Victorian Greenwich Itinerary

Don’t know if you remember John Townsend – actor, radical, auctioneer, MP? We talked about him back in 2010 – a real Greenwich character.

We talked about him again later that year when a Canadian descendent of his, Bonnie Buxton, got in touch. She now tells me that she’s met another Canadian, a TV technician also seeking his family history (through the blog – how odd is that…) and that he’s been doing some research about what happened to Townsend after he’d emigrated to the land of Maples and Mooses.

He found some fabulous cuttings from papers of the day – including a call-out of the local fire brigade after the ‘fire effect’ proved to be a bit too realistic.

Scott presented Bonnie with a file of information gleaned about our Greenwich actor – including evidence that Sarah, his wife was locked up in Hamilton Insane Asylum in 1889 – probably for the heinous crime of suffering from Altzheimer’s. Townsend himself probably died a pauper.

Bonnie’s now met dozens of distant relatives and is all fired up to come to Britain to see John and Sarah Townsend’s old haunts. She says:

My husband and I are going to England in late May, and I would like to spend a few days soaking up the historic atmosphere of Greenwich.How do I get there from London? Where’s a good place to stay? What would have been there in 1850 when Old John had to resign from his seat? I know he was popular because he got the dock workers a raise. What can I see there now?

First things first. It’s pretty easy to get to Greenwich from the centre of town – from ancient to modern. The Docklands Light Railway runs from Bank or Tower Gateway to Greenwich Cutty Sark or mainline station (which Townsend would have known – it’s not changed much). John may have taken the train on his trips up to Westminster (trains from Cannon Street, London Bridge or Charing Cross; sometimes you have to change at London Bridge) but my wager is that he took the boat all the way there.

You still can – and unless the weather is a total mare, the boat is probably my favourite. Don’t get the tourist barges, get the Thames Clipper – a comfortable and clean trip and if it’s a nice day you can stand outside at the back. It’s probably the priciest option but you can at least use your Oyster card (most of the time they make you buy a ticket before you board, even with the Oyster, which seems ridiculous to me…) It will let you off at Greenwich Pier, pug-ugly but at least pretty much exactly where John Townsend would have trod.

The pretty little Victorian waiting room went a few years ago – you’ll have to go to St Kitts if you want to see it now. Deemed past it by Greenwich, the Caribbean island seems to have disagreed. Not sure if it’s out yet – would love to see a picture of it in use.

In fact there’s less around from John Townsend’s day than you might think. We have the very old stuff – the Observatory and the Old Royal Naval College, the Queen’s House and St Alfege Church, but early to mid Victorian buildings are a bit rarer. The Market would have been familiar to John – built in 1831/2 by Joseph kay, it would have been comparatively new.

There’s very little left of the original Greenwich Theatre of 1871 – it’s on the same site, but has been pretty much gutted and rebuilt after falling into disrepair, though if you go down Nevada street there is still something of what it might have looked like.

Townsend would have known Crooms Hill, Hyde Vale and the surrounding areas, such as Royal Hill, though the Royal Hill Lecture Hall, where he gave his swansong performance, is long gone. The art deco Borough Hall is now in its place if memory serves.

If you go up Greenwich High Road, you’ll come to the old Lovibonds brewery, now Davey’s wine bar. It still has the sloping floors so they could literally roll out the barrels. The Mitre pub, next door to St Alfege church, would also have been known to Townsend.

And there I begin to run out. So, folks. Early to mid Victorian buildings still extant in Greenwich, please…


6 Comments to “Victorian Greenwich Itinerary”

  1. Andy Sanderson says:

    How about the Trafalgar Tavern, built in 1837 – the year of Victoria’s accession?

  2. Indeed – perfect. Any more?

  3. Benedict says:

    Not sure about the Victorian buildings but being Canadian surely you would be interested to see James Wolfe’s (The Victor of Quebec as a plaque reads on his house by the park) resting place at St Alpheges or his statue overlooking The Queens house and Naval College.

  4. Strongarm says:

    Maybe he’d know the Man on the Moon on Old Woolwich Road?

  5. Meirion says:

    For some reason the Trafalgar Tavern (can’t think why) reminds me of the biggest and most successful Victorian building in London, Bazalgette’s sewers – all 318 million bricks of them. So while they are visiting Davy’s Wine Bar they could pop along the High Rd to wave at Greenwich Pumping Station which was built just before Townsend steamed off to Canada. Originally it was called Deptford Pumping Station – has Greenwich spread? I thought the Creek was always the border.

  6. David Whittaker says:

    College Place East on Maidenstone Hill dates from 1845, College Place West from about 1850, the low ‘evens’ on MH by Point Hill from the early 1800s, and what was Maidenstone House, in between CPE and CPW, dates from the late 18th century.