Wednesday 28th August 2013

Regency Greenwich

The familiarity of Joseph Kay’s splendidly stuccoed town centre of Greenwich (“as good as Nash and better built” according to the architectural historian Ian Nairn), is taken so much for granted, that one seldom gives a thought to the earlier mediaeval Greenwich which his elegant 1830s redevelopment replaced. Greenwich at that time was firmly rooted in Kent and consequently falls outside the boundaries of most eighteenth century maps of London. However, here we observe a rare glimpse of pre-Regency Greenwich in the south-east quarter of A New Plan of London, XXIX Miles in Circumference. It was originally published by John Stockdale in 1797, with subsequent additions keeping it up to date, and still in print until as late as 1817 - this example was probably published circa 1809 as it still retains the imprint of John Stockdale who died in 1814. Incidentally, it has an impeccable parochial provenance: Dick ‘Mr Greenwich’ Moy bought it from Warwick Leadlay Gallery in the mid-1980s. Upon Dick’s death in 2004, it was re-acquired by Warwick Leadlay himself for his private collection. It hung over his desk until his death earlier this year.

It shows West India Docks; excavations began in 1800 and are now shown complete and open to business. The Isle of Dogs is otherwise without habitation or cultivation, only a few tracks wending their way through the marshes. The Commercial Road, constructed in 1800 is also clearly extant. The Grand Surrey Canal is shown but not its extension to the Old Kent Road (1807) and Camberwell (1810).  Paradoxically, the Croydon Canal, opened 1809, is shown. The solid block of Deptford clearly demonstrates its importance as a dockyard town. (It had in fact probably peaked at this period, as bigger ships would find it increasingly difficult to navigate the river and would in future call instead at Chatham or Sheerness to be built or repaired). The bridge across the Creek linking Deptford to Greenwich that opened in 1804 is marked, so too, some of the many market gardens which were cultivated in that area. Greenwich itself, though less built up than its neighbour stands out because of the landscape patterning of the Park, and also the Hospital complex at the centre of things. East Greenwich hardly exists other than in the pattern of the roads that remain to this day. As aforementioned, however, it is the record of the streets immediately to the west of Hospital that makes this map so scarce and important.

Great changes were about to take place in Greenwich as a result of the Royal Hospital’s ‘Improvement Act’ of 1826. Just a few years later, in 1834, a contemporary historian, Henry Samuel Richardson, (1811-1906) noted, ‘Numerous improvements have been made in the Town during the last few years which have greatly altered its appearance: to show the rural character of the place to a very recent period, it may be mentioned that within the last twenty years there were posts and rails to divide the footpath from the road on Croom's Hill, and that till the year 1813 there were trees standing in the very centre of the Town, nearly opposite the Church. London Street, the leading thoroughfare on entering the Town from the Metropolis, has also, within the last thirty years, assumed a much altered appearance in its change of character from a street of private residences to one of commerce, almost every house within it now presenting a shop frontage; whereas, at the period alluded to, the shops were very few in number, and almost wholly confined to that end of the street nearest the centre of the Town’.

Chief among the improvements Richardson lists are the following:

• The erection of the Creek Bridge and Bridge Street,
• The erection of Vansittart Terrace and Bexley Place.
• The re-building of Queen Elizabeth's College.
• The widening of Ma[i]ze Hill.
• The erection of Park Street, Park Terrace, and Ma[i]ze Hill Chapel. The new cut called Hyde Vale, leading from Royal Hill to Conduit Vale.
• The alteration at the foot of Blackheath Hill where the roads to Blackheath, Lewisham, Deptford, and Greenwich meet.
• The improvement of Limekiln Lane now called South Street.
• The formation of Nelson Street ... and the continuation of this improvement in the formation of Trafalgar Road, by which the former circuitous route to Woolwich is avoided.
• The ... widening the thoroughfare near the Parish Church of St Alphege, and the throwing open of that splendid edifice to public view.

Also in contemplation was the forming of a handsome street leading to the water-side in continuation of King Street, which intended with other alterations in progress below the Market-place, would ‘materially improve that part of the Town’.

Greenwich became a desirable destination, an out of town development, the equivalent of Bluewater in the present day. But, one might add nostalgically, at the expense of the loss of much of its mediaeval antecedents.

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