Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards

John Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards seem like an unlikely combination for the London Gardens Trust. But they are all linked through parks so do come and join me in south east London again! 

Deptford and ships

There have always been docks or dockyards in Deptford. In Mediaeval times Deptford was a fishing village, and then during the reign of Henry VIII the area became really important when he created the Royal Dockyards which flourished for shipbuilding and trade in the mid-16C to the mid-19C. A victualling yard (eventually the Royal Victoria Victually Yard) provided supplies for the Royal Navy until the early 1960s. In 2000 the last docks, at Convoys Wharf, finally closed. Today the parks in Deptford reflect that naval history, but also the story of John Evelyn.

Dockyards in Deptford, end of 17C, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp143-164
Royal Dockyard in Deptford, end of 17C (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp143-164)

Sayes Court Park

The History of Sayes Court

Sayes Court was built before 1613 on land owned by the Crown. In that year Sir Richard Browne bought most of the Manor from the Crown, and in 1653 sold the property to his son-in-law, John Evelyn. The Evelyn family lived here until 1693 and in that time he laid out the famous gardens. When he moved to his family home in Surrey he let out Sayes Court. Peter the Great was a tenant in 1698 while he was studying ship building at the Royal Dockyards. The mansion was demolished in 1729 and replaced with a workhouse, which became almshouses. These were demolished in 1930. 

John Evelyn’s Gardens

A plan of the gardens is in the British Library:

…17th January 1653: I began to set out the oval garden at Sayes Court, which was before a rude orchard, and all the rest one entire field of 100 acres, without any hedge, except the hither holly hedge joining to the bank of the mount walk. This was the beginning of all the succeeding gardens, walks, groves, inclosures, and plantations there…’. 

The Diary of John Evelyn: Macmillan & Co, London, 1908, p.240

Sayes Court Park today

I think John Evelyn would be sad to see today’s park. There are some wonderful old plane trees – and Peter the Great’s Mulberry – but no proud holly hedge, orchard, enclosures, fountains, or carefully tended walks and borders. DeptfordFolk have planted new trees as part of Evelyn 200, and yes, this is a welcome green space in an area with a lot of flats, so it seems ungenerous to comment. Nevertheless, empty borders, badly pruned shrubs, poor roses – perhaps the park is waiting for the development of Convoys Wharf?

Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards
Trees in autumn alongside Convoys Wharf site

Deptford Park

The History of Deptford Park

London expanded rapidly in the second half of the 19C. The London County Council realised Deptford would soon be completely built up and so it bought land from the Evelyn Family to create Deptford Park. This area was previously market gardens, known for its onions, celery, and asparagus. Lt Col J J Sexby, Chief Officer of Parks of the LCC, notes that the family sold the land at £2,100/acre, (a total of c.£36,000), which was below market value, and also made a further donation of additional land. Lt Col Sexby laid out the park of 17 acres which opened on 7 June 1897. 

‘…perhaps ‘park’ is too grandiloquent. It is really a recreation ground of simple design, consisting principally of a central playground, surrounded by a broad walk for promenade, with well-planted margins…’. 

Lt Col J J Sexby: The Municipal Parks, Greens, and Open Spaces of London, London, Eliot Stock, 1905, p.123

The central playground

Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards- Panorama of Deptford Park, looking west
Panorama of Deptford Park, looking west

The Friends of Deptford Park are very active, but their main concern seems to be with activities for children at Deptford Park School. There are good facilities for children and adults, in pleasing surroundings. The Friends and other volunteers organise further activities

Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Central grassed area for soccer & cricket in Deptford Park
Central grassed area for soccer & cricket

The perimeter walk

The perimeter walk is still in place and today, after 123 years, offers magnificent avenues of mature plane trees. And it is still a walk, or even a running track for those trying to stay fit.  

The ‘well-planted margins’ which were a feature of the early park have gone. But DeptfordFolk, who are very active in the area, have planted a small community orchard on one side of the park. This seems apt, and I hope it will thrive. They have also created a new avenue of ash trees in the park as part of the Evelyn 200 project to plant trees in the Evelyn Ward of Deptford. 

Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Evelyn 200 trees in Deptford Park
The new avenue in Deptford Park

Pepys Parks

‘… the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard… eventually closed in 1961. Warehouses were bombed in WWII but a number of the former buildings designed by James Arrow c.1783-88 remained and were later incorporated into the Pepys housing estate, including a Gateway (1788) flanked by 4 large bollards made of cannon leads, the Colonnade (1768), houses and offices for the Porter and Clerk of Cheque, 2 former Rum Warehouses (1780), and Stables…’. 

London Gardens Online, April, 2012
The gateway into the former Victualling Yard, with cannon head bollards, in Deptford Dockyards
The gateway into the former Victualling Yard, with cannon head bollards
Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Victualling Yard in Deptford - Officers quarters
The Terrace of Officers’ quarters

The Pepys Estate was built in the 1960s over the former Victualling Yard of the RN and named after Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty Board in the 17C. In that capacity Pepys would frequently visit Deptford where he would call on his friend, John Evelyn, at Sayes Court Manor which he referred to as ‘…a most beautiful place’..’. Major redevelopment followed in 2008. Today original and new buildings are built around green spaces and parks, creating an environment with a clear vision for humane housing with generous outdoor facilities next to the River Thames. 

Lower & Upper Pepys Parks

Panorama of Pepys Parks in Deptford
Panorama of Lower Pepys Parks
Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Lower Pepys Parks in Deptford
Exercise facilities in Lower Pepys Parks, and the new Deptford Landings development
Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Upper Pepys Parks in Deptford
Children’s play area in Upper Pepys Parks
Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Upper Pepys Parks in Deptford
Upper Pepys Parks

Aragon Park and other green spaces


The future of the area

Evelyn & Pepys & Deptford Dockyards - Convoys Wharf in Deptford
Convoys Wharf in the middle of the photo

At Sayes Court personal concern by a local landowner for people’s living conditions led to the creation of both Sayes Court Park and Deptford Park. A vision of housing in natural settings lay behind the LCC development of the Pepys Estate (and similarly at Downham). Convoys Wharf is alongside John Evelyn’s home at Sayes Court and it is to be developed by a company with international interests. Will the developers seize the opportunity to reflect Evelyn’s interest in gardening and continue the park tradition of the Pepys Estate Development? Will there be generous outdoor green spaces and exercise facilities sufficient for the number of proposed residents? Or will we see housing marketed on the back of existing parks as with Deptford Landings – ‘Surrounded by green spaces such as Pepys and Deptford Parks. And just five minutes from the Thames waterfront at Surrey Docks’?


Photographs by Candy Blackham who is exploring the green spaces in Lewisham on her blog site at https://enthusiasticgardener.com

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