Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The story of the clocktower

Removal of the Deptford Dockyard clocktower to Woolwich for repair in 1983, 
later given to Thamesmead town centre in 1986 © Deptford Forum Publishing

Since the recent removal of the Deptford Anchor was met by cries of dismay by some Deptford citizens, we resorted to Jess Steele's Turning The Tide for historical account. Alas, no mention of the anchor, but something as, or perhaps more, relevant...
"From a window of Daubeney Tower on Pepys Estate in 1981 you could see Rupert Murdoch's empire expanding in old Deptford. The 18th century storehouse, built around the original storehouse of Henry VIII's Deptford Dockyard, was being demolished to make way for more low-rise warehousing for Convoy's newsprint importers.

In a glorious position on the old building, looking outwards to the river and inwards towards Deptford, was a clocktower. Known locally as Nelson's Clock, it had survived all the upheavals of the 19th century, remained a landmark of the Foreign Cattle Market, and even graced the road transport depot which had replaced the market by 1931.

The clock cupola was saved from being pulverised, in the general demolition, by the GLC who had it removed first to Woolwich for repair, and then in September 1985 to the Ranger's House on Blackheath for £60,000-worth of restoration.
Just a few weeks before the abolition of the GLC in April 1986, Deptford's clocktower was donated to what the Mercury optimistically labelled the "exciting town centre at the vibrant focal point of Thamesmead".

The clock was described by a GLC spokesman as "a landmark for the people of Thamesmead to remember us by". He did not list the landmarks by which the people of Deptford would remember the GLC: Pepys, Trinity and Sayes Court Estates, the decaying Crossfield and the stolen Albury St cherubs. Instead, in response to the campaign by Rev Graham Corneck of St Nicholas' Church, and Deirdre Wood, GLC councillor for Greenwich, County Hall said: "Our plans to give the clock to Thamesmead went through several committee meetings and we heard of no objections. The people of Deptford did have their chance."

If the people of Deptford were used to dealing with committee meetings and massive bureaucracies, we would have caused havoc in the planners' offices long ago.

The clocktower in its Thamesmead location looks like any other shopping centre feature. It has no plaque saying where it comes from, no date to give shoppers an idea of their privilege; if asked most would probably say it was a reproduction. Deirdre Wood asked Ken Livingstone for an agreement that "if Deptford were in a position to put the clock back on one of its buildings, we would be able to have it back". Are we ready yet?"
This was written in 1993. Twenty years later, on April 16th 2013, the "Deptford Anchor" went to Convoys Wharf to be stored. No one seems to know if it was ever part of Deptford, but a great many acknowledge its powerful symbolism. Will it stay there?

If we got the clocktower returned from Thamesmead, shouldn't it go to back to its original place in the Dockyard? Or perhaps both historic items could grace the brand new development at Convoys Wharf, to be dwarfed by 3,500 (mostly) luxury flats and three tower blocks (up to 42 storeys), in a "new town centre"?

Or perhaps the clocktower could come back and be repositioned in place of the anchor, in the present town centre (actually not the original high street, which was in Church Street, how far do you want to go back in Deptford's staggered history?), and be guarded in the same way the clocktower in Lewisham town centre is.

If you were to open a can of beer at Lewisham clocktower right now, a neighbourhood constable would quickly appear to stop you and take your drink from you. It is one of those zones where you're not allowed to drink on the street. As is the designated zone in Deptford High Street where the anchor used to stand...

Extract from pp 222 & 223 of Turning The Tide, A History of Everyday Deptford by Jess Steele, published by Deptford  Forum Publishing, 1993.

The clocktower at Thamesmead (Wikicommons)


  1. It is something that has been in mind by local people on Pepys estate, Deptford, that the Clock Tower should come back; and be located on Convoys.

    There are also the Dockyard Gates that were removed, too ... amongst other things.

  2. Clock tower and bell as a navigational ai along the Thames...

    Just below Limehouse Hole, and at a little distance from the eastern shore, lies Limehouse Rock, on which are only four feet. Opposite the Victualling Office at Deptford, on the Isle of Dogs side, a shoal begins, and extends about one-fourth over the River, which makes the channel very narrow between it and the ships at the Red House. You will avoid it by keeping Deptford Spire just open to the westward of the Clock House
    in the Royal Dock Yard.
    GREENWICH REACH lies winding in a circular direction from S.S.E. to E.N.E. At Deptford Creek a shoal begins and runs down almost to the west end of Greenwich Town; it nearly dries at low water: outside this shoal are 13 or 14 feet. The Clock House on with the two trees in Deptford Yard just clears it……..
    ……..On the north shore, off Millington’s or Anchor Wharf, and close in shore, is another shoal, which will be avoided going down, by keeping the Storehouse Clock in Deptford Yard open to the southward of the Isle of Dogs Ferry House, until Blackwell Reach comes open.

    Excerpt from The New British Channel Pilot 1839.

  3. hitching a ride on your post...

  4. Thanks, Shipwrights, your site is a mine of information!

    Malcolm, yes the clock should go back to the dockyard, I was just making a point about how street drinking is dealt with differently in Lewisham Town Centre...Didn't know about the gates though...