This article is about industrial history in Greenwich – why it is so important. I am going to try to explain that there is a whole history of unrivalled innovation here. But, which, sadly, we ignore – preferring kings and queens, without knowing about their role in all this – it was because of decisions made by the Tudor monarchs that Greenwich became so important. This article has been put together really quickly – so, it’s all out of my head and no footnotes.
I don’t knew when the start of all this industry was – the earliest I know is the 12th century tide mill which turned up on what we call the Lovells site a few years ago. That is still being researched and dug. Mills worked by the power of the tides tend to be about large scale works – this mill, we suppose, was owned by major landowners, St.Peter’s Abbey , Ghent. So, perhaps we had an early medieval industrial village – based round Ballast Quay – milling and fishing.
Fishing – there was a lot of that. In the 19th century Greenwich fishing fleets were out in the North Sea, catching cod. When the railways came some of the ship owners went up to Grimsby and helped start a new centre there - but that is running ahead of myself.
Fishing meant boat building – and that was certainly going on along the riverfront. Historians have some arguments about the scale of it, but maybe by the late Middle Ages big ships were being built in Deptford – and some were for the King. Henry VIII – we hear a lot about him in Greenwich – but he took the decisions which made our industry so important later. First of all he encouraged what became the Royal Dockyards at Deptford and at Woolwich (and of course, elsewhere) and we can trace all sorts of threads from that in terms of British Naval Power – but also in terms of all sorts of technologies around ship building, and social outputs like the Co-op and trade unions (the first recorded instance of picketing is at Woolwich Dockyard).
But it wasn’t just ships with Henry VIII – he also encouraged all that fancy armour we see in the Tower today and other bits of military innovation in the Great Barn at Greenwich. Over the centuries some of that ended up moving down to Woolwich and became the Royal Arsenal - where they made big, big, big guns and did major research in what could be the biggest factory complex ever – Woolwich trained engineers went out in the 18th and 19th and set up whole industrial complexes with what they had learnt here.
Other bits of Tudor patronage spread from Greenwich to Lewisham to become the Armoury Mill and in the early 19th shifted to Enfield to become the Royal Small Arms factory – and their need for explosives became chemistry and led to the establishment at Waltham Abbey – which leads us on to things like nitro-glycerine, dynamite and, I am afraid, The Bomb. In fact Government sponsored industry spreads all-round the country – and beyond. All over the place are factories which can trace their origins back to a department moved from Greenwich and Woolwich – it could be drawn out and traced like a great family tree. And the resulting technologies were not just about military power but could be used in fields like medicine
I must go back to the chemistry for a bit – and return to the 17th century. After the Restoration various individuals came back from exile on the Continent with all sorts of ideas. One, Nicholas Crispe (he’s buried in Hammersmith) opened a copperas works in Deptford – one of many along the Thames. (And, by the way, the first known mention of coke manufacture is in 1636 in Deptford). Among other things copperas was the earliest way of making sulphuric acid – there is a famous 1845 quotation about how important it is to a developed economy. In time, other chemical entrepreneurs moved to Deptford Creek – there was a Beneke from the family who also produced Felix Mendelssohn and there was wicked Frank Hills – at Deptford they seem to have developed more modern and efficient methods of producing the acid. Just downstream from them in the 19th century John Bennett Lawes discovered how to make modern fertilisers – while Frank Hills changed the gas industry, and, in Germany, Mendelssohn’s son founded chemical works which provided the base for their great industrial expansion.
Back to the river and the ships. A major energy source, of course, was coal – much of it from the north east coal fields. Forget the romantic days of sail in the river –most of the ships were dirty little colliers doing the round trip from Newcastle and Durham, year in year out and much of it was unloaded in a facility off Charlton. Coal fed industry’s need for heat and light. But it was also a major source of raw materials (my PhD was about how they used the chemicals recovered from coal). I have considered writing the history of the industries of the Greenwich Peninsula in terms of coal used as a raw material – all those factories making tar products, even the soap they made was ‘coal tar’.
London River was THE major shipbuilding area in the country up to the late 19th century but Greenwich was never in the same class for that as surrounding areas – give or take a few late aberrations like Blackadder and the two first ro-ro ferries. Frank Hills built his battleships on the other side of the river – have you ever thought what it must have been like to look out and see Warrior being built over on Bow Creek??? In Greenwich Woolwich trained engineers worked at Penn’s great marine engine factory on Blackheath Hill – and pushed at the boundaries of design and innovation. Some of them went off to the provinces to open factories making things like bicycles and sewing machines. Have you any idea of the amount of highly skilled engineering in Greenwich in the 19th and early 20th centuries?? Greenwich was also a centre for barge building – prize winning vessels with design criteria pushed by the skilled workers of firms like Pipers. When the Government began to send battleship orders to the Clyde and Tyne – so Penn’s turned to making cars and lorries, like many others.
So – what has all this got to do with today when it’s all about the internet and stuff like that. Well – lets go down to Enderby Wharf. Contrary to popular belief the Enderby family had their whaling base elsewhere. Their Greenwich works was a rope and canvas factory – and the 1830s they tendered to make some cable which was part of experiment in communication on an early railway. This became the Electric Telegraph – and as the Enderbys left, the factory became Glass Elliott, and then Telcon and now it’s Alcatel. It was under Glass Elliott and, thanks to Brunel’s, Great Eastern, that the underwater cable crossed the Atlantic – and something quite important happened to international finance. It wasn’t just that – cables went round the world from country to country and by the 1920s the Greenwich works had produced the vast majority of them. What hadn’t been made here was made by Siemens of Woolwich (who also produced vast numbers of telephones), Johnson and Phillips of Charlton (who also produced vast quantities of large electrical equipment), and a couple of factories in North Woolwich. Alcatel no longer make the cable itself in Greenwich – they are much too high tech for that - but they will tell you that the underwater cable pushes the signals from your computer round the world a lot faster than the satellites do.
It’s amazing how London gets missed out of all the industrial history books. I know people who can talk in a similar way about industry in the Lee Valley, in Stratford – and about London’s huge aircraft industry. We didn’t have aircraft in Greenwich and, although they did make some railway locos in the Arsenal it wasn’t a big thing. Greenwich was big on the trams though – although I’m afraid it was maintenance and destruction in Charlton.
There is so much I have missed out here – I’ve just tried to pick up the big strands. There was the first power station supplying electricity over a distance ever – built in Deptford by Ferranti, and there was a pioneering local authority heat from waste plant in Plumstead. East Greenwich Gas Works was a very, very late works – but with unbelievably high aspirations and ideas about its perfectibility and it had the biggest gas holders in the world. The biggest glass works in Europe was in Charlton – alongside a bottle works whose production escalated with the start of the NHS. Steel magnate Bessemer was on the Peninsula for a while, along with his chum Walton who invented linoleum – his Greenwich works was his third – making patterned lino in a way which is impossible today. There were the propellers made at Stone’s, including something vast for the Queen Mary. There were the perforations from Harveys – have you seen the film of how they took the fractionating column to Grangemouth up the A5 in the 1950s?? There were the terrible smelly dog food works – added to by smells from soap and glucose. Lots and lots more – read the Greenwich Industrial History blog or join Greenwich Industrial History Society (please!)
What I said at the start is that of this article is that Greenwich industry was about research, skills and innovation. And, look, isn't this important to the way we live today and doesn’t it have some elements of romance in it too??