Depressed Greenwich

So, thanks to George Osborne’s Spending Review yesterday we have some fun and games to look forward to in the coming years. I have a horrid feeling we’re not going to enjoy it much. But I guess one thing’s for sure – Greenwich has been there before…

Greenwich has seen its good times and its very bad times. For starters I can’t imagine St Alfege was having a great time of it just shy of 1000 years ago. The town had some great years while the sundry kings and queens were happy to patronise it, but as soon as the sickly King James decided it wasn’t good for his wheezing, it all went downhill a bit.

The first really bad times were during the Commonwealth when much of the wealth was made very common indeed. Cromwell turned Greenwich Palace into a biscuit factory, and however grim yesterday’s cuts may be, at least George Osborne hasn’t made Christmas a criminal offence (yet.)

In fact we seem to be up and down all the time. One minute we’re patronised by royalty, the next we’re down the pan. Then we have a lovely new hospital and observatory, then we’re down the pan again. We get some beautiful new Georgian buildings and it all starts to pick up then – you guessed it, we’re back down the pan.

Probably the grimmest time was in the 18th Century when the grot and squalor was felt particularly hard because Greenwich’s world had been so very glamorous just beforehand. West Greenwich, which is now essentially Deptford (remember, it’s all shifted east these days) felt it particularly badly.

The town is without necessaries: they’ve butchers without meat, alehouses without drink, houses without furniture, shops without trade, captains without commissions, wives without husbands, a church without religion and hospitals without charity.

The same anonymous writer finds little to enjoy in Greenwich town centre either. He complains that St Alfege’s churchyard is in a right state; that the number of dead have almost buried the church – could each corpse but raise his head half a foot above the surface, he might peep in at the church window and frighten the congregation.

He’s especially disparaging of the hospital – that the buildings are grand enough but the poor sods who have to live in them have a wretched life – and this is before the place is even finished. “Every pensioner is to have a cabin to himself and is allotted a little more room than he is likely to enjoy in the churchyard.

Interestingly, the writer is very much aware of the poverty divide – there are decent – grand, even – houses, with silks and tapestries, Indian cabinets and tables, and smart people walking about town in lace, furbelows and satin petticoats. I’m surprised, given the dodgy nature of the rest of the town, that smart people wanted to live around it. There’s a splendid description of a house owned by a Dr Cade – but the only reason we know about his satin counterpanes, Indian gold and all-coloured silk is from the incident report of a robbery at his house.

Crime, both petty and serious, was rife. It ranges from the comic – in 1744 a sailor got off his ship looking strangely tubby after all his months at sea and was found to have yards and yards of lace wrapped round his body – to the alarming – highwaymen, which we’ve talked about before.

I’m surprised the gentlemen of the roads’ horses didn’t stumble and send them flying off into a muddy puddle. The streets were in a terrible shape. The council (or equivalent) kept putting off paving the streets, to save cash. They declared there was no point paving the roads until an Act of Parliament was passed forcing carriages to have broader wheels, as it stood the lovely paving the were planning for ‘some point in the future’ would just get broken. The roads were in such a state that my mate the Rev. LeStrange tells me that there were more sprained ankles and broken arms and legs in Greenwich than in any other town in Europe.

But what comes around goes around. Things got a smidge better in Georgian times, before plunging back into industrial gloom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though there were still plenty of wealthy people knocking around, aminly the direct beneficiaries of said industrial gloom. Two world wars gave Greenwich another, rather more literal, bashing – and by the time when C Day Lewis (or (‘Nicholas Blake’) was writing the fabulously atmospheric, if frankly cheesy, potboiler The Worm of Death in the 1960s, it was back to being run-down again. In fact Day Lewis seems to have chosen to live in Greenwich precisely because it was run down… 

So, the morning after sitting gloomily in the pub wondering just how long I have before the knell of redundancy clangs for me, I’m a bit more chipper. Dips and troughs are what Greenwich is about. It’s been smart – and it’s been anything but. And it will be both again.

6 Comments to “Depressed Greenwich”

  1. Dazza says:

    Well said that person!!. We’ll come through this, somehow.
    All things pass and maybe one day in our Old Age (66+) we’ll look back and remember the good days of ‘our youth’ with rose tinted specs and still think the ‘kids of today’ don’t know how bad things were in the early 21st Century.

  2. John says:

    Could you tell me the origin of the comments that you posted regarding Deptford?

    “The town is without necessaries: they’ve butchers without meat, alehouses without drink, houses without furniture, shops without trade, captains without commissions, wives without husbands, a church without religion and hospitals without charity.”


  3. Kelly says:


    So have bodies been removed from the chirchyard to lower the level?

  4. Kelly says:

    Meant ‘churchyard’!

  5. John – I wish I knew the source. I got it from the Rev. Lestrange, ho keeps his sources to himself. Kelly – since I don’t know the exact date of the source, only that it’s 18th C and looking back at the time just after the Commonwealth, I suspect they are referring to the old St Alfeges Church, which fell down and was rebuilt by Hawksmoor. And of course the churchyard itself was remodelled in the 19th century.

  6. blythe house says:

    I’d say one of the good things about Greenwich is it having such a well-informed and devoted phantom!