Deptford Dockyard

by Tanja Beier

13 December 2023

︎ by Tanja Beier

Alternative Visions for the Royal Dockyard

The redevelopment of the empty 16.6-hectares brownfield site on the Thames River in Deptford known as Convoys Wharf has been under discussion for two decades. When I attended a Community Engagement Meeting concerning the development at the beginning of the year, I knew very little about the background of the development project or its potential impact. What I did notice immediately was the tension in the room and the obvious disagreement between the organisers and the community members present. Questions from the audience were answered with long and what felt almost scripted replies. Can we use the empty site for our projects before construction begins? How are you going to preserve the historic structures on the site? Who is the target for housing? How can local groups engage in the process? A few people in the audience challenged the developers and kept asking the same pointed questions again and again. But the developers in their suits and button-down shirts did not feel inclined to commit to any compromises and presented reasoned excuses. This prompted me to take a closer look at Convoys Wharf for my Masters thesis. For the following months I got to talk to members of the communities, residents and activists involved in the development and quickly learned where these tensions stem from. 

Developing the Dockyard

The already commenced construction of the jetty is the first step to realize the development plans that include around 3,500 housing units, publicly open spaces, business and retail spaces, hotel and leisure facilities as well as a Thames Clipper stop (Convoys Properties Limited, 2023). Many people see the development as an opportunity to open access to the riverbank, which has been closed off for centuries. Even though this sounds promising, questions arise who this development is for and how Deptford and its existing local culture will adapt to the influx of new people.  

The lack of social housing is certainly one of the biggest points of criticism. Of the 3,500 homes only 15% will be affordable housing, of which only 30% will be social housing (communicated by Hutchinson Property Group at a Community Engagement Meeting in July). The rest will be marketed globally by the Hong Kong based developer Hutchinson Property Group (UK). Convoys Wharf is not a unique case but is in line with other development projects all over London such as Kings Cross or Nine Elms. The city is full of cranes and yet the housing crisis in the city is at its worst.

History of the Dockyard

︎The Dockyard at Depford (John Cleveley,1777) licensed under CC 2.0

However, housing is only one of several issues the development plans pose. Another big part of the critique is the disregard for heritage, history and local culture. What many do not know is that the site was once home to the Royal Naval Dockyard opened by Henry VIII in 1513. Eventually the dockyard specialised in shipbuilding and repair works, before its maritime use was abandoned and it became a Foreign Cattle Market for some time. These different uses are still traceable to this day. However, most of the remnants are buried under the ground and not visible in plain sight.

Even though some of it is forgotten (or not widely known) the Royal Dockyard played a huge role in the rise of the British Empire. Many known figures have found their way to Deptford, among them Francis Drake, John Evelyn, Tsar Peter the Great, James Cook, Olaudah Equiano, John Hawkins and Walter Raleigh. It was in Deptford, where Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake aboard the Golden Hind, where James Cook’s Endeavour got refitted and from where he started his expedition to New Zealand, where John Evelyn designed his gardens and experimented with his plants, and where Olaudah Equiano was sold on as a slave before he made history as a leading abolitionist (see Anim-Addo, 1996 & Steele, 1993). 

The Dockyard was the main employer of the area for centuries and at the same time a hub for innovations in ship building or John Evelyn’s environmental studies. However, as the list of names shows, history must be viewed critically as well, considering the colonial legacy of Britain. A lot of the splendour and wealth Deptford once possessed was financed by the trade with the colonies, which included the trading of slaves. 

Fighting for the Dockyard

︎The iron-roofed Olympia Building (Diamond Geezer, 2015) licensed under CC 2.0

Bob, James, Jane and Adam are some of the community organisers and activists who are vocal in trying to change the developer’s plans to a better outcome for the community. They want to bring these stories into the spotlight and make them accessible for locals and visitors alike. With this in mind several projects have been developed over the years that present an alternative vision for the site. These include the Centre for Innovation, Education and Research, the Lenox Project, the Sayes Court Garden Project and the Museum of Slavery and Freedom. The Centre will function as a community hub for local people that offers youth programmes, education and research opportunities, housing, heritage preservation and much more. The Lenox Project wants to build a replica of the above-mentioned war ship on the site. The Sayes Court Garden Project has the aim to revive John Evelyn’s Garden and provide a green space for residents while honouring his legacy. The Museum’s aim is to shed light on Deptford’s role in the triangular trade. The variety of projects highlights the potential of the site that the developer has not recognised. Adam says, “Although, the Dockyard itself could be used in all sorts of ways, the imagination has to be there in the first place, and it isn’t there.” 

What all projects have in common is the provision of employment opportunities, education, recreational areas and first of foremost, spaces for the community. There are distinctive visions of how the site should look like and be used in order to be beneficial for the local culture and avoid the development of what Bob calls an “island of wealth”. There is a collective awareness of the historicity of the place that is worth preserving. Most importantly, these visions are informed by past uses of the site and connected to challenges in the present. In this way they are tailored to the individuality of the place while incorporating current solutions for social challenges. 

This is in stark contrast to the developer who is above all focussed on financial viability and not considerate of the local people’s needs and wishes. Unfortunately, the groups struggle to get their ideas onto the site, and many had to put up with failure. A depressing prospect when it is repeatedly shown that a wealthy minority can enforce its interests without “benefiting the whole society”, James criticises. At this point it is important to continue the campaigning and raise awareness to the value of the site and why what happens there matters for the future of Deptford. As Jane puts it: “Deptford’s culture is not going to survive, if it goes ahead with the present plan.” A logical consequence of a development project, that in Bob’s words, wants to “reimagine the communities”.

Even though the construction works on the site have begun, as long as there are no high-rise buildings standing, there is hope that some change is achievable. To end with Adam’s words: “I’m still determined to try and affect some kind of change and that isn’t just me, that’s the whole community.” 


Steele, J., 1993. Turning the Tide: The History of Everyday Deptford. London: Deptford Forum.

Anim-Addo, J., 1995. Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham. London: Deptford Forum.

Convoys Properties Limited, 2023. Convoys Wharf. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 21 August 2023].

Tanja Beier is a graduate of the MA in Sociology (Urban Studies) at Goldsmiths University. Her research interests include public spaces, place making and community engagement in urban planning.


︎ Background image by Tanja Beier