Archaeology (3) How It Will Be Done

Back to Greenwich archaeology today, folks. I guess one positive thing coming out of the turmoil surrounding the area just now means that we’re getting more opportunities for excavation than we’ve had since the end of WWII – though of course, at the end of the war, people were more interested in just getting somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to eat than finding out what previous Greenwichians had been up to.

How we deal with those opportunities is both exciting and a grave responsibility.

As you’ve probably guessed from the photo at the top, I’m back to the Stockwell Street site today, as I’ve been given a preview copy of of the Historical Summary by Alan Baxter & Associates that the work will be based on.

The photo (by Alan Baxter & Associates – as are all the drawings) was taken from the roof of St Alfege’s and is one of the best views I’ve seen of the site – an area that’s quite hard to get one’s head around without plans. It’s actually pretty damn huge and when the post-war buildings are gone it will be even bigger.

Much of the report itself contains basic history that we’ve covered many times before, so I’ll cut to the bits I didn’t know myself.

Something that amused me was that after going of for several hundred words about the seriousness of Greenwich as a historical site, the report suddenly changes tack right at the end of page five to robustly state that however important the rest of Greenwich might be, this little bit of the town “has not played a role in the significant aspects of Greenwich’s history”. Read: “Potential busybodies – object everywhere else but here, okay…”

Personally, if I were going to deter potential objectors, I’d point to the amount of disruption and damage already done on the site and suggest that it can’t get much worse – that we might as well find out what’s there and preserve what we can, then move on.
Dunno about you but I’d always assumed that the name Stockwell came from it being the town’s water supplies – the Stock Well. Apparently that’s just plain wrong – ‘stoc’ is Anglo-Saxon for tree trunk or post.

However much the report says that it played no significant role, Stockwell Street was part of the major east-west route through the town by medieval times, and at some point became known as The Broadway. It had two coaching inns – as well as the Spread Eagle there was also The White Hart and, (especially interesting to the Phantom Brewmaster, Rod) there were considerable maltings set behind, run by Frederick John Corder and Alfred Conyers Haycroft, but acquired around 1906 by Hugh Bairds &; Sons.

I get the feeling that the archaeologists are hoping to find some remains of those, though they haven’t actually said yet. They’ve promised to let me know.

You’ll see in Alan Baxter’s next drawing, a charming tea garden (it’s on a map of 1885), presumably for all the teetotallers from the Bible Christian Chapel that was also there. I’ve been looking to find something about the chapel and not found any mention in my 1901 copy of Life and Labour in London, which lists and describes (often in less than glowing terms) the funny little churches that dotted Victorian Greenwich like a holy rash, though Charles Booth does admit that that particular area of the town was “overdone with religious effort.”

There was also a roasting house in 1894. Roasting what? Hops? Coffee? Chickens? I’m sure someone will tell me. It’s possible they’ll find some remains of that.

The first big thing that really affected the area, which will have got rid of most of the medieval remains, was the coming of the railways – with the extension of the London to Greenwich railway in 1878 and the ill-fated Greenwich Park Railway, which I really must write about sometime (I confess I’m a bit scared of doing so – there are so many rivet-counter railway enthusiasts who’d point out all the bits I’d most certainly get wrong.) Suffice to say that some bright spark thought that what Greenwich really needed was a line between the town and, er, Nunhead. Perhaps the cemetery was a big draw (it is now, btw, absolutely fantastic…), perhaps it was just that railways were THE thing to do and that bit of land was free.

It lasted until WWI, and bits of the station hung around as a timber yard until the 60s (and, of course, there is a small part of the line still in existence, as the delightful and much sought-after Prior St allotments.)

Nevertheless, Stockwell Street was still essentially cute. Here’s a picture from Greenwich Heritage Centre, showing the street in the 1930s:

If there was one single thing that really did for Stockwell Street as a site, it was the Second World War. Alan Baxter’s drawing shows exactly where it suffered a direct hit:
It’s unlikely that the Nazis were actually aiming for the Stockwell Engineering Company – a little factory that was making radar parts at the time, which after the war made kitchen utensils known as Westware (anyone still got any?); more that they were aiming for the railway, or, even nothing at all, just dumping-off bombs, a favourite South London hobby of theirs.

There wasn’t much coming back from a V2 rocket. The Post Office was completely obliterated but the maltings, and several houses, both on Stockwell St and King William Walk were badly damaged.

As a by-product, though, it did mean that, when the ghastly John Humphries House was built in the 1960s, there was finally an excavation of the old well. Don’t you just love this old picture, courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre, where they’ve discovered the (or at least AN) old well. The antiquarian John Stone, who first called for it, would have been in ecstasies – sadly The Phantom Webmaster discovered he died in the early 1930s.

I’ve asked if they’ll be digging out the well again when JHH bites the dust; I don’t know yet. But wouldn’t it be great if Hengham Peng (named from the Irish Roisin Heneghan and American Shih-Fu Peng, BTW) incorporated the well into the foundations; perhaps with a glass floor, or visitable cellars, like the charnel house at Spitalfields?

10 Comments to “Archaeology (3) How It Will Be Done”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The really interesting well was leftwards of this photograph. What you can see in the section is a cess pit – interesting in its own way, but not a well.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Didn't the Nunhead Railway terminate where the Ibis hotel now stands and thus not impinge on the Stockwell Street site?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, anon 12.12, surely the Greenwich Park station was the end of that particular line.

  4. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    See what I mean? I'm always in trouble whenever I talk about railway stations!

    Yes – indeed , it was. But the report goes on about the station so much, that I'm assuming that there must be some impact in some way upon the site.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was told the railway terminus was about where the carpark is now behind the Ibis hotel…im sure ive seen some photos somewhere

  6. The Sheila says:

    Fascinating post – thank you!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I'm pretty sure there's a photo of Greenwich Park railway station taken in about 1966 (when it was or had just finished being used as a timber yard) on the Subterranea Britanica Disused Station site. Can't for the life of me remember the name of the pub on the corner – next to the station, opposite the Mitre.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Sorry – that should be Subterranea Britannica, of course.

  9. Rod says:

    "There was also a roasting house in 1894. Roasting what? Hops? Coffee? Chickens? I'm sure someone will tell me."

    Well certainly not hops, Phanti – roasting hops would destroy all the oils and acids that the brewer needs to flavour his beer. Very interesting about the Maltings though – I expect they supplied malt to Lovibonds. Brilliant little bit of Greenwich brewing history. Thanks

  10. Orlando says:

    This site seems to have a few photos on the station :