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Curator's introduction

The historic dockyard neighbourhood of Deptford abounds in history and unexpected contrasts. As the royal dockyard closest to London, it was the administrative headquarters of the Navy from Tudor times and became home to an ever-growing community of shipyard workers. The British Library’s collections contain many striking and evocative surveys, drawings and engravings of the area in its heyday. These have recently been further enriched by a large body of plans and `grass-roots’ records from the adjacent estate of Sayes Court, home of the famous 17th-century diarist, John Evelyn.

The royal dockyards were the largest concentrations of industrial activity in England during the 17th century. A magnificent coloured survey of Deptford dockyard, made for presentation to the King in 1698, details every building and installation: the bell which rang the hours of the shipyard workers; the cranes for loading and unloading raw materials on the wharves; the storehouses with their stockpiles of sailcloth, hemp, and pitch (described by the novelist Daniel Defoe as `surprisingly large and in their several kinds beautiful’); the saw-pits; the huge lofts where the rigging and sails were made; the mast-pond; the wet and dry docks; the stable for the teams of dockyard horses; and the smithy for forging chains and anchors. Along the boundary are rows of houses with outbuildings and neat gardens. Here the dockyard officials lived: the surgeon, clerk of the survey, storekeeper, master of attendance and master shipwright. A whole dockyard work force and society is laid out for us in these drawings.

Just beyond the dockyard wall was the house and garden of John Evelyn, whose wife’s family had been naval administrators there for several generations. Sandwiched between the dockyard and the victualling yards where cattle were slaughtered for provisioning the royal ships, it was hardly a promising site. Yet here, Evelyn created one of the most famous and influential gardens of his day, drawing on ideas acquired during his visits to the great Renaissance gardens of France and Italy, where he'd travelled to avoid the English Civil War.

Evelyn was man of religious sensibilities: for him a garden was a 'place of all terrestriall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie’. So it’s all the more remarkable that he chose to make his miniature paradise in the midst of what was really an industrial landscape. The plans he drew of his garden at Sayes Court came to us with his archive. They show every detail of the trees and plants, buildings and ornaments of what we can now see as one of the great lost gardens of London.

A sequence of lively 19th-century watercolour drawings and engravings, recording the later evolution of the area into the age of canals and railways, completes the collection.

The site of the former royal dockyard, now Convoy’s Wharf, is currently under redevelopment. As the area prepares for further change, this collection helps link its present and future with its rich past. Focussing on one specific place, they vividly depict the part Deptford played in the nation’s sea-going history and in its wider cultural life.

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