Ballast Quay -Part One – Scrap City

At last. I know lots of you have been asking for this; ever since I got talking to Hilary Peters I’ve been promising to tell you her story – a remarkable tale of a time within living memory, but one which is in danger of being forgotten. It’s going to have to be in serial-form, as there’s much to cover, but it’ll be worth the wait, I promise. As with the Foot & Mouth Memorial, I’m leaving most of the post to Hilary herself, adding puerile comments of my own along the way…

Ballast Quay always used to be known as Union Wharf. I’m never quite sure where Crowley’s Wharf ended too – perhaps it’s another, earlier/later name for the same place, or it might be where the power station is now. I’m sure someone will put me right. The picture at the top of this post is from the 1930s ( I don’t know whose it is, but if the owner objects to my using it just let me know and I’ll take it down…) but it would have been much the same in the 1960s – change really hadn’t started then.

The Cutty Sark pub, as we know it, was called the Union Tavern, and before that it was the Green Man (which must have been confusing as there was another Green Man at the top of Blackheath). One book I was reading claims parts of the building go back to 1690 but there would have been an inn on the site even before that. The current building says 1795. Perhaps there will be a picture of the older pub in the forthcoming book by Messrs Rhind, Kent and Watson about the lost panorama of that bit of the Thames. Whatever its name or vintage, though, it changed its name in 1954 in honour of the arrival of the Cutty Sark ship. Hilary says

The pub then had two sections, as all pubs did. The public bar was crowded with dockers for short, regular bursts – and the landlord’s wife who sat on a stool all the time and drank gin. I don’t know who went in the other end but they wore suits. Sailing barges were still around on the river, shorn of their rigging and used as lighters and it was only just before my time that they cleared away the old  barge moored outside (the pub) and known as the brothel.

In 1963, Hilary Peters found the house of her dreams in Union Wharf by walking along the river until she found a Georgian house with site for a nursery garden. It was (and still is) owned by Morden College, over in Blackheath. Just in case you don’t know, you can often tell that something belongs to Morden College because it will have a little iron badge on the wall somewhere:

You’ll find these badges all over town, and once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere. This one is on the Cutty Sark Pub.

She remembers that it took months to persuade Morden College to let it to her. She says that the universal attitude to old houses in those days was just to pull them down, something she couldn’t begin to understand.

They wanted to pull down the whole row and build flats. They said that to do up the houses and put in bathrooms would cost so much that the rent would have to be SEVEN POUNDS A WEEK and none of their tenants would pay that. I finally persuaded them that I would pay that rent and even found someone else who was mad enough to do the same, so that was two houses saved.

We moved in in November. It was incredibly beautiful – misty and busy. The river was full of shipping. The wharves on either side of us were working. Robinsons (known as Robbo’s) on Anchor Wharf handled scrap. (Anchor Wharf is the bit in between the power station and the Cutty Sark, where there are new flats now. There’s a giant anchor on the Thames Path to mark it. TGP)

The scrap from the yard spilled all over the neighbourhood – Anchor Wharf, the whole area between Hoskins St and Lassell St, back as far as the British Sailor pub (recently gone, the site is now Barrett Homes) the area behind the pub and behind our houses (which I later landscaped for Morden College).

Scrap encroached and littered the road and punctured your tyres and fell in your garden and nobody minded. The street was usually crammed with lorries queuing up to deliver endless gas stoves to Robbos. The whole of South East London must have had new gas stoves that year.

Lovell’s, on our other side, also had queues of waiting lorries. (Lovells is now the half-built blocks of flats stopping anyone from using the Thames Path – TGP) Lovells was import and export. It looked like a lot more import than export, generally ingots of metal but often crates of almost anything.

Both wharves had creaking, groaning cranes. Sirens went at 8am and the lightermen took the covers off the barges – bang, bang, bang. And the barges banged together and banged against the wharves. Then the dockers took over, some in the hold, some on the wharf, with a whole, forgotten language of hand signals and whistles. Coasters came in and out on the tide, with much hooting and shouting.You couldn’t live there for long and not know that four short blasts on the hooter followed by one long one meant that a ship was coming in.

The wharf between these two giants (Ballast Quay) became my wharf. It had been used in its time by both neighbouring wharves and before that by the Harbour Master.

The wharf was too small by then to be practical but its steam crane still stood proud on the upper level and a very high wall separated it from the street. The rest was covered in barrels of bitumen.

It was only used by the dockers from Lovells to stash their loot; pilfering was part of the job before containers spoilt the fun. Some docker I’d never seen before would knock on the door and say ‘ere’ and slip me a tin with no label. It usually contained pineapple chunks…

Morden College agreed to rent me the wharf for £1 a year but kept a bit to build four garages. (Their idea had been to build garages on the whole thing) Dockers still used the wharf – a lighterman is supposed to need three feet of riverfront to walk on. Indeed the first three feet of the river front was still officially part of Lovells.

They took down the wall and put up the railings but I couldn’t save the steam crane, which I would have loved to do. It was cut up for scrap which paid for the railings. I made a garden for the neighbours, built the greenhouse and started a gardening business.

The ‘garden for the neighbours’, of course, is the delightful little garden on the riverfront we know and love now. Few of us have actually been able to step inside, but anyone can peer through the railings and sigh a little sigh of rural contentment. What I love about it is its simplicity – the dappled greens,  the one or two pots and the handful of daffodils in the spring. Perfect. It could have been a riot of colour or something formal, but this is utterly the right thing for the setting.

Morden College changed the name of the street to Ballast Quay. Not to be outdone, Hilary changed the name of the wharf to Union Wharf. But, she says, the changes were purely cosmetic. Real change came with the failure of the docks and the property booms.

But that’s for next time…

the attachments to this post:

harbourmasters office low
harbourmasters office low

Cutty Sark pub
Cutty Sark pub

Ballast Quay
Ballast Quay

Ballast quay 1930s
Ballast quay 1930s

7 Comments to “Ballast Quay -Part One – Scrap City”

  1. Dan says:

    Superb. Evokes a proper flavour of the time.

  2. Dazza says:

    Thanks for this Phanty.

    I have often wondered what the history of this bit of our forgotten heritage was. Now I know.
    Thanks also to Hilary for saving this little sanctuary for us.
    It’s sad to think that all the characters that used to make Greenwich so unique have been lost to time. I hope all the stories of old are logged in some way by someone somewhere so that, in future, we can marvel at the way people used to live in our santised Greenwich.

  3. Ah, I have a soft spot for Ballast Quay! I learned how to paint in the house at Number 3 in the late 90s by local artist Annette Johnson and of course her daughter Jo grew up there who is also an artist and now a good friend (I met her later when we both had studios in the same building) So I guess I’m third in a series of artists who all have a link to that house! I wonder if Hilary knew Annette?

  4. Mary says:

    I think the stuff about Hilary Peters is really interesting – and I have a lot to be grateful for with the people who run that little garden now.
    Some years ago I did a lot of research in the Morden College archive on Ballast Quay. Unfortunately the deeds can’t be photocopied – or couldn’t then – so this is memory. I think I managed to date the pub and cottages to somewhere between 1809-1820 – the 1690 date is about the founding of Morden College. I know other people have looked at this and may have come up with other conclusions – and there is a book written six or seven years ago by a lady in New Zealand.
    I am quite certain that the previous pubs were on different sites – further back from the river and that the current area was warehouses.
    I would very much recommend anyone interested to go over to Morden College and look at what is a very very wonderful archive.
    But even more – I hope Julian Watson is reading this – there is a whole body of knowledge about Ballast Quay and its role before 1800 – as well as what we now call Crowley Wharf.
    The Harbour Master’s House is interesting too.
    and Hilary is quite right about what it used to be like – and – read Ian Nairn!!

  5. Jeremy says:

    Wonderful stuff.

    Mary- does Ian Nairn cover much in the local area? I went to the RIBA library to have a look at their copy of ‘Outrage’, but spent too much time looking at other stuff before realising the book needed requesting from storage and ran out of time. Doh!

    Can’t wait for the next instalment of Hilary’s story.

  6. I know someone that lived on that terrace, he had two adjacent houses. He placed a life-size wooden horse outside the front door. Lives in Catford now. And does anyone remember the Jools Holland TV film ‘Walking to New Orleans’? The opening scene was shot by Lovells Wharf. Paula Yates saying to Mr Holland and Robbie Coltrane “Ten quid for a bit of businesss in the back of the car…with a rubber.” Robbie Coltrane is brilliant.

  7. Mary says:

    I don’t know any more of what Nairn did than a few of his emotive comments. I do however know someone – er – still on the Council – who always refers to the ‘Union Tavern’.