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The King's Yard: archaeological investigations at Convoy's Wharf Deptford from 2000 to 2012

Duncan Hawkins with Antony Francis, Christopher Phillpotts and Andrew Skelton


Convoy's Wharf, Prince Street, London, SE8 3JH centered at NGR 537000 178200 is the location of the principal part of the former Deptford Royal Dockyard, operational between 1513 and 1869. Following preliminary archaeological investigation in 2000 by Pre-Construct Archaeology, a 5% sample of the total site area was evaluation trial trenched by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) from January to April 2010 to determine the quality and extent of any surviving archaeological deposits. This was followed between May 2011 and May 2012 by a programme of archaeological excavation and recording by MOLA — the largest ever undertaken in a Royal Dockyard (Figure 1). All phases of archaeological investigation were overseen by CgMs Consulting and scoped to preserve the structural remains of the Dockyard in situ, in accordance with a Scheme of Archaeological Resource Management (SARM). Remains were mapped and recorded, rather than archaeologically dismantled, and then carefully backfilled. Areas of modern disturbance were utilised as 'windows' on underlying deposits and in places excavation extended to a depth of 7.5m (24.6ft). The records from the investigations are being used to inform both the layout and design of redevelopment proposals for the site. This article summarises the interim findings of the archaeological investigations so far, in advance of monograph publication in 2015.


Geology and Topography

The location of the Dockyard was strongly influenced by its underlying geology and topography. While the southern and eastern part of the site lay on a gravel headland, the northern and western part of the site was characterised by deep alluvial clay deposits associated with an ancient tributary of the Thames, the 'Orfleteditch' and associated marshlands. A former mouth of this river channel, first recorded in 1279 1,2 formed a natural tidal 'Dock' in the riverbank which was converted into the Dockyard basin by 1517, while the dry gravel headland was utilised in 1513 as the location of the Tudor storehouse, the first permanent Dockyard building.

The form of the archaeological record

The Royal Dockyards were the largest industrial complexes in Britain until the mid nineteenth century, comprising factories for the construction and repair of warships. As the dimensions and displacement of warships increased over time so the infrastructure of the Dockyards profoundly altered to accommodate their construction. The introduction of steam power, both to vessels and to Dockyard operations, in the early nineteenth century led to radical changes in Dockyard facilities. At each rebuilding much evidence of earlier structures was removed. Consequently because of the massive scale of the late Georgian and early Victorian docks and slipways on the site only limited evidence for their early nineteenth century predecessors survived. No evidence was found for any sixteenth or seventeenth century docks or slips, and very limited potential physical evidence for the sixteenth and seventeenth century basin.

With the exception of part of the iron slip cover roofs to slipways Nos 2 and 3 of 1845-6 (now known as the Olympia building) and parts of the Dockyard perimeter wall, all of the Dockyard buildings within the Convoy's Wharf boundary had been demolished to foundation level — either during the lifespan of the Dockyard or following its closure in 1869. Consequently, the physical evidence for well documented buildings had in many cases almost entirely vanished, and building remains above foundation level, machinery bases, support fittings and floor surfaces were generally absent.


Therefore while it was possible to recover the ground plans of some former Dockyard buildings (with those of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century predominating), in general the activities and processes undertaken within the buildings were not represented in the archaeological record, though there were a very small number of exceptions.

Conversely the five nineteenth century slipways on the site, together with the stone lined nineteenth century entrance to the Great Dock, and the contemporary masonry lined version of the Dockyard basin survived — filled in — in relatively good condition as archaeological monuments (though these no longer constitute functional pieces of civil engineering).

With the exception of structural timberwork, (including a number of reused ships' timbers) the site was found to be artefact poor. There was little in the form of domestic or industrial debris or waste except where the site extended beyond the boundaries of the historic Dockyard. The impression is that waste management during the operation of the Dockyard was highly efficient, and at closure the site was 'picked clean' of recyclable material — particularly metal work. It is therefore the analysis of the surviving documentary, cartographic, pictorial and photographic sources which are dispersed between a number of archives that will be critical to understanding the operation of the Dockyard and the context of the archaeological remains. An ongoing programme of research and post excavation analysis will lead to production of a full monograph publication in 2015.

The Tudor and early Stuart Dockyard

The earliest Dockyard structure known to have existed on the site and recorded in the investigations was a Tudor storehouse. This building which was orientated east-west flanking the Thames, survived at foundation level, with up to 0.74m (2.4ft) in height of brickwork present. The original north, south and west walls were traced giving a building footprint 52.30m (172ft) long — east-west by 9.50m (31ft) wide — north-south (Figure 2). The east wall comprised a Georgian rebuild. No floor levels within the building survived and it had been completely cut across in several areas by modern foundations. This building originally consisted of two storeys and an attic and stood to a roof plate height of 10.67m (35ft) until it was demolished by order of the Admiralty in March 1952.3 A foundation stone and flame headed arch were salvaged and preserved in the Department of Computer Science at University College London (Figure 3). Fortunately photographs taken at the time of demolition (Figure 4), together with Edward Dummer's 1698 survey (Figure 5),4 and the dimensions recorded in 2011-12 should allow a comprehensive understanding of the form of the building.



Although we know the precise date of this building, the limitations of archaeological fabric analysis mean the surviving soft salmon pink bricks can only be dated to c.1470-1555.

West of the Tudor storehouse on a very distinctive northeast-southwest alignment was the Treasurer of the Navy's House probably in existence by the 1540s and with surviving sixteenth and seventeenth century fabric (Figure 6). This measured 50.50m (166ft) north to south by 5.70m (19ft) east to west and contained a number of in situ floor levels, including tiled floors. The Treasurer's House is shown in John Evelyn's sketch plan of 1623 (Figure 7), but was demolished before 1688.

Between 1688 and 1698 (Figure 5) a 'Great New Storehouse' was added to the west end of the Tudor Storehouse replacing the Treasurer's House, and shortly after to the south of the Tudor Storehouse 'the new storehouses' were added, forming a basic quadrangle of buildings, the foundations of which were in part traceable during the 2011-12 investigations.






To the west of the basin, but between it and the 'small' mast pond, effectively a pond in which mast timbers were seasoned (built 1676-88), a long section of mid seventeenth century Dockyard perimeter wall was identified. Arched openings built through the 1.3m (4.3ft) wide wall accommodated timber tie backs (retaining beams) that braced a substantial timber revetment along the south west side of the Dockyard — possibly channelling the ancient 'Orfleteditch' stream away from the basin and the core of the Dockyard (Figure 8).

Evidence for the 1676-88 small mast pond or possibly an early eighteenth century replacement was identified on the north west of the site in the form of sawn off timber tie backs (Figure 9). These had been cut back and the wooden lining of the small mast pond removed to insert a new brick lining between 1774 and 1808, which had in turn undergone several phases of rebuilding, possibly as late as the 1840s.

Although the Dockyard basin is recorded as present from 1517 in the meadow at the west end of the storehouse,5,6 very little archaeological evidence was identified for the Tudor and early Stuart basin with a short length (c.2m) of timber reveting at the north east corner of the mid eighteenth century timber lined basin, possibly relating to these periods. It is known that in 1676 part of the basin was itself being used as a mast pond.

Fragmentary later seventeenth century brick foundations were identified in part of the Officer's Quarters and the Dockyard smithery.

The 'Great Dock' — a large dry dock was probably first built in or around 1517. A substantial rebuild is known to have taken place in 1574 and the Dock is shown in John Evelyn's sketch of 1623 as a large wooden structure (Figure 7). Edmund Dummer's Survey of 1688/98 (Figure 5) shows the 'Great Dock' as timber lined with a single dock gate to the Thames. There was at this time no subdivision between the front and rear of the Dock and internal dock gates between a 'Head Dock' to the south and 'Stern Dock' to the north do not appear to have been added until a comprehensive rebuilding of the Dock (again in timber) in 1711 when it became a true double dock. No evidence for the Tudor or Stuart Great Dock was identified in 2010 or 2011-12.

The Late Stuart and Georgian Dockyard to 1821

Between 1698 and 1753 the somewhat haphazard storehouse complex which had evolved between 1513 and 1698 was largely rebuilt in a more formal quadrangular form, though retaining the Tudor Storehouse at its core together with parts of the Stuart Storehouse. Following closure of the Dockyard in 1869 elements of the east and west ranges of the Storehouse complex were demolished though much survived until the Second World War (Figure 10).

The foundations of this Georgian rebuilding form the principal surviving element of the Storehouse as identified in the archaeological record during the 2011-2012 excavation. No contemporary floor surfaces survived within the building complex (Figure 11). However, as with the Tudor Storehouse, analysis of surviving documentary, pictorial, photographic and cartographic sources combined with the archaeological record will allow a comprehensive understanding of the buildings' form. A contemporary multi-phase timber river wall was recorded north of the storehouse behind the existing river wall, containing timbers spanning the late seventeenth to early nineteenth century.

After 1774 but before c.1808 a substantial rigging house of three storeys plus attic, 75.0m (246ft) east-west by 17.3m (57ft) north-south, was added to the south of the Storehouse complex. A surviving photograph of c.1880 shows this as an elegant late Georgian building range (Figure 12). This building was demolished after 1896 but before 1916. The 2011-12 investigations revealed the whole footprint of the building's foundations with robust foundation arches to carry the heavy superstructure (Figure 11). Again a comprehensive understanding of the building's form will be possible through careful analysis.

Only a single, certain, late Georgian slip was identified on the site, sandwiched between, and in part truncated by, the early Victorian slipways No 4 and No 5. This comprised a heavily truncated bed of timber on a chalk ballast base with revetted tie-back timber sides (Figure 13). The base at 3.61m OD was significantly shallower than that of the adjacent Victorian slipways by c.1.65m (5.4ft). Prior to the introduction of slip cover roofs in 1814, slipways were very much regarded as 'formwork' for individual ship construction projects and were readily dismantled following launches.7,8,9 The numbering of slipways after 1842 reflected their 'permanent' status. Three phases of 'Georgian' basin were identified. The phasing, which will be refined as the post excavation analysis develops, indicates the basin was progressively reduced in area but deepened to accommodate the increased draft of vessels. This is indicated most vividly by comparing a depth gauge of c.1750 formed of copper plate numerals (Figure 14) with a stone depth gauge forming part of the remodelling of the basin entrance of c.1813-14(Figure 15).10 The base of the latter depth gauge was 1.73m (5.7ft) below that of the former, suggesting the basin entrance — and by implication the basin itself — was considerably deeper by the early 19th century. This area of the basin is thought to have been rebuilt again in 1839-41. The final Georgian re-working of the basin included a Dock and two slips on the south side and a boat slip on the north side. These were all demolished and filled in during 1844-6, from which time only two slips Nos 2 and 3, suitable for relatively small warships such as sloops and gunboats, ran into the basin.




Of the few re-used ships' timbers that were identified, a stern post and rudder post, probably from the same vessel, had been re-used in a land-tie arrangement for the timber basin. A second stern post had been re-used as part of a trestle foundation assembly which also included a probable anchor stock and a section of minor deck beam. The draft marks cut in Roman numerals were very clear on both stern posts.

A 'large mastpond' had been built on the west of the site (and extended westward beyond the current site boundary) between 1765 and 1774. At the latter date it was timber lined but as excavated was found to have been lined with brick, the latter dating to a rebuild of 1774 to c.1808, with later repairs and additions. The wall of the large mastpond, including a stone base for an iron capstan (the ironwork for which had been removed), was found to have largely collapsed into the pond itself. This may have taken place during the backfilling of the mastpond in 1949-50. The canal feeding this mastpond (which in turn fed the small mastpond after the 1774-1808 rebuilding) and connecting to the River Thames is still partly open and partly traceable at ground level within the site. Investigation of the final Georgian version of the small mastpond revealed this to be 37m (121ft) wide with walls 1.5m (5ft) wide and 5m (16ft) deep to the base of the brickwork.

The best archaeologically preserved structure within the Convoy's Wharf site, after the standing 'Olympia' building, had started life as 'Sayes Court', a small manorial mansion house. At the core of the building were extensive areas of sixteenth century fabric, including a cellar room, possibly dating to a documented 1568 rebuild. In 1740 the manor house became the parish workhouse. Although rebuilt in 1759 the building retained some of the earlier fabric. In 1848 the building was restored to the Evelyn family and was used as a factory and emigration depot until 1856 when it was sold to the Admiralty; serving until 1869 as the Dockyard pensions office. Following the closure of the Dockyard it was re-acquired by W. J. Evelyn and rebuilt again in 1881 as the Evelyn Alms Houses. In situ eighteenth and nineteenth centurytile floors were identified (Figure 16), though the building had been truncated to just above nineteenth century ground level (approximately 1.25m below existing ground level — and lower than seventeenth century ground level), when it was demolished in 1947 following wartime bomb damage.

Unfortunately, no surviving trace of the layout of John Evelyn's famous experimental gardens were found though parts of the foundation of the inner garden wall of Sayes Court were identified.







The Late Georgian and Victorian Dockyard

From 1815 Deptford Dockyard was effectively operated as a dual facility with Woolwich Dockyard. Ships launched at Deptford were fitted out at Woolwich or further down river.11

The Great Dock

Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Admiralty entered a period of financial retrenchment and Deptford as the smallest Royal Dockyard was virtually disused. By Admiralty order from the 31st January 1821, the Dockyard was to be maintained only as a depot for small maintenance work. However, the Dockyard does appear to have been utilised for experimental work as one of the first steamers built for the Royal Navy, the Comet, was launched here in 1822.12 From 1832 to 1837 the Dockyard was used for ship breaking as many of the warships constructed during the Napoleonic Wars wore out and were broken up. No new ships appear to have been completed and launched from the Dockyard during this period.13

However, it is known that a single warship, a fourth rate of 50 guns, HMS Worcester; was kept 'under construction' in the Dockyard at this time to satisfy the Admiralty's lease of the Evelyn land. She was not finally launched until 1843 by which date she had lain on her slipway for 21 years.

So poor did the material condition of the Dockyard become that by 1833 part of the Head Dock of the Double Dry Dock collapsed.14 Evidently the Double Dry Dock, though not its entrance, was still wholly of timber at this time. Map evidence indicates the Dock was rebuilt between 1774 and c.1808 suggesting it may not have been substantially repaired for over twenty five years before its collapse.

The Dock was repaired again in timber, though this time with a lime concrete backing by a civilian contractor 'Mr Guest' under the direction of the Admiralty's Civil Architect, George Leadwell Taylor (1788-1873).15 The methodology employed was extremely crude: 'The ground to be excavated behind the planking at each side the Dock at Deptford and a concrete backing 4 feet thick down to the bottom put in.'16

Subsequent correspondence shows that the material excavated by 'Mr Guest' was left alongside the Dock for several months before finally being removed.

The timber and concrete profiles of the Head and Stern Docks were recorded in a drawing of 1838 by W. T. Rivers — later Clerk of Works at Chatham Dockyard.17 A supplementary evaluation trench across the Head Dock executed in 2012, revealed demolished backfill and a stone foundation pad for the cover building, with twentieth century foundations cut across the line of the Dock. Virtually identical results had previously been obtained during investigations of the contemporary Double Dock at Woolwich Dockyard.18

By October 1834 the Dock gates were evidently defective and Leadwell Taylor was directed to inspect them.19 This letter also records that the caisson which sealed the entrance to the basin was defective and the steamer 'Messenger' was directed to tow this to Woolwich Dockyard for repairs.

In 1835 there is reference to repair to the stonework of the entrance to the Great Dock.20 From this it is clear that the entrance to the Dock had been rebuilt in stone before this date, probably by 1808.





Repairs to the Double Dock dragged on into 1839, at which time work commenced on completely rebuilding the Great Dock entrance again in stone.21,22 Captain Henry Brandreth RE (1794-1848) the then Admiralty Civil Architect reported in 1839 that:

Brandreth's correspondence with the Admiralty regarding these works on the Great Dock is noteworthy in that it includes proposals by the Captain Superintendent of Deptford to lengthen the stern dock by 5.5m (18ft) by constructing a caisson at the river entrance to the Dock. These were rejected by the Admiralty as three much larger docks were already under construction at Woolwich Dockyard.

By 1841 the rebuilding of the Great Dock was still continuing as in that year 'Messrs Kitt and Elwell' were providing costs for ' the repairs at the river wall, and the return wall at the entrance of the Double Dock'.24

The reconstructed stone dock entrance of 1839-41 was identified in the 2010 evaluation. Although partly truncated by later development the entrance still survived to an internal height of 5.2m (17ft) (Figure 17). Construction was of a Portland stone facing held in place by a timber frame of tie backs (now largely perished) bedded in a brick and lime concrete backing. Map and photographic evidence (Figure 12) show that the Great Dock was covered by a substantial timber 'roof', a single stone foundation pad for which was identified in situ, on the east side of the 'Head Dock'. This roof dates to no later than 1842 when a switch to all iron construction was made. There are very strong parallels between this dock cover roof at Deptford and No. 3 slip cover roof of 1838 at Chatham Dockyard.25

Slipways 1 to 5

From 1837 ship construction had recommenced at the Deptford Yard. Deptford built a large number of (generally small) steamships over the next 32 years which typically were fitted with their machinery at Woolwich Dockyard.26 By 1841 it was apparent that the old slipways within the Dockyard also needed rebuilding or replacement. On 30 November of that year it was reported that 'Slips; the one occupied by Worcester requires repairs to be done as early as Con.t'27




Between 1844 and 1846 new slipways (No. 1 running into the Thames and Nos 2 and 3 running into the basin) were constructed by Messrs George Baker and Sons of Lambeth.28,29 The slipways were provided with wooden decks using scrap or rejected timber from the Dockyard for the horizontals which were supported on vertical Baltic Deal piles shod with iron, driven into the underlying alluvium. The slip walls were of yellow stock brick backed with lime concrete (Figures 18 and 19). Bakers also modified the basin walls on the south side at this date.

Slips 1, 2 and 3 were all roofed in iron by Bakers with cast and wrought iron frames clad in galvanised corrugated iron pierced by numerous windows (Figures 20 and 21). Bakers produced eleven such roofs in total at Chatham, Deptford, Pembroke and Portsmouth of virtually identical form.30 The three Chatham roofs still survive intact over their filled in or decked slipways.

The iron slip cover roof over No. 1 slipway appears to have been destroyed during the Second World War and only the foundation piers for the building and fragments of the cast iron standards set in them now survive flanking either side of the slipway. The iron slip cover roofs for slipways Nos 2 and 3 survive in a much mutilated form as the Olympia Building, the original roof having been largely replaced in the period 1880-1913 (Figure 22).

The archaeological evidence suggests that slipways Nos 4 and 5 were also rebuilt in the mid 1840s, the form of construction and material as identified in the 2011-12 excavations being identical to that in slipways Nos 1, 2, and 3 (Figure 23). A drawing of 1844 records both these slips as 'old' suggesting replacement was after that year and probably after 1845.31 Further research into Admiralty records will hopefully provide precise dates and possibly drawn records.


Map and photographic evidence (Figures 12 and 25) shows that slipways Nos 4 and 5 had been previously provided with wooden 'roofs'. The construction of these was discontinued in 1842 as a fire risk, with wood being superseded by iron. Slipways No. 4 and No. 5 were however evidently reconstructed under these wooden slip cover buildings which were retained until the closure of the Dockyard in 1869, though then progressively demolished in 1869-1916. The brick foundation piers of these cover buildings were identified, with cut off timber standards still in place. However, analysis of the surviving internal photograph of the wooden 'roof' over Slipway Nos. 4 & 5 (Figure 24) shows that the complexity of the wooden structure could never have been reconstructed from the surviving archaeological evidence alone.

Interestingly examination of the workmanship in the rebuilt slipways Nos 1 to 5 and particularly the timber decking, brickwork, lime concrete and foundations for the iron cover buildings to Slipways Nos 1, 2 and 3 showed that these were often crude, poorly executed and in places defective. The builders George Baker and Sons were at this time in 'sharp' competition with other contractors for Admiralty contracts; while project management by the Admiralty Works Department could be weak. At Chatham similar workmanship by Baker and Sons led to the near collapse of several slipways and their cover buildings.32

Investigation of part of the range of officers' houses, the plank store and sail loft, Naval Store House, saw pits and plank sheds, revealed truncated foundations comprising a few courses of brickwork or timber base plates (Figure 26) all superstructure and floor levels to the buildings having been entirely removed. The Dockyard was finally closed in 1869, the last ship built in the yard being the sloop Druid launched on the 13th March of that year.


Parts of the Dockyard smithery were examined in an area excavation in 2011-12. Evidence for the bases of hearths and flue work was identified together with the base for an early Victorian steam hammer. The majority of survival was at foundation level, making recovery of the process flow within the building impossible (Figure 27).


Significant programmes of stratigraphic, artefactual and documentary analysis ongoing to 2015 are likely to refine and expand the analysis presented in this paper, though the general overview of the principal heritage assets forming the archaeological resource as presented here, is unlikely to alter fundamentally. The archaeological team, through implementation of the SARM is also providing direct input into the design process for the new development, working with the local community, the project architects and masterplanners, the London Borough of Lewisham, English Heritage and specialist interest groups to create an unique character to the future developments, layout and architecture which will reflect both the site's maritime history and the pioneering work of John Evelyn.

Notes and references

1. Riley, H.T., 1868, Memorials of London and London Life. p.224-5

2. Drake, H., 1886, The Hundred of Blackheath p.15n3

3. Illustrated London News, 'A Storehouse of the Tudor Navy; Remains uncovered at Deptford'. 1 March 1952, p.385

4. British Library Folios, 65v, 66. View of the Dockyard at Deptford, 1688-98 (Edward Dummer)

5. Drake, H., op. cit. p.276-7

6. British Library Additional Charter 6289

7. Coad, J., 1989 The Royal Dockyards, 1690-1850 p.110

8. Evans, D., 2004 Building the Steam Navy. Dockyards, Technology and the creation of the Victorian Battle Fleet, 1830-1906 p.44

9. Coad, J., op. cit. p.107

10. National Maritime Museum ADM/Y/D/7 1813

11. Lambert, A., 2012 'Woolwich Dockyard and the Early Steam Navy, 1815-1852', pp.82-96. In Owen, R. 2012 Shipbuilding and Ships on the Thames, Proceedings of The Fourth Symposium, held on 28 February 2009 at the Museum of London, Docklands 12

12. Brock, P.W and Greenhill, B., 1973 Steam and Sail in Britain and North America p.11

13. Lambert, A., op. cit.

14. The National Archives, ADM 12/291; 1833

15. The National Archives, ADM 12/299; 26/31834

16. ibid.

17. National Maritime Museum, ADM/Y/D/9; 1838

18. Goodburn, D., Meddens, F., Holden, S., Phillpotts, C., 2011 'Linking Land and Navy; Archaeological Investigations at the site of the Woolwich Royal Dockyard, South Eastern England'. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 2011, Volume 40, Number 2, pp.306-307

19. The National Archives, ADM 12/299, 17/10/1834

20. The National Archives, ADM 12/309; 22/5/1835

21. The National Archives, ADM 12/345 1838

22. The National Archives, ADM 12/357 1839

23. The National Archives, ADM 1/3503; letters from Civil Architect

24. The National Archives, ADM 12/384; 5/4/1841

25. Coad, J., 1989, op. cit. p115, Plates 94 and 95

26. Lambert, A., op. cit.

27. The National Archives, ADM 12/397; 30/11/1841

28. The National Archives, ADM 12/428; 1844

29. National Maritime Museum, ADM/Y/D/11, 1844

30. Sutherland, R.J.M., 1997, 'Shipbuilding and the long span roof' in Sutherland, R.J.M (ed) Structural Iron 1750-1850. Studies in the History of Civil Engineering, Volume 9, 1997, pp.123-142, Table 1, p.133

31. National Maritime Museum, ADM/Y/D/11, 1844

32. Evans, D., op. cit. p.49

© GLIAS, 2013