Victorian Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside 1820-2010
Take a look at the photo on the front of this book. It may be colourised but to all intents and purposes wouldn’t you think it was just another one of those dozens of black and white pictures you can see anywhere – invaluable as a record of the town’s history but, frankly, anonymous?
Well, in this case, that’s not true. The chap mending the boat on the Thames foreshore has a name. He is Christy John Bayliss, who was born and worked at Wood Wharf all his life. He is also the man to whom this wonderful little book is dedicated.
And before you tell me it can’t be Wood Wharf because the power station’s the wrong side, this is Deptford power station, not Greenwich, which closed down in the 1980s. Just one of the brilliant little nuggets you’ll find in Victorian Wood Wharf and Greenwich Riverside 1820-2010. The writers, Ronald A. Richards and Derek J. Bayliss make a simple statement – they worked at Wood Wharf most of their lives and “thought it worthwhile to record the inside knowledge they have of this historic maritime area.”
Part history book, part memoir, part industrial manual, it’s an odd volume that I suspect is going to be extremely hard to find in years to come. It has all the hallmarks of self-publication – no publisher, no date, no ISBN and no contact details. It feels like Print-On-Demand but could just be a short run. I got my copy in the Tourist Information Centre in Greenwich, which does all kinds of local books you just can’t get anywhere else. I don’t know how many copies they have behind the desk, but I’d suggest you get in quick if you want a copy at the stunningly-cheap-price-for-something-like-this of just a fiver.
The stuff about the well-known areas is pretty basic but that’s not what this book is about. You can read about the palaces, Cutty Sark, Naval College etc. in dozens of volumes. What you can’t read about is the working lives of real folk in Greenwich. The little passageways and goods yards, the public houses and boatyards in a very specific area that exists chiefly in retreating memory now and even daily is becoming lost to us.
The photos are largely by Richards and Bayliss themselves – and are worth paying your fiver for alone – unless you’ve been privy to the family album you won’t have seen these before. And the joy of that is that the 1925 monochrome photo of a load of employees of the Orient Lighterage Company isn’t just bunch of blokes in a row. Their names are recorded posterity, alongside their jobs.
Because they’re largely focusing on one very specific area, the authors go into detail (though not always depth) about companies, buildings and businesses, from the early days of fishing at Billingsgate to the last on-river concern (the fabulous Greenwich Book Boat which appears in two photos here). Wood Wharf Studios are covered as well as all the many, many lighterage and industrial businesses, though in a volume as slim as this, often more as a springboard to more research than an exhaustive study. It’s worth reading the book in tandem with Greenwich Industrial History Society and its sister blog to get the most from it.
What I love about this work is that you’ll be ticking along with a bit about the history of an old inn that ended up as a bungalow pub after the war, or the fleet of barges owned by Orient Lighterage and all of a sudden there will be a photo of a couple of little neighbour-girls with a dog, a diagram of how a portable furnace for rivet heating works or a (and I particularly enjoyed this one) a drawing of the sort of kitchen stove you used to get in numbers 19-55 Wood Wharf Cottages. Brilliant. I don’t know where else you would find stuff like this.
Little anecdotes abound, and if told in a slightly bashful fashion – more nudged-aside than party-piece – are charming for it. Ditto names and incidents, photos of residents and mentions of places.
Okay, so this book could have benefited from a serious dose of proof-reading (somewhere out there is a greengrocer running dangerously short of apostrophes) but hell, who couldn’t benefit from such attentions from time to time. I tell you now, if you’re into the history of Greenwich or Deptford, this book is worth every penny of your five British pounds.
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