History of Deptford

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The “deep ford” which gave Deptford its name crossed the River Ravensbourne at what is now Deptford Bridge. It was on the ancient road from London to Canterbury and Dover, and Deptford is mentioned in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. One part of Deptford grew up here, beside the ford and the later bridge. The other part was the fishing village beside the Thames called Deptford Strand. There were fields between the two settlements until the nineteenth century.

In 1513 Henry VIII founded a dockyard at Deptford to build ships for the Royal Navy. In the eighteenth century a Victualling Yard was established alongside, where ships’ stores and provisions were assembled. The Dockyard closed in 1869.

After use as a cattle market and in other military and industrial capacities the area is now being redeveloped for housing. The Victualling Yard remained until 1961. Its site is now occupied by the Pepys Estate. Samuel Pepys often visited the Dockyard when he was Clerk to the Navy Board, and his friend and fellow-diarist John Evelyn lived here, in the manor house called Sayes Court.

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The Royal Dockyard, other shipbuilding yards and maritime industries made Deptford a prosperous place, particularly in time of war. Many fine houses were built, of which some survive in Deptford High Street and Albury Street. But the good times ended when ship building on the Thames declined after 1815. Although other industries partially filled the gap Deptford became a place of overcrowded housing and insufficient employment.

Charities were established to cope with some of the problems. The Deptford Fund, set up by the Duchess of Albany, was the biggest. Margaret and Rachel McMillan, the pioneers of nursery education, established a nursery school in Deptford a century ago. Margaret later founded a training college for nursery teachers, named after Rachel. They believed that early years education could counter some of the effects of poverty.

London’s first railway, from London to Greenwich, was built through Deptford in 1836.