Once a ford, now a bridge, Deptford’s seen dramatic battles and murky murders in its time.
Once upon a time, even before the Romans turned up to build Londinium, there was an ancient track down to Canterbury and Dover. It crossed the River Ravensbourne at a Deep Ford, and although the Romans made the ancient track into a paved road, and the Deep Ford was eventually superseded by a bridge, it kept the name Deptford, and even the bridge was called Deptford Bridge.
Thus it was that in 1497, when an army of insurgents from Cornwall and southwest England marched on London, hoping to join up with allies from Kent, they were stopped at the bridge by an army from London in what became known as the Battle of Deptford Bridge. And the bridge is still there today, carrying the A2, successor to the Roman road, on its way from London to the Continent. Over time it’s been joined by four more bridges, including a snazzy swinging footbridge. As for the Ravensbourne, that still flows, above ground (unlike most of London’s small rivers), running into the Thames at Deptford Creek, which is its tidal reach.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the reeve (a type of feudal administrator) tells a rather rude story to his fellow religious pilgrims just as they reach Deptford at half past seven in the evening. But Deptford’s history didn’t really get going until the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII established a royal dockyard here. Also in the sixteenth century, the playwright Christopher Marlowe – author of the diabolical tragedy Doctor Faustus – was stabbed to death during a brawl at a Deptford ale-house in decidedly murky circumstances.
In those days Deptford had a manor house called Sayes Court. Although it was replaced with a workhouse, long since demolished, part of the grounds are now Sayes Court Park. Famous residents included the Russian czar Peter the Great, who came here to surreptitiously study a bit of shipbuilding before heading home to have a war with Sweden and found St Petersburg. A statue of him by the river commemorates his stay.
Deptford originally consisted of two parishes, each with its own church: St Paul in the south, and St Nicholas in the north. When the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford was formed in 1900, only the parish of St Paul was included in it, while St Nicholas was shunted off to be part of Greenwich. In 1965, Deptford was merged with Lewisham to form the modern-day Borough of Lewisham, but St Nicholas remained in the Borough of Greenwich, and does so to this day, which is why the borough boundary (despite a 1994 revision) is not the Creek, but runs right through Deptford, following the old parish division. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Church, though it may not be a cathedral like its namesake in the City, is considered one of London’s finest pieces of Baroque architecture.