Archaeology (1) How It SHOULD Be Done

I’m excited today, folks. I’ve just heard that the University of Greenwich is to begin a proper archaeological excavation of the Stockwell Street site. After so much heartache last year with the death of the village market, at last something good is happening – something that has been hotly anticipated ever since John Stone called for a dig in his seminal 1914 lecture to the Greenwich Antiquarian Society.

The university is currently waiting for the bizarrely-monikered Heneghan Peng architects to come up with a plan for the new building – which, if it isn’t truly innovative, exciting and architecturally meritorious, will not only be an embarrassment to Greenwich but a really bad advert for the Architectural School, so I’m holding out great hope.

But before they do anything that means getting out the buckets and spades, they’re going to be doing some pretty exhaustive surveys -geological, ecological, and the one that interests me, archaeological.

Obviously, the current buildings will have to go. Though to lose some of ‘scruffy Greenwich’ tugs at my heart strings – for me over-smartening the area will lose its character – we really can’t save everything. Besides, I’m desperate to know what’s underneath…

So bye-bye to those grungily-fab warehouses, seedily secretive stores and the uber-groovy Bee Gee garage. I didn’t know that was its name – I just thought it was an Esso job – but there it is in the 1976 pic below, courtesy, as above (from 1937) of Greenwich Heritage Centre. I’m not entirely sure what the little arrows are for.) Can’t you just see Barry tossing his layered, golden curls around the collar of his grease-spotted designer overalls before offering you a fill-up, whilst Maurice gives your big end a quick polish and Robin sells you a Magic Tree? Oooh-er, Missus. Sorry. Saturday Morning Fever seems to have struck at Phantom Towers…

They’re not sure if the old petrol tanks are still underneath the forecourt of the seventies supergroup’s day job, but if necessary, an expert team will carry out the clean up.

I’m told that “in order to preserve the streetscape for as long as possible, two large blocks on the frontage of Stockwell Street, John Humphries House and the disused storage unit at number 18-19, will remain standing for the time being.” Now, I have to say that John Humphries House has never really been part of the streetscape that I’ve ever thought worth preserving. If it was up to me, I’d rather look at hoardings than that ghastly, merit-free structure. I mean – it’s not as if we’re not used to hoardings round here at the moment.

Before they can start the fun bit of digging holes comes the boring stuff, like rubbish-clearing buildings surveys, sorting out services such as water, gas and electricity and detailed studies of the area (take one guess as to why the Phantom didn’t become an archaeologist…) They’ve already done much of the really tedious stuff, apparently, and are very nearly ready to start the exciting test pits to look at the archaeology of the site, which has been in use since at least the medieval period. They tell me

“Initial research indicates that building work over the centuries, and war-time bombs, have destroyed evidence from early periods, but the university will pay special attention to what remains of the 19th century maltings, which once supplied ale to the Spread Eagle Tavern.”

Coo-er. I’ve been promised a copy of the initial appraisal of the project, which will include some idea of what they think they might find, with some records of previous digs and some historical maps (they asked if I “might be interested?” Derrr!) They’re also going to be keeping us updated of anything they find – so watch this space.

14 Comments to “Archaeology (1) How It SHOULD Be Done”

  1. Benedict says:

    Wow!!! BEE GEE garridge its a Tragedy they are still not Stayin Alive , I guess they got a Night Fever and moved to Massachusetts

  2. Otter says:

    Oh dear! Look closer: that's Bee Cee.
    Can't think of any improbables to spin off from that.

    Good news on the archaeology, though.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Julius Caesar's soldiers filled their chariots at the Bee Cee petrol station.

    It would be nice if the archaeologists found some Roman stuff there. Pubs and hotels with Eagle names apparently do sometimes indicate a place where the Romans planted their standard.

    I'm glad to see the 2 phone boxes by the Mitre and St Alfege have been there so long. Maybe they'll dig up some bits of Alfege himself…

  4. Mary says:

    John Humpheries House is the first purpose built local authority computer centre. It was to house a visionary orgaisation which thought – in the early 1960s – that we could completely automate local government interactions (on a Leo III).
    We still haven't caught up with what they wanted to do – and the project quickly got stuck in payroll and more payroll.

    PS – for those of you who don't know what a Leo III was – please someone else explain – I can't think of a small enough comparison.

  5. Mary says:

    Sorry to come back so fast – I just found a link to a Leo Society and a picture of the Greenwich machine in action!!!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    LEO stands for Lyons Electronic Office. They were effectively the first computers used for commercial purposes, doing the accounts for Lyons Tea Rooms. Through various acquisitions and mergers they morphed into ICL, which was the UK's only mainframe computer manufacturer. When I became a programmer in 1981 I worked on ICL machines which even in those days were outdated. One of our engineers had cut his teeth on LEOs.

  7. Sunay Modesto Khan says:

    Wow. check out the baggy trousers on the guy opposite Albion House. that geezer was WAY ahead of his time. Great photos though – if only the Bee Cee garage pic showed the old train station to the left (where the cafe rouge is now)- it would be nice to see photos of the old station in situ. And it's interesting that the Albion House is a tobacconist in the 30's – I assume it was once an inn?

  8. Dazza says:

    @Sunay Modesto Khan – I think you can see the edge of the hoardings that covered up the site of the Old Train Station in the pic of the petrol station. Although in the older pic it is just on the left. I too, have been trying to find pics of the old station but have drawn a blank as well.
    I really like the old buildings in the first pic. I assume they were then bombed out in the war leading to the open spaces we see in the second pic.
    If only everyone had a digital camera or camphone in 1937!!
    It also goes to show what has been lost from our streets, never to be replaced. Who else thinks that's what is going to happen to our market????

  9. Rod says:

    "the university will pay special attention to what remains of the 19th century maltings, which once supplied ale to the Spread Eagle Tavern."
    This is very interesting, but a malting cannot supply ale, it can only supply malt to a brewery which will brew the beer. This implies, therefore, that there was a small brewery on the site. Brilliant – another piece of Greenwich brewing history! Please continue to keep us imformed as to what they find.

  10. Anonymous says:

    According to this article Henighan Peng was chosen by a committee led by Richard Rogers – a man who knows his stuff. They have designed buildings for several other World Heritage sites, so they have a track record. It's hard to find many pictures online of completed work, but they appear to do modern glass and steel. It will be interesting to see what they come up with – people will be expecting something world class.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You will be sad to learn that Bette Sabo (nee Thew, the newsagent family) died on Thursday. Because of the disruption of the war, when many Greenwich people had to move away, there aren't that many residents who can trace their roots back to pre-war Greenwich.

  12. Paul says:

    I am so sorry to hear about Betty. She has been a part of our life for decades. Our condolences and best wishes to Rob and the rest of the family.

  13. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    My condolences too…

  14. margo says:

    I’m a bit late because I’ve only just picked up on the sad news about Betty. I used to work in the Spread Eagle in the 70′s and always had a chat with Betty before starting work. She was a lovely lady – from what she told me she had practically grown up serving in the shop. My condolences to her family.