I have heard it said that Deptford has the most history in London with the littlest to show for it. Walking along the foreshore at Deptford the visitor might have no idea of the layers of history under their feet. They may wonder why there are so many bones and rusty old nails but without prior knowledge the significance of this stretch of the river will be hidden. This was the site of the royal docks opened by Henry VIII, where Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and where many of the ships that defeated the Spanish Armada and Napoleons navy were built. It has been written that the British empire (for good or bad) originated in Deptford.

Decorative image of foreshore

We had come down to the beach at Deptford with a group of students from Deptford Green School as part of a project exploring the history of the Slaughterhouse Girls who worked in the Foreign Cattle Market on the site of the Royal Docks. A project funded from an Historic England grant programme to explore hidden working class history. These gut girls had a reputation for being hard drinking, independent women who could look after themselves. Their job was to gut thousands of sheep and cattle that were offloaded at the market from the likes of the United States and Argentina.

Given the nature of the work the pay was good and much better than could be obtained in factories or in domestic service. Ladies from the nearby much more affluent Brockley were horrified that women were employed in this “repulsive toil” and under the patronage of the Duchess of Albany sought to stop their employment in the market and to retrain them as domestic servants. A slaughterhouse girls club was set up at what was named the Albany Institute. The Albany Institute became the Albany which is still a community theatre and arts space in the heart of Deptford.

Photo of students watching an archaeologist explain what archaeology is present on the foreshore

We explored the foreshore under the expert guidance of Thames Discovery Programme’s Claire Harris, to find out about the history of the area and to collect artifacts that we could learn more about in a follow-up session back at the school. Unsurprisingly given the thousands of sheep and cattle slaughtered we were soon able to collect lots of bones on the beach. Claire pointed out centuries-old slipways (some made from ship timbers), chalk that had been laid to soften the landing of barges and the pieces of metal and nails that were left from ship breaking on the foreshore.

We left the foreshore with our booty of bones, pieces of clay pipes (for smoking), pottery, metal and oyster shells as well as a splattering of Thames mud.

A week later two specialists from the London Museum of Archaeology (MOLA) came to Deptford Green School to identify our finds. They were joined by mudlark and author Tom Chivers, who is currently undertaking PhD research for an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) at MOLA/QMUL. Tom brought a box of treasure of previously found objects from mudlarking along the river, including a whole pipe, a Victorian whistle and Victorian toys to show to the students.

First up was Archaeozoologist Alan Pipe who had the amazing talent of being able to identify our assortment of bones with just a cursory look at each one. We had brought back bones from cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, cats and rabbits. Next it was the turn of Nigel Jeffries, medieval and post-medieval pottery, glass and clay tobacco pipe specialist, and Tom Chivers who were able to identify the bowl of a 16th century pipe and Victorian and pre-Victorian pottery.

It was amazing just how much we had learnt about Deptford’s maritime history just from a two hour walk and subsequent talk. Photographs of the finds will be used in a series of art and craft works we will be making with the students and a local elders group who meet at the Albany. We are in the process of making collages, zines, crockery, badges, bags and tea towels with them. Our work will be on display as a pop up exhibition in a disused café along Deptford high street as a part of the Deptford X festival on the 23rd of September.

Jon Spaull and Debs Astell – Capture Arts.

Thames Discovery Programme Greater London