Deptford began life as a ford of the Ravensbourne (near what is now Deptford Bridge DLR station) along the route of the Celtic trackway which was later paved by the Romans and developed into the medieval Watling Street. The modern name is a corruption of "deep ford".
Deptford was part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury used by the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and is mentioned in the Prologue to the "Reeve's Tale". The ford developed into first a wooden then a stone bridge, and in 1497 saw the Battle of Deptford Bridge, in which rebels from Cornwall, led by Michael An Gof, marched on London protesting against punitive taxes, but were soundly beaten by the King's forces.
A 1623 map of Deptford Strond with annotations by John Evelyn
showing Sayes Court in the bottom left corner and Deptford Green as "The Common Greene" just above centre-left (click for larger version)
A second settlement, Deptford Strand, developed as a modest fishing village on the Thames until Henry VIII used that site for a royal dock repairing, building and supplying ships, after which it grew in size and importance, shipbuilding remaining in operation until March 1869. Trinity House, the organisation concerned with the safety of navigation around the British Isles, was formed in Deptford in 1514, with its first Master being Thomas Spert, captain of the Mary Rose. It moved to Stepney in 1618. The name "Trinity House" derives from the church of Holy Trinity and St Clement, which adjoined the dockyard.
Originally separated by market gardens and fields, the two areas merged over the years, with the docks becoming an important part of the Elizabethan exploration. Queen Elizabeth I visited the royal dockyard on 4 April 1581 to knight the adventurer Francis Drake. As well as for exploration, Deptford was important for trade - the Honourable East India Company had a yard in Deptford from 1607 until late in the 17th century, later (1825) taken over by the General Steam Navigation Company. It was also connected with the slave trade, John Hawkins using it as a base for his operations, and Olaudah Equiano, the slave who became an important part of the abolition of the slave trade, was sold from one ship's captain to another in Deptford around 1760.
Surviving riverside building of the former Royal Victoria Victualling Yard.
Diarist John Evelyn lived in Deptford at Sayes Court from 1652. Evelyn inherited the house when he married the daughter of Sir Richard Browne in 1652. On his return to England at the Restoration, Evelyn laid out meticulously planned gardens in the French style, of hedges and parterres. In its grounds was a cottage at one time rented by master woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. After Evelyn had moved to Surrey in 1694, Russian Tsar Peter the Great studied shipbuilding for three months in 1698. He and some of his fellow Russians stayed at Sayes Court, the manor house of Deptford. Evelyn was angered at the antics of the Tsar, who got drunk with his friends and, using a wheelbarrow with Peter in it, rammed their way through a fine holly hedge. Sayes Court was demolished in 1728-9 and a workhouse built on its site. Part of the estates around Sayes Court were purchased in 1742 for the building of the Navy Victualling Yard, which was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualing Yard in 1858 after a visit by Queen Victoria. This massive facility included warehouses, a bakery, a cattleyard/abattoir and sugar stores, and closed in 1961. All that remains is the name of Sayes Court Park, accessed from Sayes Court Street off Evelyn Street, not far from Deptford High Street. The Pepys Estate, opened on 13 July 1966, is on the former grounds of the Victualing Yard.
A cobbled street in a Deptford slum, around 1900
The Docks had been gradually declining from the 18th century; the larger ships being built found The Thames difficult to navigate, and Deptford was under competition from the new docks at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 the need for a Docks to build and repair warships declined; the Docks shifted from shipbuilding to concentrate on victualling at the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, and the Royal Dock closed in 1869. From 1871 until the First World War the shipyard site was the City of London Corporation's Foreign Cattle Market, in which girls and women butchered sheep and cattle until the early part of the 20th century.[nb 1] At its peak, around 1907, over 234,000 animals were imported annually through the market, but by 1912 these figures had declined to less than 40,000 a year. The yard was taken over by the War Office in 1914, and was an Army Supply Reserve Depot in the First and Second World Wars. The site lay unused until being purchased by Convoys (newsprint importers) in 1984, and eventually came into the ownership of News International. In the mid-1990s, although significant investment was made on the site, it became uneconomic to continue using it as a freight wharf. In 2008 Hutchison Whampoa bought the 16ha site from News International with plans for a £700m 3,500-home development scheme. The Grade II listed Olympia Warehouse will be refurbished as part of the redevelopment of the site.
Deptford experienced economic decline in the 20th century with the closing of the docks, and the damage caused by the bombing during the Second World War - a V-2 rocket destroyed a Woolworths store (now New Cross Gate), killing 160 people. High unemployment caused some of the population to move away as the riverside industries closed down in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The local council have developed plans with private companies to regenerate the riverside area, and the town centre.