Last year a mystery gripped Deptford so puzzling it brought the whole community together in unified head scratching and brow furrowing. The once monolithic anchor at the mouth of its high street disappeared in a flurry of yellow JCBs and hoarding, a scar from an ongoing urban facelift. Suddenly, Deptford’s metal doorman had stood down from duty and no one could fathom why. Lewisham Council promised it was safe and well, being kept in a storage facility near the somewhat controversial Convoys Wharf site (more on that later).
The anchor saga reflects a larger narrative. How do we balance emotional ties to the past with future practicalities when designing London’s social architecture? For Deptford, this is a particular concern given that the area is one of the oldest areas of London with a tangible, geographically distinct history.
Deptford began life as a ford of the Ravensbourne, part of the the Celtic trackway later paved by the Romans and developed into Watling Street in medieval times, part of the pilgrimage route in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. During Tudor times Deptford developed as a modest fishing village, that was until Henry VIII developed the site into a royal dock, a practice which continued well into the second half of the nineteenth century. The docks played an important role in Elizabethan exploration, vital for international trade and home to the East India Trading Company for over a hundred years. In 1858, the Royal Victoria Yard, now the site of the Pepys Estate, was established. This was a massive facility which included warehouses, a bakery, cattleyard and sugar store.
New and more easily accessible docks at Plymouth and Portsmouth meant the ship building business began to slide as early as the eighteenth century. The docks were then used primarily to provide ships with food and supplies. At its peak in 1907, over 200,000 animals were imported through its market. During the World Wars, the docks were used as reserve depots, but were subsequently left unused until they were purchased by newsprint importers Convoys Wharf, later under the ownership of News International.
The closure of the docks led to much economic decline in the twentieth century. This, coupled with extensive bomb damage, led to high unemployment in an area whose pre-war high street has been painted as ‘the Oxford Street of South London’. This, coupled with an aggressive so called ‘slum clearance’ policy changed the face of the community. In the post-war period, terraces of Victorian homes were pulled down to make way for high rise council housing, with some families being relocated much further out into south east London’s new orbiting suburbs. This decision was either a travesty or an inevitability, depending on who you ask.
These days, I would argue that, despite its widely reported social problems with issues associated with being the 31st most deprived borough in the country, Deptford is still very much a thriving community, albeit in a different way to how it was back when when the docks transported other items besides newspapers.
Which brings us back to the anchor. Presumably Lewisham Council are planning to reinstate the anchor in its Convoy’s Wharf development, the site of the docks and the proposed location for a £700m 3,500 home development scheme. But the site is of such huge historical significance that flogging it for investor bait (there’s no evidence yet that the developers have committed to making any of this housing ‘affordable’, though the perimeters on that legal distinction remain laughable) seems a real shame. A campaign group formed to oppose the proposal, but unfortunately Bojo has since approved the application, with a somewhat weak pledge to support additional heritage projects.
So herein lies the key issue. In the case of Convoy’s Wharf, it’s a shame that the area has found itself in this position, in a David and Goliath battle between profit and providence, but the fact that it was always a place whose raison d’être was capitalism, one can’t help but feel there’s some ironic historical determinism at play here.
A rather more modern example is the recent outcry over the newly opened Job Center pub housed in, you guessed it, the old Deptford job center. The original facility closed in 2010, amidst much protest from the local community. Antic Pubs decision not only to open an establishment in the building, but to also retain its namesake, has been met with criticism in the press.
True, on paper the name seems a little like a joke you’d tell at a party that’s met by silence and unison glass sipping, but part of me thinks this goes some way to address the elephant in the room. Antic also own The Catford Constitutional Club, whose name is modified from its previous guise as the local Conservative club. You have to ask, why this did not provoke a similar outcry, seeing as there isn’t much constitutional about their business model, or indeed their drinks prices. The unit in Deptford has been empty since its closure, bar a handful of pop up events. At its very essence, calling the pub ‘The Dog and Duck’ or similar would merely be papering over some very visible cracks. The fact that a pint inside will set you back a little under the current minimum wage for 18 year olds isn’t changed by the sign that hangs on the door.
Over the years, I’ve found it’s reductive to attribute these sorts of changes in premises to a seismic shift in how we define a community. Although I agree that the previous example is unfortunate, it’s really a case of an empty or filled unit, and it’s better that its filled than standing vacant, or worse, turned into Convoys Wharf style housing. The issues that arise from our opposition to its semantic attribution are more deep seated and need to be addressed separately, looked at in a national context.
Whether Job Center or job center, I love Deptford. It’s one of the only places I’ve experienced in London that feels primarily reflective of its people, rather than its investors or a transient visitor population. The market thrives among all the odds, and, mums the word, it’s got one of the best independent coffee shops in the whole of the city. Regardless of what the historians say, I think it’s still the Oxford Street of south London, but only really if Oxford Street had shops where you could pick up bargain fruit and veg, vintage clothes, furniture and homeware (spoiler alert, it doesn’t).
So, whether the Job Center is part of the problem or part of the solution, the key word here is balance. We should certainly prevent this sort of business model taking over, but we can do that by continuing to use our market, support local businesses and raising our concerns. As a community we have more power than we think, but it’s primarily based in our feet not our voices. Each time I walk past the foot of Deptford’s high street, I do find myself missing the familiarity of its iconic anchor. It’s easy to long for the past and easier still to rationalize it through historically tinted spectacles, but our power now is in our feet and our future, anchor or no anchor.