21: Upper Watergate Street. The oldest street surface in London?

Upper Watergate Street connected, and still connects Deptford, the High Street and St Pauls Church, down the King’s Stairs, with the River Thames, once it’s key highway into London and out to the rest of the world.

And I think it has the oldest paving anywhere in London, or at least the most unique!

The surface of the road is made from enormous cobbles, or even boulders, the like I have not seen anywhere else in London, and the pavement to the side appears to me of Purbeck Stone – my guess as it appears the same the 18thC paving setts at The Temple Inn.

There are 100s of streets in London still with various 19thC granite setts and a few with limestone setts, and I have posts planned for some of these, but this street is in my experience simply unique. To be honest, I’ve not seen a road anywhere like this in Britain.

Note the kerbstones. They are a fairly standard size, showing how big are the blocks of what I think is mainly Purbeck Stone.

And yet it is not listed nationally, or, even, as far as I can see, locally. The wall towering above it, the Eastern Boundary Wall of the Deptford Royal Docks is listed, [1] [2] as is the Former Master Shipwright’s House the other side of that wall. [3] [4] And the Royal Dock river wall of John Rennie and others. [ Blog post to follow! ] [5]

And they are all quite rightly listed but clearly so should this street’s paving. It’s in Greenwich borough and a look on their conservation and listing pages shows nothing more than a ‘cannon bollard’ listed there. [6]

On the King’s Stairs

How old is this paving though? It is known that a dock was first built nearby in 1517 and a store house in 1513 which the base of still exists. This was sadly mostly destroyed by bombs in WW2 and demolished in the early 1950s. A foundation stone and flame headed arch is preserved at the Department of Computer Science at University College London. See The King’s Yard: archaeological investigations at Convoy’s Wharf Deptford from 2000 to 2012 [7]

John Evelyn’s map of 1623 … Upper Watergate is on the bottom left of the drawing.
Evelyn was a horticulturalist and herbalist and lived in Sayes House

We know the Eastern Boundary Wall was built in the late 18thC .. the dockyard had expanded east at that point to Watergate Street. “By 1774, historic mapping shows a new boundary wall in two sections” [8]

Upper Watergate Street is to the right of the D of Dockyard, Ordnance Survey First Series 1805 from https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps/
“This work is based on data provided through http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth”.

The other side of Watergate Street, now converted into flats, is a building called Paynes Wharf and was built at in 1860 as a marine boiler factory for J Penn and Sons marine engineers. [9]

Upper Watergate Street in 1868
London (First Editions c1850s) LVII Surveyed: 1868, Published: 1874 National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/view/103313084 CC-BY-NC-SA 

Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs 1864 has the Upper Watergate Street still with it’s historic name of King Street ( Dept. High Street ) [10] but 4 years later Edward Weller’s 1868 Map of London calls it Old King Street and Upper Watergate Street at the top where this paving is. [11]

Stanfords 1878 Geological Map of London [12] shows a ferry from The King’s Stairs at Old king Street to Ferry Road on the Isle of Dogs, which coincidently also has some great granite setts of which I will at some stage do a blog post! 😀

Check the scale – the granite setts at the side are a pretty standard 8 inch so some of the boulders are well over a foot!

So. I am going to guess that Upper Watergate Street was paved with these boulders in the mid to late 18thC when the new eastern wall of the Royal Dockyards was was built.

Elsdon and Howe in their The Stones of London: a Descriptive Guide to the Principal Stones Used in London state “Cobblestones formed the chief road material in London untik the later part of the 18thC when large cubed granite setts were introduced parts of the city”. [17]

And the only other places I have seen 18thC paving with limestone are in the Tower of London and the Temple Inn but nowhere have I seen small boulders such as this used.

Hopefully people will write in with other examples and dates but for now I’m quite excited by this discovery! 😀

I will be contacting Greenwich Council and Historic England and sending them this post to see what they think. And of course London Pavement Geology team for their thoughts.

Btw for the difference between setts and cobbles read this – but no mention of boulders! https://www.pavingexpert.com/setts01

John Evelyn. Not a Roundhead! John Nanteuil 1650 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Evelyn#/media/File:John_Evelyn1651.jpg

And a small diversion to John Evelyn, [13] whose drawing of Deptford in 1623 I have posted above. I have long known of Evelyn as a very important 17thC horticulturalist and of his seminal Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber of 1662, [14] [15] [16] but didn’t know of his Deptford connection. In fact he lived, wrote and experimented with growing plants, in Deptford for many years, in Sayes Court, just to the west of King Street and which was many years later, in the 19thC, incorporated into the expanded Royal Dockyard and later Convoys Wharf. Fascinatingly in the early 21stC excavations at Convoys Wharf show that the foundations of Sayes Court are still entirely in place!

But. Evelyn was also “His Majesty’s Commissioner for improving the streets and buildings of London,” [16] in the late 17thC. Is it possible he had Deptford High Street near the King’s Stairs paved as it it is to this day?

Getting there.

Upper Watergate Street is, as noted above, a continuation of Deptford High Street going north, so easily accessible via New Cross and Deptford stations.

[1] https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101288622-eastern-boundary-wall-to-the-former-royal-dockyard-deptford-evelyn-ward#.YbXwmtDP3b1
[1] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1288622
]3] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1213984?section=official-listing
[4] https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/shipwrights-house-deptford/
[5] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1416575?section=official-listing
[6] https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/england/evelyn-ward-greenwich#.YbY0m9DP3b1
[7] http://www.glias.org.uk/journals/11-b.html
[8] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1288622?section=official-listing
[9] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1067833?section=official-listing
[10] http://london1864.com/stanford64b.htm
[11] http://london1868.com/weller72.htm
[12] http://london1878.com/stanford64b.htm
[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Evelyn
[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylva,_or_A_Discourse_of_Forest-Trees_and_the_Propagation_of_Timber
[15] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26943222
[16] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm
[17] https://www.worldcat.org/title/stones-of-london-a-descriptive-guide-to-the-principal-stones-used-in-london-with-a-brief-non-technical-account-of-their-characteristic-features/oclc/499560630/editions

16 responses to “21: Upper Watergate Street. The oldest street surface in London?”

  1. Sandra Helen Margolies Avatar
    Sandra Helen Margolies

    Many years ago I heard a talk by a geologist about the stone pavings of Greenwich. He explained that the reason for their diversity (e.g. the entrances to Greenwich Market) was because tholiesey used the ballast from ships that had taken cargos to Australia and the far East and came back with smaller or no cargo and therefore needed ballast to stablilise them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thanks, I’ve read that about ballast too. These small boulders will definitely have got to Watergate Street by boat too I’d think, and may well be ballast.


    2. Btw Sandra. Do you happen to remember the name of the geologist?


  2. I lived in Frigate mews close to watergate street
    in the very early 80s,
    I remember a condemned children’s playground at the end of this street by the river which under no circumstances were we to play in as it was unsafe which made it even more fascinating!
    There were swings,slides etc and the tarmac they were set in was very warped with big cracks all over it
    the grown ups said it was built on river mud and was sinking,would love to see an arial map of that time

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! That sounds great! I can’t think where it would have been though! There’s a Adventure Play Ground next to the Dog and Ball. Wonder if they know?


  3. you need to read research from the Shipwrights Palace web site which provides more or less conclusive evidence that the ‘boiler house’ arcading was built as part of an abortive rail ferry scheme and was designed and erected by George Landmann or Cubit. There is a chapter on it in my new book on the Greenwich riverside and an article I published in Greenwich weekender a year or so ago. (Mary Mills The Greenwich Riverside Upper Watergate to Angerstein’ Amazon) which will give the link to the Shipwrights Palace. I guess GIHS would be happy to support listing. The bollard is listed because it mentions Penns. GIHS always happy to book speakers on interesting subjects – like paving!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ps a couple of refs
    And for a re-interpretation of the buildings, and detail on the railway the shipwrights palace blog http://shipwrightspalace.blogspot.com/

    will post link to my original article when I cn get issue to work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry about this -and I see that you did see the shipwrights palace link. I have been unable to get the link to the ‘Issue’ page for my Greenwich Weekender article to work – but happy to send the MS to anyone interested. The point is that the Payne’s Wharf site is much more complex than the fairly late Penns Boiler Shop. The MOLA report hints at pre-17th century use – with a dove cote here. As Stone Wharf it was the first East India Co, site and there was subsequent use by various ship building and import businesses. Various Deptford based researchers have pointed out that this area was once a busy area – one describes it as a ‘village centre’ .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary. Thanks so much for this and I had not clocked the http://shipwrightspalace.blogspot.com/2010/03/john-penn-marine-engineers-deptford-and.html page. The whole area is indeed extraordinary. I’m extremely interested now in the cast iron river wall and the laminated timber, which is suggested was ripped out but some saved. Where is it now? And I do plan a Royal Docks river wall post. What are your thoughts though specifically on Watergate Street and the date of the surfacing?


      1. Shipwrightspalace Avatar

        Some lengths of the laminated timber windows were salvaged and currently stored at master shipwrights house.
        Upper Watergate paving was relaid in early 2000s.
        Eastern boundary wall of dockyard was built after 1790 following the purchase of a string of properties including public houses the Red Lion, the Three Jolly Sailors, the Mansion House as well as domestic dwellings.

        Thanks for bringing attention to our fascinating part of London

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks Shipwrights palace re date it was repointed/ repaired! You can tell it was fairly recent, though sadly there’s been some damage done by utility firms since. Greenwich much have done a survey at the time before the work was done so I’ll ask them what they thought at the time!


  6. […] or and can’t take vehicles. I blogged in Post 2 about Upper Watergate Street in Deptford https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/12/21-upper-watergate-street-the-oldest-street-surface-in-london… and but these are atypical for cobbles being exceptionally large and really boulders not cobles. […]


  7. […] And the re-using of granite road setts for walls in 1960s re-developments is also not that un-usual but what’s exciting about this wall in Anderson Road on the Wyke Estate in Homerton in the London Borough of Hackney is that not only are the setts large and irregular, showing their age, – setts generally got smaller and neater and squarer as the 19thC progressed – see https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/30/22-granite-setts-at-the-middlesex-and-essex-filter-beds/ – this wall contains several boulders that are much less usual to see! In fact the use of boulders was key to the suggestion that Upper Watergate Street in Deptford is the oldest road surface in London. See https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/12/21-upper-watergate-street-the-oldest-street-surface-in-london… […]


  8. […] Upper Watergate Street in Deptford – maybe the oldest existing street surface in London! https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/12/21-upper-watergate-street-the-oldest-street-surface-in-london…%5B22%5D The shiny blue iron slag scoria bricks of Teeside at Stepney Green […]


  9. […] finding historic road surfaces is hard. The probably 18thC road at Upper Watergate Street [see https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/12/21-upper-watergate-street-the-oldest-street-surface-in-london… ] is pretty unique due to the large size of it’s boulders so Building London has long been on the […]


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