Early History

Early History Page

The Greenwich Peninsula is formed by a major meander of the River Thames, where but for human intervention, an ox-bow lake would have been formed centuries ago. The peninsula is bounded on three sides by the River Thames and the southern boundary is today easily defined by the main road between Woolwich and Greenwich (Woolwich Road and Trafalgar Road). This enclosed land mass comprises some 580 acres. Historically this area has been called Greenwich Marsh and the Greenwich Level, because it was both marshland and flat. What is now Enderby Wharf is situated in the south-west corner of this land.

Bronze Age to the Saxons

Little is known about human activity on the peninsula during this early period, although it is probable that early communities did live on the densely-forested flood plains of the lower Thames. Previously conducted archaeological studies have revealed a small number of Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts close to the Enderby Wharf site, including flints, hand axes and an antler picks. Evidence of a Neolithic settlement was discovered at Greenwich Wharf to the south-west, and a possible Bronze Age timber walk was uncovered in 2005 at Bellot Street to the south-east of Enderby Wharf. The finds on these sites provide some evidence to suggest tree felling and peat cutting, which would indicate that there was some human habitation on the peninsula during these early periods.

An extremely small number of Iron Age artefacts have been discovered during archaeological studies on the peninsula, which may indicate that there was different usage of the land in the period leading up to the Roman invasions.

There are no records that show activity on the peninsula during the Roman occupation of England. However, there is some speculation that there could have been some settlement on the marshes during this period, with a possible river crossing to Coldharbour on the north bank of the Thames, and even attempts to protect the riverbank with a sea wall. However, surveys conducted by professional archaeologists at a number of locations on the peninsula have yet to substantiate or refute these theories.

From the Saxons to the Tudors

Archaeological work carried out to date across the Greenwich Peninsula has in general indicated that during the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods, the majority of the peninsula lay either underwater, or was an uninhabited marshland subject to seasonal flooding, with gradual reclamation performed from the Medieval period onwards.

The first written evidence of a settlement at Greenwich comes with the arrival of the Saxons, who named the area Grenewic, or Grenevic; this is thought to mean green village or possibly green place on the bay.

The first recorded evidence of ownership of the land that is now known as Enderby Wharf is from the 10th Century, when the peninsula was made up of two estates; one named ‘Old Court Manor’ and the other ‘Combe Manor’. Old Court Manor was some 276 acres, within which the 14 acres of the Enderby Wharf site is situated.

Baldwin II (c.865-918) was the second Margrave (roughly equivalent to Count) of Flanders, who married Ælfthryth (877-929), the youngest daughter of Alfred the Great (849-99). Upon Baldwin’s death in 918, Ælfthryth endowed the estates of Old Court Manor and Combe Manor to the Abbey of St. Peter at Ghent. This is confirmed by charters dated 11 September 918, which are held in the Abbey’s archive. At the time of Baldwin’s death, Alfred’s son Edward the Elder (c.877-924) was king of the Saxons. The estates remained under the control of the Abbey during the reigns of the next six kings, Ælthestan (894-939), Edmund I (921-46), Eadred (c.920-55), Edwig (c.941-59), Edgar the Peaceful (c.943-75), and Edward the Martyr (c.962-78). Edward was then succeeded by his half-brother, Æthelred the Unready (968-1016), who was only ten years old when he came to the throne.

Æthelred was king of the English for two periods, (978-1013) and (1014-1016). During his first reign, the Vikings invaded England, and from 1009 onwards a Viking fleet was stationed in the River Thames off Greenwich. In addition, they set up an army encampment on Blackheath. From there they made numerous excursions further inland, causing havoc wherever they went. Records indicate that they sacked 16 of the 32 shires that then existed.

In the year 1011, the Vikings sacked the city of Canterbury, kidnapping Archbishop Alphege and keeping him prisoner for seven months in their camp at Greenwich. When he refused to authorise the demanded ransom of 60 talents, he was executed. Alphege was canonised, and a parish church was built, and later dedicated to him, on the scene of his martyrdom. The existing church of St Alfege in Greenwich town centre was consecrated in 1718 and is the third church of that name to stand on the same site.

Some vestiges of these Viking camps can still be traced in the place and street names of Eastcombe and Westcombe, coomb being the Viking word for camp. Both names were used for estates which were later within in the parish of Greenwich, on the borders of Blackheath. Throughout this period the Enderby Wharf land was under Viking control.

During the Viking occupation of England, Æthelred’s son Edward took refuge in St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent, only returning to England in 1042 as King Edward the Confessor (1003-66). In appreciation of the sanctuary and shelter provided to him by the Abbey, in 1044 Edward reconfirmed the Abbey’s ownership of the peninsula lands. William the Conqueror (1028-87) endorsed this ownership in 1081.

At the time of the Domesday survey (1085-86), the land on the Greenwich Peninsula was known as ‘The Manor of East Greenwich’. The lands remained under the control of the Abbey until the ‘Suppression of the Alien Priories’, when in 1414, under a statute signed by Henry V (1387-1422), the Manor of East Greenwich became Crown land. As a result, for a period close to five hundred years, there are very few records of the usage of this land, other than the names of lessees to whom the Abbey sublet its estates.

In 1415, the Manor of East Greenwich was given to the Carthusian Priory of Jesus at Bethlehem, in Shene, and remained under its control until the end of the Plantagenet dynasty in 1485, when Henry Tudor (1457-1509) became Henry VII.

In 1443 the Palace of Placentia was built by Humphrey Plantagenet (1390-1447), first Duke of Gloucester, on the site of what is now the Old Royal Naval College. It became the favourite summer palace of the Tudor monarchs, rather than the older Eltham Palace, which had been the seat of the Kings of England since Edward II (1284-1327) had acquired it in 1305.

When Henry VII came to the throne, he was more tolerant of the presence of monks on the peninsula than his son, Henry VIII (1491-1547), proved to be. In the year 1530, before Henry began the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ (1535-1541), he obtained from the prior of Shene a covenant of grant for the Manor of East Greenwich, in exchange for the monastery of Bradwell in Buckinghamshire and other lands. In 1538, Henry gave Old Court Manor, part of the Manor of East Greenwich, to Sir Richard Long (1494-1546), for life. On Long’s death, King Edward VI (1537-53) gave the manor to Sir Thomas Speke (1508-51) for the remainder of his life. However, in 1550, Speke gave it to John Dudley (c.1502-1553), Earl of Warwick, who conveyed it back to the King within a few months. In 1551, Edward VI granted the office of steward of Old Court Manor to Sir Thomas Darcy (1508-1558). In 1554, early in the reign of Mary Tudor (1516-58), it was taken from Darcy and leased to Sir Henry Jerningham (c.1509-1572), a staunch supporter of Mary during the crisis of succession in 1553. When Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) came to the throne in 1858, despite Jerningham’s support of Mary, he was able to retain ownership of the majority of Old Court Manor until his death.

During the reign of Elizabeth I letters patent were issued appointing a Steward of the Manor of Pleasaunce in East Greenwich. This Manor then included eighty or more acres of ‘Marsh Lands’. These were on the western side of the marsh and were part of the demesne of the Lordship of Old Court Manor. The Manor of Pleasaunce had been Crown land from the time of Henry III (1207-72). In 1572, the lease of the Manor of Old Court passed to Sir George Howard (1525-1580), brother of Catherine Howard (1521-1542). In 1580, the Manor came under the control of Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91), Lord Chancellor and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.

After Hatton’s death, the manor passed to Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), 1st Earl of Dorset, who was related to Anne Boleyn (c.1501-36). He was the last to have stewardship over Old Court Manor during the reign of the Tudor Monarchs.

The Stuarts and the Commonwealth

On the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James Stuart, the grandson of Mary Queen of Scots, who was then James IV of Scotland, united the Scottish and English crowns by becoming James I of England and Ireland on 24 March 1603. In 1604, Old Court Manor was taken from Thomas Sackville by the King and given to Robert Cecil (c.1563-1612). Cecil had risen quickly under James; he was created Baron in 1603, Viscount in 1604, and Earl of Salisbury in 1605. Before Cecil’s death the manor was transferred to the explorer John Eldred (1552-1632) and William Whitmore (1573-1648), a specialist in the purchase and sale of Crown lands. However, in 1613 the manor was settled on Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to James I, for her life. On her death, it was put in trust for Prince Charles Stuart (1600-1649). He ascended to the throne as Charles I in 1625 and Old Court Manor was transferred to the Trustees of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69), Charles’s wife.

The English Civil War ran from 1642 to 1651, and after Charles I was executed in 1649 the Commonwealth was formed. All Crown lands were confiscated, and many were sold. Old Court Manor was sold to Robert Tichborne (1604-82). Tichborne fought alongside Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and was made Lieutenant of the Tower of London in 1647. He was an extreme republican and was a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant. In 1651 he was appointed as a member of the commission set up to resolve the government of Scotland. He sat for London in the ‘Little Parliament’ (4 July – 12 December 1653), and having been knighted in 1655 he sat in Cromwell’s House of Lords. He became Lord Mayor of London in 1656. He was one of the ‘Conservators of Liberty’, set up by the New Model Army, in 1659. On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he forfeited all his lands and was sentenced to death, but this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Charles II (1630-85) had been declared King of Scotland by the Scottish parliament in January 1649, after the execution of his father, a reign that lasted until September 1651. With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the Commonwealth collapsed, and Charles was invited back to England in May 1660. Crown lands were restored to the King and Old Court Manor was returned to the Queen Mother, until her death. In 1672, the Manor was transferred to Charles’s wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). In 1676, Charles II awarded Sir William Boreman (c.1617-1686) a ninety-nine years lease on Old Court Manor. In 1672, Boreman endowed a school for 20 poor boys born in Greenwich, the sons of seamen, watermen and fishermen; it was called the ‘Green Coat School’. This school and associated lands were endowed to the Draper’s Company in 1684 and form part of the present-day William Boreman Foundation. Upon Boreman’s death in 1686, his will left the lease of Old Court Manor to his wife Margarette, who sold it to Sir John Morden (1623-1708), in 1698. In the following year, Sir John obtained from the Crown a grant of perpetuity for Old Court Manor.

Ditches, Sea Walls and Sluices

As already stated, the Greenwich Peninsula is low-lying land subject to flooding, and to make it suitable for agriculture, and later industry, required major civil engineering. During the reign of Edward II (1284-1327), many breaches of the riverbank along the lower Thames were recorded, and in 1315 a commission was set up to maintain the river walls and ditches. Over the next hundred years the commission dealt with numerous breaches of the river walls and flooding of the Greenwich Peninsula. During the 15th and 16th centuries, several attempts were made to reclaim and protect some of the land, but these met with limited success.

In 1531, during the reign of Henry VIII, an Act of Sewers was passed, which set out in great detail the duties and powers of Commissioners and governed their works. Gradually a permanent pattern emerged in the London area of seven commissions, five north and two south of the Thames, with, after the Great Fire (1666), a separate commission for the City of London. The London commissioners had more extensive powers than those in other parts of the country, with control over all watercourses and ditches within two miles of the City of London, as well as newly constructed drains and sewers.

In 1546, another Act of Parliament was passed by Henry to enforce that each and every land-owner of Combe Marsh (part of Combe Manor), in the parish of East Greenwich, was to pay and contribute, from time to time, towards the expense of repairing, maintaining and supporting the sea-wall, embankments, etc. Although no record exists, it is probable that this diktat would also have applied to the marshland of Old Court Manor, including the land that became Enderby Wharf.

At some time before 1600, the River Thames broke its banks quite extensively at a point now known as Bay Wharf, downstream to the north of Enderby Wharf. This is referred to in subsequent documents and maps as ‘The Great Breach’ or ‘Horse Shoe Breach.’ The bank was never repaired along its original line; however, in 1842, a contractor named Flowers, who was conducting excavations to extend West India Dock, approached the Morden College Trustees, who owned the land, with a proposal to deposit spoil in the breach and on the surrounding land. This proposal was accepted, and later, a new river wall was constructed in a large loop to the eastward of the original line of the riverbank, creating the inlet that is today Bay Wharf.

The first Court of Sewers covering the Thames in the County of Kent, from ‘Lambardes Wall’ to Ravensbourne, was set up on 24 September 1624. Shortly afterwards, the ‘Court of Sewers’ for East Greenwich was set up to regulate the work of drainage of the marsh, and to apportion the liability for the work among the various owners and tenants. The minutes of this ‘Marsh Court’, dating from 1625, are still in existence, and are in the possession of the London Metropolitan Archive.

During the early 17th Century, engineers were brought in to build sea walls, dig drainage ditches and construct sluices. The term ‘sea wall’ was used because the River Thames at Greenwich is tidal. This work was virtually complete by 1625 and, although the names of the men who carried out this major civil engineering project are not recorded, it is believed that they were Dutch, because they had vastly superior experience of this type of work than that of their English counterparts. The engineers created a network of ditches and dykes furnished with sluices to draw the water away from the marsh, making much more of the marsh useable for grazing and farming than had previously been possible. The two main drainage outlets were Bendish Sluice, which discharged into the river on the west side, alongside the causeway and steps at Enderby Wharf, and Arnold’s Sluice, which was about 300 yards (274m) to the southeast of the Blackwall Point. There was another about 600 yards (549m) to the southwest of the Blackwall Point and a fourth, King’s Sluice, near the eastern extremity of the marsh, close to Horn Lane. These drains, ditches and dykes would come to define the boundaries of land ownership on the marsh for years to come.

Drainage System

The Drainage System on Greenwich March

To the eastern side of the peninsula, can be seen Lombard Wall. This wall was an embankment built by William Lambarde (1536-1601) to prevent flooding of his property. He had inherited West Combe Manor, which included some lands on the eastern side of the marsh. From 1555, this embankment appears in the records as Lambarde’s Wall, but over time it has been corrupted to Lombard Wall. In the 1960s this wall could still be seen on land belonging to G A Harvey & Co, but now it is only commemorated in the street name, ‘Lombard Wall’, where it stood.

Probably due to the extremely high risk of flooding, there was little or no agriculture on the marshes until the drainage systems were constructed in the early 17th Century. Prior to that time, the marsh land around Enderby Wharf was used almost exclusively for hunting and fowling by its wealthy owners and for many years there were gates with a gatekeeper to stop casual visitors. Even after 1625, it is probable that no one lived on the marsh and few if any buildings existed, apart from some cattle sheds, sheep pens and barns.

Records from the end of the 17th Century indicate that the improved marshland was mainly used for the grazing of sheep and cattle, and that the only crops grown there were reeds and osier, harvested to support basket-making. Also, at that time, the Thames supported a fishing industry with catches of salmon, whitebait and other species in the river. Greenwich was famous for its whitebait for many years and was one of the main ports from which fish was sent up river to market in London. ‘Watermen’ also used the marshland to trap eels and pike. Records show that in 1694, a waterman was evicted from his marshland landing-place for unspecified reasons.

The Gunpowder Magazine

The first industrial facility on the Greenwich Peninsula was built on the land that is now part of the Enderby Wharf sdevelopment. This was not part of the land acquired by Sir John Morden in 1698, but was contiguous to it and had remained Crown Land. In support of the early armaments industry, there was a need for the storage, testing and distribution of gunpowder. Up until late in the 17th Century, gunpowder was stored in the Tower of London, but in early 1694 the Ordnance Office advised the Treasury that a new ‘Powder Magazine’ was needed, as the Tower stores were full. A site where gunpowder could be delivered by the manufacturers, then tested and distributed, was required. In addition, a place was needed for the manufacture of slow matches for matchlock muskets (the predecessors of flint locks). What was required was a remote, riverside site near London, and Greenwich marsh was seen as ideal. The site chosen to build the gunpowder magazine was on the west bank of the marsh, on land that is now part of the Enderby Wharf development.

Gunpowder Magazine

View of the Gunpowder Magazine looking toward the River Thames

The gunpowder magazine went into operation in 1695. To facilitate delivery of gunpowder to the site and allow the embarkation/disembarkation of crew, a jetty, causeway and steps were built on the river bank for the first time, at what is now Enderby Wharf. However, as the town of Greenwich expanded, the location of the magazine became a major cause of concern for the local populace, and there is a record of a petition submitted in 1758 by the affluent residents of Greenwich concerning the state of the magazine ‘a quarter of a mile distant from their dwellings,’ and asking for its removal in view of the dangers it posed to them and their property. Due to ongoing public protest about the risk of explosions, the magazine was finally shut down in 1769 and the gunpowder was moved to Purfleet, although it appears that the gunpowder store itself was not entirely demolished until 1771. The land then fell into disuse for several years, and the ruins of the magazine, as well as the dilapidated jetty with the abandoned steps and causeway, were still there in 1794.

Map Gunpowder Magazine

Map of the Gunpowder Magazine

The site lay idle for several years, but by the end of the 17th Century part of it appears to have been leased as a bleach works. This was little more than a cottage industry, and a summer-only activity at that, as it initially relied heavily on sunlight combined with sour milk and water as the bleaching agents. The linen was laid out in the fields, where it was sheltered from the wind by beech hedges, and the water to wash the linen was brought from the River Thames. As bleaching techniques developed further, vitriol – the common name at that time for sulphuric acid – became the main bleaching agent, and this was then produced on the site.

At about the same time the remainder of the site became a rope manufactory.

To find out more about rope making on the site go to The Hemp & Ropeworks Page (Click Here)

To return the story of submarine cable manufacture go to The 1857 Cable Page (Click Here)