Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Getting the Body to Deptford by Peter Farey

It is the evening of 29 May 1593. Imagine that it is your responsibility to take charge of the body of John Penry, after his execution at St. Thomas à Watering, and to convey it to Eleanor Bull's house at Deptford Strand.How do you think that you would go about it? Fortunately, you do have a warrant – signed by the Coroner of the Queen's Household, William Danby – to receive it from the sheriff, but how best to transport it to widow Bull's place without arousing any suspicions as to the legitimacy of that destination? Four bodies a year were allowed to go to the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissection, but their headquarters was certainly not located in Deptford.

Even though the distance from St. Thomas à Watering to Deptford Strand was less than three miles by road, I would have had some concerns about carrying a body in an easily followed horse-drawn cart, especially if it was apparently setting off in the wrong direction. So was there another way? Thanks to information now available to us on-line it seems that there very probably was.

Have you ever heard of Earl's Sluice? I certainly hadn't, even though its source was apparently in what is now Ruskin Park, a few hundred yards from where I lived throughout my teens in Herne Hill, south London. It is one of the capital's lost rivers, which rose there, headed north-east through Camberwell and – gathering more waters from the River Peck (which gave us Peckham) – finally flowed into the Thames at Rotherhithe. The earl in question seems to have been Robert, the first Earl of Gloucester, who was an illegitimate son of the Norman king Henry I, and lord of the manor thereabouts. The word 'sluice' suggests that it was more man-made (presumably at the behest of the said earl) than an entirely natural stream.

The interesting thing from our point of view is that the name of the place where Earl's Sluice crossed the Old Kent Road was in fact St. Thomas à Watering. According to Paul Talling, "In 1934, evidence of a medieval bridge was discovered in a trench at the junction of the Old Kent Road and Shorncliffe Road. This section of Earl's Sluice was nicknamed St. Thomas à Watering after it became a popular horse-watering place for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury."2 In terms of latitude and longitude, this is at 51° 29' 18" North and 00° 04' 35" West. That place was of course given some fame by Chaucer in his The Canterbury Tales, it being the first stop his pilgrims made after leaving the Tabard Inn, and where it was agreed that they would tell stories to each other to pass the time.

And off we rode at slightly faster pace
Than walking to St. Thomas' watering-place;
And there our Host drew up, began to ease
His horse, and said, "Now, listen if you please,
My lords! Remember what you promised me.
If evensong and matins will agree
Let’s see who shall be first to tell a tale.
And as I hope to drink good wine and ale
I’ll be your judge. The rebel who disobeys,
However much the journey costs, he pays."3

There is a nice illustration, together with a map of the Sluice and Peck's approximate courses, here at londonist.com.

Nowadays, it is the site of the Thomas A Becket bar and Nolias Art Gallery where, according to their website, David Bowie wrote and rehearsed Ziggy Stardust in an upstairs room. It's amazing what you discover when writing these articles!

In Elizabethan times, however, it was the place of execution for the northern parts of Surrey, a permanent pair of gallows having been erected there in 1559.4 We must therefore return to our predicament concerning John Penry. Do we have to follow the pilgrims down the old Kent Road, which certainly went past Deptford? Chaucer's host, after hearing the Knight's tale, even tells the Reeve:

Give us your story, if you've one in stock.
Why, look! There's Deptford and it's nine o'clock!

Earl's Sluice ran to the north of the Canterbury road, heading initially north-east then east from St. Thomas à Watering, and being joined by the River Peck half a mile or so later before finding the Thames. Would it have been navigable by a small boat? There are some indications that it would. We learn that "The 1537/8 accounts of the London Bridge estate, which owned land in south London, include a record of the sale of several loads of timber to a man called Christopher Payne including one load of oak 'for the earl’s sluice' which cost him 8 shillings, which may have been for embanking or for bridging the stream."5 We also know that it formed a boundary between Camberwell and Southwark, Rotherhithe and Deptford, and even the counties of Surrey and Kent. It seems unlikely that a simple brook would have achieved such a status. That the river Peck was the tributary also suggests that Earl's Sluice was the larger of the two, and an early print, copied as a watercolour,6 in fact shows it as having been a fairly substantial waterway by the time it reached the Thames at Rotherhithe.

So we know where the probably navigable (at least by rowing boat) Earl's Sluice started and where it passed by on the way, but where did it enter the Thames, since no vestige of it apparently remains? Fortunately, we have a clue in it having provided the boundary between Rotherhithe and Deptford. There is one piece of evidence in the form of a stone, right on the Thames embankment, marking the boundary between the parishes of St. Mary's in Rotherhithe and St. Paul's in Deptford. It is about a hundred yards south of the lock at the entrance to the South Dock Marina. A blue plaque tells us that the "stone was on a bridge over the Earl Creek nearby, but was relocated here in 1988."7

So where does the water go now? In fact, Earl's Sluice, at least at the Rotherhithe end, exists nowadays only as a part of the Thames Water sewage system. It is redirected by the appropriately named "Earl Pumping Station" in Yeoman Street into the Southern Outfall sewer, dating from Victorian times, which finishes up at the Crossness sewage treatment works, nine or ten miles down-river. Only when the system can't cope does it currently have to rely on the former route to the Thames, which follows Plough Way straight down to the overflow point observable on Google Earth at 51° 29' 35"N and 00° 01' 55"W. This is presumably at the same place as the original confluence.8

Assuming that Earl's Sluice could have provided a route for a small boat to reach the Thames, how far was it from St. Thomas à Watering? Calculating from the two locations described by their latitude and longitude,9 we find a distance of just over three kilometres (1.86 miles) as the crow flies. Even if we add a certain amount for deviations from the straight line, it is still unlikely to be much more than a couple of miles. And as the drop from the source to St. Thomas was about 21 metres (69 ft.), and from there to the Thames a mere 4 metres (13 ft.), getting the boat up to St. Thomas à Watering in the first place should not have been all that onerous.

Although it is quite likely that Eleanor Bull's house in Deptford Strand was itself on the river, we don't actually know this, so let us head for the middle water-gate shown on the map in Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning.10 Having reached the Thames after a bit over two miles, it would be only about a further kilometre (0.62 miles) to the water-gate at Deptford Strand. A total distance by water of less than three miles, as it would have been by road, but in this case all downstream.

So, if it was indeed possible, I know which of the two options I would have chosen.

© Peter Farey, July 2012

Peter Farey is a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.

1It was David More who first suggested that John Penry's body may have been used in the faking of Christopher Marlowe's death. See his 1997 essay Drunken Sailor or Imprisoned Writer? at http://www.marlovian.com/essays/penry.html
2Talling, Paul (2011). London's Lost Rivers, Random House, pp.109–110. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PNe5ZBe53HYC&pg=PA109
3These two quotations are taken from Neville Coghill's excellent modern version of the book, republished by Penguin in 2003.
7See it shown at http://www.bermondseyboy.net/2011/07/03/blue-plaques-in-bermondsey-rotherhithe/ . There is also a photograph of it on Google Earth in its exact location, which is just north of where Plough Way meets the river, at 51° 29' 36"N and 00° 01' 57"W.
8This appears as the magenta line on the map at http://www.thamestunnelconsultation.co.uk/doclib/earl-pumping-station/
9 Using the calculator at http://www.movable-type.co.uk/scripts/latlong.html
10Nicholl, Charles (2002). The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (2nd edition), London, Vintage, plate 3.


daver852 said...

Very interesting, Peter. I have just finished reading a book (available free online at archive.org) by William Pierce called "John Penry: His Life, Times and Writings" (1923). The author makes several comments on irregularities surrounding Penry's trial and execution. For example, he was found guilty on May 25, 1593 but the sentence was not immediately carried out: "It was strange it was now the fourth evening since he left the Court, under condemnation that he be hanged without delay." And when he was finally hanged: "No prefatory warning was sent to the Bench. No intimation was given to the verger at St. George's to be ready to toll his dismal knell and to drive the curious to the place of hanging." The logical conclusion is that Penry's execution was delayed until the plans for Marlowe's escape could be finalized.

tim.nash said...

Fascinating, Peter. Makes me wonder if the Earl's Sluice, and thereafter the Thames, was the way the 4 bodies per annum were transported to the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissection, as this would make the moving of Penry's body seem normal to any local. If their accounts exist, are there any records of fees paid to watermen for the transport of bodies?

daver852 said...

I found a map showing the connection between St. Thomas a Watering and Deptford and a reference that the were once connected by water:


Peter Farey said...

Thanks for the information about William Pierce's book now being available online, Dave. I know that David More cited him in his original article, but for some reason I consulted only the books by Peel and Waddington when I was following it up. A pity, since I picked up from somewhere that Penry was held in the Marshalsea prison, whereas Pierce says (and appears to be right) that he was actually in the Queen's Bench prison next door. Still within Danby's control, nevertheless. You are of course right about the suspicious circumstances of his hanging.

Tim, that's an interesting idea about the accounts of the Barber-Surgeons. I have no idea of the answer to your question though! Bear in mind, however, that St. Thomas à Watering was the place of execution only for north Surrey, and that there were presumably several other places from which a body could have been obtained by them. Barrow and Greenwood, for example, were hanged at Tyburn.

Interesting map from Dave, in which the author seems not to know about Earl's Sluice, but likes the suggestion that Canute built a canal following the same route as far as St. Thomas à Watering, but then carried on west as far as Chelsea Reach, where it rejoined the Thames. Sounds a bit strange to me.


Scamel said...

Peter, for information about the watercourse between St. Thomas a Watering and Deptford you may find interesting Thomas Allen's "The history and antiquities of the parish of Lambeth".

Maureen Duff said...

Great research, Peter. Now all that is missing is the future discovery that Eleanor Bull's house at Deptford Strand had a back gate (perhaps at the side or end of her garden?) that led to a quiet little landing quay on the Earl's Sluice, along the original Plough Way course, ostensibly for deliveries and getting about by boat to nearby districts but also very suitable for the clandestine comings and goings of a safe house.

lp542 said...

Hi Peter:

It's a rather large coincidence that the play Edward 1 published in 1593 as by George Peele mentions St Thomas a Watering, but not as a place as the name of a character.

As far as I can determine on a cursory search the Saint the location is named after did not hae this last name. It would be interesting to know which St Thomas this place is named after.

Peter Farey said...

Maureen, I think that your suggestion may may be scuppered by the presence of Sayes Court and the Great Dock of the Queen's shipyard (and about a kilometre) between Plough Way and Deptford Strand!

"Ip542", it seems to me that in Peele's play, the Farmer is simply tricking the Friar, whom he wrongly believes to be a fool, into giving him the money the Friar says has just won for St. Francis. He makes the ludicrous suggestion that he is "St. Francis's receiver" and invents a breakfast between St. Francis and a "St. Thomas à Watering" to which he is also going, and where he can give St. Francis the money. That there was nobody ever actually called by that name is the joke.

Whether Peele also had in mind a deception associated with the place in 1593 is something we may guess at, but which is ultimately unknowable.

The place was nicknamed St. Thomas à Watering after it became a popular horse-watering place for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury.


Peter Farey said...

One thing about this which I have found difficult to explain is why the waterway was given the name "Sluice". According to the OED (2.) a sluice can be "A channel, drain, or small stream, esp. one carrying off overflow or surplus water" and I think that this sort of meaning I gave it, and assumed that it simply passed through some land near Camberwell owned by the eponymous earl, Robert Earl of Gloucester, who had had various works done on it to control the flow in some way.

Further research on this has revealed something quite interesting, however. It turns out that the manor owned by the earl was not upstream of St. Thomas à Watering, but in fact part of Rotherhithe itself. The sluice is therefore far more likely to have been what the OED (1.a) defines as "A structure of wood or masonry, a dam or embankment, for impounding the water of river, canal, etc., provided with an adjustable gate or gates by which the volume of water is regulated or controlled." In other words, it separated the waters of the stream from the tidal flow of the Thames. And a prime reason for doing this would be to ensure that it remained navigable upstream even when the Thames was at low tide. Remember that St. Thomas à Watering has an elevation only four metres above the riverside at Rotherhithe.

Nowadays one can bypass such sluices by means of a lock, but in those days one may have had to manoeuvre the boats over land (as with Portia's "tranect") or wait until an hour or two before high tide (through to an hour or two after) to cross, as one can nowadays with the sluices at Richmond-on-Thames. Fortunately for this theory, high tide at Rotherhithe on 29 May 1593 would have been at around 9.45 p.m.

So why would the river itself have been called "Earl's Sluice"? The second of the two definitions given above continues "Also, rarely, the body of water so impounded or controlled." In which case, the stream was named after the structure, and continued to be used for it beyond the point where it was joined by the river Peck (presumably the smaller of the two) and back past St. Thomas à Watering to its source atop Denmark Hill.