Five Things You Might Not Know About London’s Maritime History

Margarette Lincoln offers five things that you may not know about London’s maritime world in the age of Cook and Nelson. Traces of this world can be found in the built environment today – an invitation to get those walking boots on!


The Port of London stretched east of London Bridge, north and south of the Thames. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 12,000 ships entered the port each year, presenting Londoners with ‘a forest of masts’. Riverside parishes, including Wapping, Shadwell, Rotherhithe, Deptford and Greenwich were hives of activity. These districts were of national importance, because shipbuilding and maintaining Britain’s economy through overseas trade were crucial in wartime. But, with diverse and mobile populations, these districts could be volatile. Here are just five insights, based on the lives of ordinary people, that offer fascinating glimpses of a lost world.

  1. Wapping High Street. The Marine Police Force was set up in 1798 to tackle looting from ships on the river. It operated from a riverside building at Wapping New Stairs near Execution Dock, where pirates were traditionally hanged. The Metropolitan Police came later but their Marine Unit is still based at the same site in Wapping High Street. In 1798, gangs of coal-heavers stormed the new police station because officers were trying to stop them taking their normal ‘bonus’ of free coal as they unloaded ships. The entrance to the station opened onto a narrow alley – you can still see it today – and police officers were afraid that if they left the station to deal with the mob they would be picked off one by one. As rioters began hurling paving stones at the building, police loaded muskets and fired from the upper windows, killing a part-time officer who had come to help. Afterwards, it was claimed that the rioters also had firearms and their ringleader was tried for murder and sentenced to death. At the eleventh hour, a trusted witness wrote to the Home Secretary testifying to the man’s innocence but he was still transported.
  2. Reardon Street. The mutiny on the Bounty is famous. William Bligh, who captained the Bounty, has been depicted as a neurotic, short-tempered tyrant who drove his crew to rebel. The mutineers ditched Bligh in the ship’s long boat, together with a few loyal men, and left them to find their own way to safety. Few think of Bligh’s wife, Betsy, bringing up their children back in London. At the time of the mutiny, they were renting a house in Broad (now Reardon) Street, near St George in the East, Wapping. Bligh wrote to his wife from Indonesia, once he had made landfall, carefully putting his side of the case knowing that she would help to defend his position. The letter took six months to reach her and must have been a dreadful shock. Betsy was an intelligent, capable and loyal woman; Bligh’s letters to her reveal a different side to his character.
  3. Prince Street. Deptford was the site of a royal dockyard, founded by Henry VIII in 1513. Two slipways, roofed over later, can still be seen. Britain’s dockyards were the largest industrial complexes of the age, using some of the most advanced machinery in the world. At Deptford, a victualling yard, or naval supply depot, lay just upstream. Some 800 cattle a week might be driven over London Bridge to be slaughtered and salted in barrels there. Captain Cook’s ships were modified and provisioned at Deptford before he set off on his Admiralty-backed voyages of discovery. The ships for the ‘First Fleet’ to transport convicts to Australia in 1787 were also repaired and adapted in the naval dockyard. The chimes of the yard’s great clock divided the working day (the clock tower with its weathervane is now in Thamesmead town centre). But in inflationary times, industrial relations along the river did not always run like clockwork: skilled shipwrights were active in the early trades union movement.

Thamesmead Clock Tower

  1. Slade’s Place, Deptford High Street. Women in these maritime parishes often headed up households, managing domestic affairs while seafaring men were away. Many women worked. It is perhaps surprising to find that some working women became very wealthy. Mary Slade, who ran a haberdashery business with her sister, also owned property and had the capital to build a terrace of fine brick houses on Deptford High Street. This was a remarkable achievement for a woman of the time. She rented out most of the houses but lived in the largest with her sister. These houses signalled her social aspirations and some still stand today. The end of the terrace has been decorated with a mural that, aptly, picks up on the theme of respectability, showing a man in a tie and a woman wearing pearls. (Note, this Mary Slade is not to be confused with a contemporary of the same name who went to sea dressed as a man and later, still in disguise, trained as a shipwright, although they could have conversed on the street.)


    Deptford Mural

  2. Greenland Surrey Quays Pier. In 1805, Rotherhithe saw a notable murder case, one of the first in which forensic evidence was used to secure a conviction. Isaac Blight, a ship-breaker who lived on the riverside near Greenland Dock, was shot in his own parlour. He died in agonies hours later but never saw the man who fired the pistol from behind the parlour door. His servant, Richard Patch, was eventually charged with the crime despite having an alibi. The maid stoutly testified that she had given Patch the key to the outside privy and heard him leave the house. But the prosecution used a plan and model of the site to convince the jury that Patch had run back to the house in his stockinged feet and killed his employer. The trial gripped public interest for months and was even attended by royalty.


MartimeMargarette Lincoln was director of research and collections and, from 2001, deputy director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. She is now a visiting fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. She lives in London.

Second Image: ‘Thamesmead Clock Tower’ by Matt Brown via Flickr.

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