currently doing a design project at my university and want to know more about the maritime history of greenwich. love reading your blog posts so was wondering whether you could do an interesting one on the maritime aspect of greenwich? also interested if theres any old lighthouses around and how the sea man found their way before light houses?
The Phantom replies
Greenwich IS maritime history, really, and there’s far too much for a single blog post. It’s really a case of just getting out and doing a bit of reading, and a bit of looking. The Maritime Museum is a good place to start; their Caird Library will be invaluable, as will Greenwich Heritage Centre.
But hey, I’ll do a short potted history of Greenwich’s watery history (from memory, so do check, eh…)
Basically, Greenwich is important because of its place in the Thames – it’s nestled in a bend there, which gives shelter for shipping and relatively safe waters. It’s a little way outside London proper, which gives it a good strategic position – a defensive one at the peninsula and almost a ‘gateway’ a little further up.
The Romans came up there and there is some evidence of a temple in the park, which would have been about half way between the river and the old Watling Street.
The Vikings also came up the river and parked their longboats on the shallow beach at Greenwich. St Alfege was murdered here by the Danes in 1012, pretty much where the church is now.
Greenwich was generally a fishing village, and before the five foot walk was built it had a much longer foreshore.
Because royalty chose to build their palaces in Greenwich, the two main dockyards were either side, in Deptford and Woolwich, but there was much pagentry and pomp on the water at Greenwich. The river was used for the main transport as the roads were so bad, so kings, queens, gentry and the general populace all used the Thames – whether by their own private barges or using the services of lightermen.
Greenwich was big for two things – royalty and sailors – and when the royalty left, the sailors took over. Current sailors, using the town for carousery and old sailors, Greenwich Pensioners from Greenwich Hospital, using the town for – well, much the same, really.
Greenwich’s finest maritime moment was in 1806 when Admiral Lord Nelson’s body, which had lain in state after the Battle of Trafalgar, was taken up to St Pauls Cathedral along the river in a great ceremonial procession.
During the 19th Century the docks grew enormous. The river was being used for cargo, transport, military and less salubrious purposes and got massively busy but pretty disgusting. Two foot tunnels were built to allow workers to get to work in the docks, which kissed goodbye to the lightermen.
As the docks subsided in the late 20th Century the river became quiet – but it is currently the cleanest it’s been in centuries.
We’re currently home to the Cutty Sark of course, though we lost the Gipsy Moth IV because we couldn’t be bothered to look after her.
We’re looking at a new age of shipping though, with that giagantic new cruise liner terminal. It will be interesting to see.
Lighthouses. Frankly lighthouses have been with us since ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians so it’s been a long time since seamen have had to be without them, but generally in areas without them it’s always been down to the skill of the individual sea captain. It doesn’t always work, as the case of the Costa Concordia proves…
There’s just the one around these parts, at Trinity Buoy Wharf, across the river from the Dome. It’s a testing lighthouse – used to test out new lamps etc, so not really used ‘in anger.’ You can get in there on high days and holidays (the whole of Trinity Buoy Wharf is worth a visit) and inside there’s a strange sound installation called Long Player by Jem Finer, which will be tingin and bonging to itself for the next 1000 years. There are also two lightships at the wharf. If you look down from the cable car you should be able to see them.
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