'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
These days it may not be much to look at, but this stretch of riverside is one of the most important places in English history. The ancient village of Deptford was built around a small tributary of the Thames – Deptford Creek. In 1513 Henry the Eighth established the very first Royal Dockyard here, and until the eighteenth century this was the great workshop and storehouse of the Royal Navy. Ships built and maintained here went around the world, and took part in every major naval battle from the Spanish Armada to Trafalgar.
The Royal Dockyard at Deptford was one of the great departure points for British explorers in the golden age of exploration. In 1576 Martin Frobisher set out from here on his first voyage in search of the North-West Passage. Frobisher failed three times, but one of his contemporaries gained far greater fame. In 1581 Elizabeth the First knighted Francis Drake on board his flagship, the Golden Hind, at Deptford after the first English circumnavigation of the globe. The Golden Hind became the first ship in Britain to be put on public display, three and a half centuries before the Cutty Sark. Her timbers are thought to be buried somewhere in the mud of Deptford Creek.
The Royal Dockyard became famous around the world, and attracted many visitors – some more notorious than others. In 1698 Peter the Great, then a Russian prince, spent three months working as a carpenter in the dockyard and learning the principles of ship-building. Peter stayed nearby at Saye Court, the home of the diarist John Evelyn. Evelyn recorded, with much displeasure, that Peter’s favourite pastime was got get drunk and then be pushed around the garden in a wheelbarrow, destroying his hedges and flowerbeds.
But Deptford is most famous for a murder which took place here on 30 May 1593, in a riverside pub. A young playwright named Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death, just above the eye, and hurriedly buried in the church of St Nicholas nearby. The official story was that Marlowe had died in a fight over the payment for a drink, but rumours began to circulate that more was going on.
Marlowe seems to have been working for Elizabeth the First’s secret service, and also had close connections with French spymasters, leading some to think that he may have been a double agent. He was also rumoured to have been actively homosexual – a capital offence at the time – and an atheist. And ten days before his death the government issued a warrant for his arrest, on suspicion of heresy. Any of these might have been enough to explain Marlowe’s murder, but we’ll probably never know the truth about this dark episode in the global history of Greenwich.