suffered the ignoble fate of being turned into St Nicholas Parish Workhouse.

Things got worse – by 1852 it was an emigration depot, by 1853 a clothing factory and by 1856 just part of a bundle of land sold to the Admiralty, who promptly started demolishing it under the Metropolitan Building Act. They can’t have got very far. The picture above is undated but there is no mention in the book that it’s an old photo of something that’s been demolished.

Things started to look up for the old place in 1869, when William John Evelyn, a descendant of the diarist, bought back as much of the old estate as he could. He made a nice park for the Deptford people, and brought plants for it from Wotton in Surrey, Evelyn’s other house, which was, presumably, still in the family. He turned the house itself into almshouses – a bit nicer than a workhouse, n’est ce pas?

It all sounds rather charming – the 10-acre park had a bandstand, and a neo-classical building that had once been the dockyard’s model-house, which would be a museum and library.

It was all going rather well. In 1884 Evelyn had a brainwave. Chatting to Octavia Hill, a well-known preservationist, he suggested that Sayes Court, with its eminent connections both from an intellectual and (slightly dodgy) royal standpoint should be saved for the nation in perpetuity. Trouble was, there was no organisation that could do it legally.

Nevertheless, Hill contacted her friend Robert Hunter ( a localish boy, from Camberwell), to try to thrash out a way it could be done. Several suggestions were made for a new Commons and Gardens Trust that could take stewardship of important buildings.

It took ten years of wrangling for the new, snappily re-named National Trust to emerge, far too late for poor old Sayes Court. Like the doomed Euston Arch, which died whilst the modern preservation movement built up a head of steam (read about the plans to rebuild it using the stones found whilst dredging the waterways for the Olympic site here,) it was to be a sacrificial lamb on the altar of Progress.

By 1886 only six acres remained, and Evelyn could only afford to dedicate an acre and a half to the public without the help of the fledgling NT.

I’m still having a few problems working out exactly when the house keeled over. I’ve found records of hits to the Victorian terrace nearby during WWII, but nothing to the house. I’m sure someone can put me right.

Whatever, by the 50s it wasn’t there any more. A ‘modern’ park was built, and Convoys Wharf sprawled across the rest. Heaven only knows what will happen to it next…

4 Comments to “Deptford And The Founding Of The National Trust”

  1. shipwright's palace says:

    heaven knows what will happen to it next………..?

    thanks for a stimulating piece of research and reading.

    Surely Sayes Court House and Garden comprise the most important garden in the country? London's Lost Garden? John Evelyn's frequent letters to the Navy Board complaining about his boisterous, often noisy and polluting neighbour, the Royal Dockyard, also make for interesting reading.One summer it all got too much, the smell of the sludge from the wet dock, the smoke from the smithy, the dockyard workers trampling his fence, his retired to Wooton.
    One function of the former Sayes Court was as Transports Office. Whether voluntarily or otherwise those transported to parts overseas as adventurers of as convicts sent to the colonies passed through these portals. Sayes Court then is a significant site in the history of countless families in United States, Australia and elsewhere. Evelyn's abode was also the site of a number of scientific experiments. Robert Hooke sat in a bell Jar there and had all the air sucked out of it one rainy wednesday afternoon i think it was, what else to do in Deptford? Try sinking a man in a dumb-bell into the Wet Dock of the dockyard? Dream up a scheme for an underground transportation system for London? Spend a few hours gazing at the bees through the glazing of your glass bee hive? Count up to sixty the number of varieties of pears in your garden?
    Is a pub and a grim road sufficient testament to the mind of this man?

  2. Anonymous says:

    "London's Lost Garden"?! Funnily enough, I have just started a blog about Sayes Court with that very name!

  3. Anonymous says:

    It seems that almost everything written follows the word of Daniel Lysons writing in 1796 that the house had been "almost entirely demolished in 1728, and the remainder converted into a workhouse." However on Thomas Milton's 1753 plan of Deptford Dockyard, the footprint of the house with the caption "Poore house", is the same as on Evelyn's plan of 1653.

    In the Illustrated London News of 21 August 1858 there was an illustration of "House at Deptford in which Peter the Great resided". This illustration is on Wikipedia's Sayes Court article. This is clearly the older building because it looks nothing like the one in the photos. It even has the columns either side of the porch door, and the architrave and moulding under the eaves, as described in letters by Evelyn. However the original roof had long since been replaced. The later building shown in photographs has a quite different shape.

    To sum up, Evelyn's house changed its use in the mid 18th century and might have been slightly modified, but wasn't demolished until the mid 19th century, two years after being purchased by the Admiralty. The later building built on its site is likely to have been destroyed in the heavy bombing of the dockyard that happened in WWII.

  4. Edith says:

    This is all very interesting and reminds me of an entertaining day spent in the British Library with Evelyn's letter books – when he was busy avoiding Sir Nicholas Crispe who wanted talk to him about building 'a mole in the river'. Crispe was involved with the Deptford copperas works – and both he and Evelyn (and Hooke) were part of a hugely energetic period after the Restoration – in which they saw little difference between arts and sciences.
    However while looking at the Sayes Court garden, keep Wooton in mind- a place which I have found horribly disappointing.