Category Archives: Maritime London




Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Woolwich was first recorded in 918 as Uuluuich, from the Old English wull, meaning wool, and wic, probably in this context referring to a riverside trading settlement (note, though, that there is also evidence of habitation here  in the earlier – late seventh- or early eighth- century – Anglo-Saxon, Roman and even prehistoric periods).  From the tenth century to the twelfth, it was ruled by the Abbots of St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent, who were given it by Alfred the Great’s daughter Aelfryth.  Woolwich remained a comparatively small rural settlement throughout the remainder of the Medieval period, but burgeoned into an important naval and military base and industrial town in the post-Medieval. Its fortunes began to decline in the twentieth century, after the naval and military bases ceased operations, although it has been undergoing something of  a regeneration in recent years.  Nominally part of Kent throughout much of its history, it is now part of the London Borough of Greenwich.

Woolwich Dockyard




Woolwich Dockyard was originally founded here by Henry VIII in 1512, and remained operational  for nearly four centuries, during which time a  number of historically important ships were built here, including the “Henry Grace a Dieu” or “Great Harry” (in 1514), the “Prince Royal” (in 1610),  the “Sovereign of the Seas” (in 1637), the “Royal Charles” (in 1655), the “Dolphin” (in 1756), and the “Beagle” (in 1820).  It  was finally decommissioned  in 1869.  The oldest surviving building is the Dockyard Office, dating to 1783-4 (which it is now known as the Clock House).  Some associated structures also survive, both in Woolwich and in  the Woolwich Dockyard Estate in North Woolwich (i.e., on the north bank of the Thames).

Woolwich Arsenal







Woolwich Arsenal was originally founded here in 1671, and remained operational for nearly three centuries (i.e., throughout  the most important period of the growth of the British Empire, and both World Wars).  It was finally decommissioned in 1967.   The oldest surviving buildings are the Royal Brass Foundry, dating to 1716-17, and the Beresford Gate, the entrance to the Gun Machining Factory, dating to 1717-20.

The football club now known as the Arsenal was originally founded here – as   Dial Square – in 1886.  It changed its name in 1904, and relocated north of the river to Highbury in 1913.

Church of St Mary Magdalene


The church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1727-39, on or near  the site of an earlier   church, as one of the “fifty new churches” commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1711.  The interior contains a stained-glass window commemorating the seven hundred souls lost in the sinking of the paddle steamer “Princess Alice” in a collision at Tripcock Point in nearby Thamesmead in 1878.


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Shadwell was first recorded in 1222 as Schadewelle, from the Old English sceald, meaning shallow, and wella, meaning spring or stream (*).  In 1228, the Canons of St Paul’s were granted land here.  There was little or no habitation here in the Medieval period.  However,  by the early post-Medieval, sixteenth century, there was a  tidal mill.  And by the late post-Medieval, seventeenth century, there was a thriving maritime industrial town, with wharves, roperies, smithies, tanneries, breweries and taverns.  Records indicate that there were some  8000 people living here by  the end of the seventeenth century,  many of them mariners, watermen or lightermen.  There were 8000 houses here by the end of the eighteenth century, and a wretched poor slum by the nineteenth, which was cleared in the twentieth.  Shadwell is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Church of St Paul


The church of St Paul, “the Church of Sea Captains”, was originally built as a chapel-of-ease in 1656, and subsequently rebuilt as a parish church in 1669, and again, as one of the “Waterloo” churches, in 1820 (by the architect John Walters).

The American President Thomas Jefferson’s mother Jane Randolph was baptised here in 1720; Captain Cook’s son James, in 1763.

(*) Some significant Roman archaeological finds have also been found here, including the remains of a port and a signal tower.  Roman burials were unearthed  here during the development of the seventeenth century.


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Deptford  was first recorded in 1293 as Depeford, meaning deep ford (across the River Ravensbourne, a tributary of the Thames).

The ford, and the trackway leading to and from it, had almost certainly been in existence in the pre-Roman period, and became incorporated into Watling Street in the Roman.


By Medieval times, a small village had sprung up here, on what had by then become part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury, and it was  referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, written in 1400.  The Battle of Deptford Bridge was fought here in 1497.


In later post-Medieval times, the former village  grew into a sizeable town, with strong and lasting links to the Royal Navy, and to maritime trade (including the iniquitous slave trade).  One of the Royal Naval Dockyards was built here in 1513, Trinity House in 1514 (the first master being Captain Thomas Spert of the “Mary Rose”), and the East India Company Yard in 1607.

In 1549, a mock naval battle was staged here for the entertainment of Edward VI; in 1581, Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake here aboard his ship the “Golden Hind(e)”, recently returned from its successful circumnavigation of the globe; and in 1698 the Russian Czar Peter the Great stayed in John Evelyn’s house here in order to study the shipyards.

The area’s comparative prosperity began to decline in the eighteenth century, after the seventeenth-century rebuilding of Chatham Dockyard, which was more accessible to ocean-going shipping, being situated in the Thames estuary, some twenty-five miles further downriver.


The decline continued into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by William Booth’s “Poverty Maps”, and was accelerated by the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War in the twentieth, but is now in the process of being reversed by regeneration.


Deptford was historically part of the county of Kent, but since 1965 has been officially part of Greater London.

Church of St Nicholas



The church of St Nicholas was originally built at least as long ago as the twelfth century, and subsequently rebuilt in the fourteenth or fifteenth century and again, partly through the benefaction of the East India Company,  in the late seventeenth,  around 1697, only to be badly damaged in the Blitz of the twentieth.  The fourteenth- or fifteenth- century tower still stands.


The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe – he of the “mighty line” – is buried in the churchyard, having been murdered in a  nearby tavern in 1593.  There are also a number of surviving post-Medieval memorials in the interior, including those to Sir Richard Browne of Sayers Court (d. 1604), who was John Evelyn’s father-in-law, and to other members of both Browne’s and Evelyn’s families; and to Jonas Shish (d. 1680) and his sons  Michael (d. 1685) and John (d. 1686), all of them Master Shipwrights.  And a late seventeenth-century carved wooden panel of “Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones” that has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, who is known to have once lived and worked nearby.

Nicholas is the patron saint not only of children but also of mariners and fishermen (and of those wrongly condemned).

The Gresham Ship



Today (6th May 2014) I attended an excellent – and free – “Gresham Lecture” at the Museum of London.

The lecture, appropriately enough, was on “The Gresham Ship”, and was by Gustav Milne of the Museum of London and University College London, a leading authority on the subject (and indeed on the Roman to Medieval Port of London).

The – Tudor – ship was discovered in 1846, wrecked, in the Thames Estuary, at a point midway between Southend and Margate, by pioneer divers Charles and John Deane, working out of Whitstable. It is thought to have been outbound from the Port of London, fully laden with a cargo of ingots and bars of various metals, when it sank, possibly after striking a sandbank and losing its rudder. Much of its metal cargo was salvaged in 1846, to be melted down and re-used, under the orders of the then Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports – the Duke of Wellington. Some archaeological artefacts were also recovered at this time, including a silk doublet of Tudor design.

Reconstruction of The Gresham Ship

Reconstruction of The Gresham Ship

A recovered part of the hull of the ship

A recovered part of the hull of the ship

The ship was then re-discovered in 2003, during dredging operations preparatory to the construction of the London Gateway Port. Large sections were recovered during subsequent archaeological work, again by divers. Painstaking reassembly on dry land revealed that a substantial part of the forward half of the hull of the vessel had been preserved, although essentially none of the aft. The intact vessel would probably have measured a little over 80’ from bow to stern, and a little under 25’ from side to side, and weighed some 160 tons, making it similar in size to Drake’s Golden Hinde (a reconstruction of which is to be seen in Mary Overie Dock alongside Southwark Cathedral). It was carvel-built, of robust construction, and fitted with gun ports, making it a type known as an “armed merchantman”.

Four cannon were recovered during the recent archaeological work (and it is likely that up to eight others were recovered in the nineteenth century). One was an antiquated wrought iron breech-loader, and another a cast iron muzzle-loader, and all were of different sizes and calibres, and took different sizes and calibres of shot. Other metal finds included some surviving ingots of lead and tin, whose isotopic signature indicates a British origin; and some bars of iron, folded over up to four times to save space, of Rhenish origin. Small finds included an ornate salt-cellar, possibly from the Captain’s table; and a pair of leather boots, possibly kicked off by a drowning seaman.

Gresham's Grasshopper insignia on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham’s Grasshopper insignia on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham's initials on one of the recovered cannon

Gresham’s initials on one of the recovered cannon

Significantly, one of the cannon recovered from the ship during the recent archaeological work bore the initials T.G., together with the grasshopper insignia of the City merchant Thomas Gresham, which is how came to be known as “The Gresham Ship”.



Thomas Gresham lived from 1519-79, founding what was to become known as the Royal Exchange in 1571, and, by bequest, Gresham College in 1597.

Further evidence for the – precise – age of “The Gresham Ship” has been provided by recent dendrochronological (tree ring) analysis of the ship’s timbers, which has yielded a felling date of 1574. Given what was happening in the Old World – and the New – in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, the ship is likely to have been involved in some combination of trade, exploration and war. This was the time of the granting of charters to the Muscovy, Eastland, Levant, Barbary, East India and Virginia Companies of Merchant-Adventurers, and the rebuilding of the Custom House; of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, and Ralegh and Frobisher’s voyages of discovery; and of the Spanish Armada, and the “privateers”. Thirty-four London ships joined the fight against the Spanish Armada. And seventy became “privateers”, capturing seventy-one foreign ships and their prize cargoes, valued at £100, 000 (at least £15, 000, 000 in today’s terms, according to the National Archives currency convertor). London’s “sea dogs”, sponsored by City merchants, claimed more booty than those of Cornwall, Devon, Bridgwater and Bristol combined!

Evidence has recently come to light that suggests that “The Gresham Ship” might actually be the Cherabin, which surviving historical records indicate was owned by the Levant Company between 1590-1600; served under Thomas Howard as a privateer in the Azores in 1591, capturing prize cargoes of sugar, ginger, and suchlike, valued at £2, 000 (at least £300, 000 in today’s terms); and, significantly, sank, in the Kentish Flats, in 1603.

The reconstructed hull of the ship in its new location

The reconstructed hull of the ship in its new location

The reassembled hull of “The Gresham Ship” – or Cherabin – has recently been relocated to what is essentially an underwater museum at the National Diving Centre at Stoney Cove in Leicestershire, visited by up to 30, 000 divers of all ages and abilities each year. It is being used there to inspire and train the next generation of maritime archaeologists.

Finds from the ship will constitute one of the most important exhibits in a new – overground – museum in Southend, currently still under construction, and scheduled for completion in 2018. (The “Prittlewell Prince” will also be on exhibit there).

Maritime Rotherhithe and the Mayflower

Rotherhithe was first recorded as Rederheia in around 1105, and as Rotherhith alias Redderiffe in 1621.  It takes its name from the Old English “redhra”, meaning mariner, and “hyth”, meaning haven.

King Edward III Manor House plaque

King Edward III Manor House plaque

Rotherhithe appears to have been a small settlement surrounding the church of St Mary in the Medieval period, when Edward III had a retreat on the river here, built in 1349; and then to have undergone a major phase of development in the Post-Medieval, when a timber wall and number of yards were built along the river-front.

Remains of King Edward III Manor House

Remains of King Edward III Manor House

St Mary's Church (rebuilt in the eighteenth century)

St Mary’s Church (rebuilt in the eighteenth century)

Mayflower plaque, St Mary's

Mayflower plaque, St Mary’s

The Mayflower set sail from here in 1620 for Plymouth and eventually the Americas.  Among those on board was one Dorothea or Dorothy Bradford, nee May, a distant relative of mine, on a different branch of the family tree, similarly descended from Robert Belknap (1330-1401).

Memorial to the Mayflower passengers who died at sea, Provincetown

Memorial to the Mayflower passengers who died at sea, Provincetown

Dorothea drowned when she slipped or, according to one account, jumped overboard from the Mayflower off Cape Cod on December 17th, 1620 (an incident recalled in Adrian Tinniswood’s excellent recent book “The Rainborowes”).  Her widower William Bradford went on to become the Governor of the Plymouth Colony (and also, incidentally, to write its first history).

Mayflower plaque, Mayflower public house

Mayflower public house – in Rotherhithe

Maritime Ratcliff – and Martin Frobisher

Ratcliff, also known as Ratcliffe, was first recorded, as la Rede clive, in 1294.  It takes its name from the Old English “read”, meaning red, and “clif”, meaning cliff, in reference to the colour of the soil on the bank of the Thames here.  The river-front became built up and industrialised as long ago as the fourteenth century, when  ships were built or fitted out here.   Ratcliff  was then connected to the City by the “Highway”, much travelled by Pepys, and probably originally a Roman road.  The highway was the scene of a series of shocking murders in 1811, and went on in Victorian times to acquire a reputation as “the head-quarters of unbridled vice and drunken violence – of all that is dirty, disorderly and debased”!

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

The sometime privateer and merchant-adventurer Martin Frobisher (1535?-94) set sail on board the Gabriel from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of his three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage to China, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s  gold”.   The site is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park.

Frobisher went on to become a naval commander, and was knighted for his service in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

He died of wounds sustained in another naval action against the Spanish in 1594.  His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body  in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher portrait

Frobisher portrait. Note the Baggy Trousers – called Venetians. Image © The National Portrait Gallery

A portrait of him, commissioned by the Cathay Company, and painted by the Dutch artist Cornelis Ketel, which normally hangs in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was included in the “Elizabeth I & Her  People” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (10th October 2013 – 5th January 2014).  The superbly illustrated exhibition catalogue of the same title by Tarnya Cooper can be purchased both from the National Portrait Gallery and other good bookshops, including Waterstones.

Maritime Blackwall, the Virginia Settlers and the East India Company

Blackwall was first recorded in 1377.   It takes its name from the Old English “blaec”, meaning black, and “wall”, in reference to an artificial embankment put up here to hold back the waters of the Thames.

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

The Virginia Settlers

The Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith  (1580-1631) set sail aboard the Susan Constant from Blackwall in 1606 to establish the first English colony in the Americas, at Jamestown in Virginia,  “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples”.

There is a memorial  to the  Virginia Settlers on Virginia Quay in Blackwall, and a plaque to Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery,  on Limehouse Causeway in nearby Limehouse, where he was born in 1560/1.

 Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

John Smith is commemorated by a statue in the churchyard of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London, and by a stained glass window in the church of St Sepulchre on Newgate Street, where he was buried in 1633.  Incidentally, the Algonquin Princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in the Americas, later visited London, staying at the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill, and died at Gravesend on her way home.

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith window, St Sepulchre

Smith window, St Sepulchre

The East India Company

The East India Company established a shipyard and  docks in Blackwall in 1614.  The  docks came to be owned by the East India Dock Company, which considerably extended them in the nineteenth century; and in turn by the Port of London Authority, in the twentieth.  They  have been disused for nearly fifty years now, although some interesting structures still survive.

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The entrance to the - nineteenth-century - pepper warehouse in East India Dock.  Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)

The entrance to the – nineteenth-century – pepper warehouse in East India Dock. Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)