Deptford And The Founding Of The National Trust
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…