Archive for February, 2010

Deptford And The Founding Of The National Trust

Friday, February 19th, 2010

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…

The Body In The Garden

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Robert at Number 16 had a bit of a shock this morning, when he tried to put Black & White the cat out. He’s used to combatting drunken oafs in his garden, but rarely slumped bodies. This one, despite last night’s perishing cold, wasn’t dead (God only knows how – perhaps the alcohol from the large amount of tinnies surrounding him kept his body temperature up or something) but definitely dead to the world.

Robert says the police and ambulance were there almost immediately he called and were very kind and efficient. It took them a while to revive the guy, who was in his mid to late 30s and not wearing very much at all. Apparently he was very polite when he came-to. He’s been taken to hospital to thaw out.

The Phantom Tweets – And Accidentally Spams Everyone

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

IanVisits and the Phantom Webmaster have finally persuaded me to join Twitter.

Since I’m not allowed my full moniker, I can be found on TGPhantom.

But I owe you all an apology. I’m afraid I just accidentally hit the “contact everyone that ever sent you anything by email’” button – so, if you’ve ever contacted me, I’m afraid you just got a spam email from Twitter. Feel free to ignore it – and please accept my apologies for the invasion. It won’t happen again.

Park Row Police Station

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Did you know there used to be a nick at Park Row? No, nor did I. Steve’s been sniffing around the Greenwich Heritage Centre at Woolwich Arsenal (something I wish I had more time to do; the b&w photos are from the wonderful collection there) and has discovered this short-lived little piece of penal history – erected too late to have been a star in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and lost too early to have been useful in dealing with those town-centre problems we all grumble about on a regular basis.

Rather sweet, isn’t it? This picture’s from 1908 – not long after it opened – at a time of great boom for East Greenwich. It reflects the huge increase in house building around that time, and a great excitement in the possibilities that the east end of Greenwich promised. Unlike today when most of the building is just housing rather than infrastructure, there was a whole load of public buildings going up – three schools (Meridian, Halstow and Annandale) a library, a fire station and two police stations (the other one’s still in Combedale Road) just for starters – and I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff.
Sadly, it didn’t last. The 8th July 1944 saw a direct V1 hit to the not-even-fifty year-old building:

Steve tells me the ARP log of the incident reports that no one was killed, but three police officers and five ‘others’ were injured. It’s not recorded as to whether these ‘others’ were overnight ‘guests’ of the constabulary or not…

In case you’re trying to place exactly where the station was, here’s a picture of the site today (still looks like a bomb’s just hit it…) Bernard Angell House is on the corner of Trafalgar Road and Park Row, just opposite the NMM.

Three Random Events I Like The Look Of

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010


Apologies for the lack of updates on Parish News. When I look at the superb job that IanVisits does, I blush, but hey – things are ridiculously busy chez Phantom just now. I’ll try to do better in future. I’ll update the section with other things I’m not previewing here but still like the sound of later today.

In the meanwhile, three things that have caught my eye, coming up in the next week or so…

First is a slightly bizarre but rather intriguing celebration of East Greenwich Library’s 105 birthday on 22nd February. Trying to find out any concrete detail about the event has proved impossible; it would seem they will be ‘going with the flow’ on the evening, but we’re promised music, singers, poetry and readings. I rather like the idea of something that’s not organised to the hilt; we’re so used to everything being prescribed down to the last second, though it’s hard to know exactly what will happen – or, indeed, when it all begins. I’m guessing evening, and since no prices have been mentioned, I’d say it’s probably free.

Staying with odd, but a little more structured, a one-night-only performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at Up The Creek, of all places. There’s a cast of 17 professionals, and the reason it’s on at a comedy club is that the mechanicals are all stand up comics who play the venue on a regular basis. If you fancy a ticket, get your skates on – they may only be a tenner, but there’s only a ton of them available. Call 0208 858 4581 for tickets. If you miss out this time, the show will be going on national tour – the closest it will play to Greenwich will be the Orchard Theatre in Dartford on the 22nd March.

Finally, Scared of Chives has been telling me about a regular night upstairs at the Mitre. I’ve been a little edgy about open mic nights ever since my best pal became a stand up comic. I never had an issue watching my mate perform, even in the early days, but some of the other acts were just painful, apologising for their very existence with their whole bodies – and sometimes their acts, too – as they stood lost onstage. Whatever they were feeling it was far worse for the audience.

But this isn’t a comedy open mic night, it’s music (largely). The One World Club is a ” free music club and ‘open mic’ night” where anyone can get up and perform (you have to turn up before the 7.30 start to book a slot first – check the website for more details) but the very fact that you need to be able to play an instrument or sing reasonably well will probably weed out the really embarrassing stuff. Besides, SoC seems to think the standard’s pretty high.

Not that it isn’t a lottery as to what might be on any particular night. They’ve had (among other things) folk singing, poetry, reggae, Indian dancing, jazz guitar, indie, classical, opera and world music, so as long as your tastes are catholic, you should have a good evening. It’s free to get in, SoC tells me it’s getting busy these days, so arrive early to ensure a seat.

I shall get along as soon as I can to review it (with my luck it will turn out to be a stand-up comics first-timers’ special) but in the meanwhile, if the first sniffings of spring this morning after yesteday’s vile weather is sending you stir-crazy, check out one of these.

More Stuff To Do on the Parish News later today. Promise.

The Most Unpopular Job In Greenwich

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Well – maybe not the most unpopular job in medieval Greenwich. That prize goes, without a doubt, to the Greenwich gong-farmers – a euphemism for the poor sods who had to clean out the town’s cess pits.

But you’d have thought the job of Beer Taster would be sought-after, rather than avoided at all costs. And you’d be wrong.

In fact it was so unappreciated that in 1318, one Henry Boyn was dragged up before the beak at Greenwich Manor Court, and fined twelvepence for not performing his duties as tastitor cerevisie . A few years later, in 1327, the same court had to force Walter Wyntercoker to even take up the post.

The reasons seem twofold. Firstly, the beer was ghastly. I’m sure Phantom Brewmaster Rod could tell you more, but from what I can tell, it wasn’t made with hops until the end of the 14th C, just malt, yeast and water, so it was, apparently, very strong, but also sickly-sweet. Added to that it had no keeping qualities whatsoever, so it had to be drunk very young – or it went off. Because it couldn’t be moved, it had to be brewed on site at every inn.

The law was quite clear. The 1266 Assize of Bread and Ale said “Brewers in cities ought and may well afford to sell two gallons of ale for a peny and, out of the cities, to sell three gallons for a peny.” No added ingredients were permitted, and certainly no bulking agents.

Whoever had to go around checking the beer was going to be highly unpopular with anyone who was trying to palm-off old stuff on their customers, especially if they’d tried adding ‘extras’ to make it go further.

Which brings me to the second reason why the job wasn’t enjoyable. It was damn hard work. In 1327-28, it took two guys just to cover Greenwich – one for the Westende, the other for the Eastende – and over 50 people were fined for breaking the rules. So that no one had to do it for too long, the post was rotated, but it made no difference. No one likes a snitch.

Walter Wyntercoker was on the rota, as was another family member, I guess it could have been his wife, Christine. It was all a bit embarrassing, as they’d both been fined at various times for breaking the assize themselves.

This makes me think that it was the actual brewers who were expected to take it in turns to police other brewers, which just doesn’t sound good to me. It would be like asking banks to regulate themselves, which we’d never dream of, would we…

Things got a bit better with the introduction of hops. It meant the beer kept longer, and didn’t need to be brewed ‘in-house’ at every pub any more. The job of brewer began to be a much more of a profession in itself, instead of brewers having to be publicans too. It wasn’t the end of the ale-tasters – and over the years the pensioners especially found much to complain about, but at least it never got to such ridiculous levels again.

I daresay we’ll have no such problems with the lovely new brewery coming our way soon. More beer another day.

The Price Of Air

Monday, February 15th, 2010

A pal of mine went to top up his car tyres yesterday. Normally, he’d go to Sainsburys, where the air is free (so to speak), but the queues were silly (have you noticed that there seem to be petrol supply problems all over the place at the moment?) so he went to the BP at Charlton, where it costs 20p a go.

He prepared the car first, by getting nice and close and taking off the little caps, and he’s a fast air-applier, but he still only managed to do three tyres before it ran out and he had to put another 20p in the slot.

Am I being cynical, or has someone at BP actually made the effort to work out how long it takes the average customer to do three of their four tyres and timed the squirter appropriately?

20p? It’s not even fresh air. But he did say it was a good pressure. You gets what you pay for.

Drinking Ban

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Tucked away in the Standard yesterday was a little piece about a consultation for a borough-wide ‘in-public-spaces’ drinking ban across Greenwich.

Apparently there are already several ‘zones’ where you can’t drink in the streets. Has anyone noticed these? I vaguely remember it being talked about. I guess that I’m so used to seeing drunks staggering about of a Saturday night that whether or not they have a can of Special Brew in their paw at the time is a bit of a moot point.

The Council reckons these bans haven’t really worked as it’s just moved the problem on to the areas that don’t have bans. Since I don’t know how tight the the zones are, I don’t know if St Alfege Passage is included in the Central Greenwich one, but I’ve been talking to Robert at Number 16 recently about unpleasant violent events that have been happening there – people having their doors kicked in, threatening behaviour, verbal, and in some instances physical abuse. The latest incident was last weekend.

Robert’s had CCTV installed ever since he was beaten up himself last year, but the attacks continue. He has some footage of the latest attack that he’s sharing with the police.

It’s clear there’s a problem here, but I don’t know that it’s drinking in the streets that’s the source. If people are already mattressed by the time they come out of the various bars, especially those that have late licences (several of which were approved after someone died from a violent incident, if I recall) then whether or not they’ve bought an extra tin to carry about with them when they start to kick in someone’s door late at night (a terrifying thing, especially if you’re in bed at the time) seems a bit immaterial.

Surely it’s the places that sell booze to people who must already be obviously drunk that must be the issue. It’s hard to pin down specific bars – there are so many in a very small place (though Robert says that the gang who beat him up each had bottles of lager with little slices of lime in the top, which does sort of point to one particular venue in that specific incident – that, and that the drinking-in-the-streets-ban isn’t working very well.)

What is to be done, folks?

A Woman In Love

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Since the whole world seems to be gearing up to celebrate all things romantic, I thought today I’d tell you a romantic – well, romantic-ish – tale of the knights of old…

In 1512, Henry VIII was still young, excited and delighted with his first queen, Catherine of Aragon. They were trying for a baby, but not overly concerned at the time it was taking to get around to it. They spent much of their time doing fun stuff, like jousts and tournaments, pageants and strange devices.

At one particular jousting festival, the Royal Pageant Master had had a bit of a Laurence Llewellyn Bowen moment and created a ‘fountain’ out of russet satin, covered with fretted gold with eight gargoyles spouting water, while a glamorous knight stood in the centre, fully-armed and looking butch. Behind him came a retinue of coursers, raring for the fight, and ladies, looking for love.

The butch knight in the middle of the satin fountain was Sir Charles Brandon, the burliest of the king’s retinue and Henry’s best mate. He was handsome, charming, a war hero from Flodden and, some might say ‘a bit of a goer.’ At 28 he’d already deserted one wife, married another, divorced her, re-married the first one, had somehow got himself betrothed to someone else entirely and now had his eye on Margaret of Savoy.

Through all this, though, he was still on the lookout and, whilst skilfully jousting away in the Greenwich tilt yards, he kept exchanging little meaningful glances with Henry’s sister, Mary, widely acknowledged to be the most beautiful princess of her day, smitten with the handsome young knight – and inconveniently betrothed to the elderly, gouty Louis XII of France. Henry had used his sister as a bargaining chip with the vain old man in a political deal that involved a million crowns in hard cash.

Mary, as you can imagine, wasn’t wild about the deal, especially since she’d almost certainly seen Louis. She told Henry she’d do her duty, but her next husband was to be her choice, okay? It was fairly clear to all who her choice would be.

The marriage went ahead – by proxy, since the king was too infirm to do much more than sit on a throne back in France. The Duc de Longueville spoke the vows for Louis – and then ‘consummated’ the marriage for him too, by lying down on a bed with her and touching her body with his naked leg. Oooh err….

As arranged, political marriages go, it wasn’t such a bad deal for Mary. She got a brand new outfit, loads of jewels sent over from France, celebrations in her honour – and it was quite clear that Louis wasn’t going to outlive the year.

It may well have been the excitement that did for him. By all accounts he did his best to service his young queen when she finally arrived in France (a little green around the gills from a choppy Channel crossing) – the old stager claimed that on the ‘proper’ wedding night he’d ‘crossed the river’ three times with his bride.

Sir Charles Brandon probably wasn’t the most diplomatic person Henry could have sent on a diplomatic mission to check everything was going okay, but apparently both Mary and Brandon behaved themselves, to the king’s relief.

Louis died three months after the marriage, and Henry started looking around for a new husband for his sister. Mary was livid. She coughed rather less than discreetly and told him in no uncertain terms that if she wasn’t allowed to choose her next husband she’d become a nun, so there.

Henry, in another one of his not-so-brilliant moments, chose the dashing Charles Brandon to go and fetch her back from France. Mary told him straight – marry me now, or never.

Brandon, who, to be honest, could probably have taken or left this stunningly beautiful, madly-in-love-with-him princess who just happened to be next in line to the throne and richer than Croesus, somehow allowed himself to be cajoled into marrying Louis XII’s widow secretly in Cluny. Strange, that…

The king, of course, went berserk when he found out about it, though it’s impossible he didn’t see it coming. He insisted they paid back her dowry and marriage portion and beg him for forgiveness lots, which they did.

Mary blamed herself, and Brandon was happy to let her take the blame. Henry, for his part, though, found his heart just wasn’t into being angry. He couldn’t stay cross with his best pal and his favourite sister for long and as soon as he’d got his cash back and they’d grovelled enough, he allowed them to marry properly at Greenwich Palace.

And to give them their romantic dues, they stayed happily married – until Mary’s death, when, I’m afraid to say, Brandon found himself someone else very quickly indeed.

It’s entirely possible you won’t have heard of these two Tudor lovers. But I’m willing to bet you’ve come across their granddaughter.

Lady Jane Grey.

The Shrew’s Tale

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I am currently wading my way through Peter Ackroyd’s prose ‘translation’ of the Canterbury Tales. I haven’t got very far, mainly because stuff keeps happening in Real Life, but also because it is not a work to be rushed, but sipped and savoured in small doses. It may not be ‘verse’ but it is still poetry.

Because I want to enjoy every moment of it, I started with the introduction (I’m normally very bad for skipping introductions)and I was very surprised to discover that it’s likely that a good part of Chaucer’s masterwork was written in Greenwich or Deptford.

Though the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims set out on their journey, is in Southwark, the merry band passes through Deptford on their way to Beckett’s shrine, and Chaucer’s own hostelry is mentioned by the host – as ‘an inne of shrews.’

Looks like we’re back to the Greenwich Birds again – I’m beginning to get quite an image of the female population of Greenwich in medieval times. Or maybe it was the entire population, full stop – apparently, Chaucer was mugged twice in the same day (though other accounts I’ve read have placed him in Westminster and Hatcham for his total of three robberies) Being mugged seems a bit ironic since he was a Justice of the Peace at the time(annoyingly all the books I can find just say ‘in Kent’ so I don’t know if it was actually at Greenwich.)

One of the reasons he was living in Greenwich seems to have been financial. When his wife died, he was sued for debt – the days when he was granted a daily pitcher of wine by the king must have seemed very distant – and presumably innes of shrews in Greenwich were cheaper than nice houses in the City of London.

In 1390, while he was writing the Canterbury Tales (though he never really actively ‘started’ them – or indeed, finished them – they were more organic than that – he wrote short stories that he later assigned to sundry pilgrims when he had the portmanteau-volume idea for bringing them together. Some were specifically written for characters; others were just doled out to the boring characters that were left, which is why some really suit the teller and others really don’t…) he was doing all manner of odd jobs.

He arranged for scaffolding to be built for jousts at Smithfield, and landed himself the job of Commissioner of Walls and Ditches – with special responsibility for the Thames wall between Woolwich and Greenwich.

But Chaucer’s real job was entertaining – in English. I didn’t know that the Tales were written here, but I’m delighted that they were, even if Chaucer had a bit of a rough time with the Greenwich shrews whilst composing them. So we can claim the father of the English Novel for our own, too (sort of…)

Now all I have to do is work out why there used to be a banner with a picture of Sir Walter Scott hanging in the old Visitor Centre. As far as I can see, the most we can boast of him is a couple of brief mentions in The Adventures of Nigel, one of the minor Waverley Novels and the worst book I have ever read by a long chalk…