June 4, 2013 by auntkatefirmin
Why Deptford and Rotherhithe? What was happening in Deptford that made investments there appealing to John Firmin? When did the family move there? Lacking any evidence from John himself, I’ll have to create the story of what might have been. I’ll start with his known locations in Deptford based on his 1850 will: the leasehold houses 1-8 in Jessamine Terrace, Victoria Road, Deptford, and nine leasehold houses in Plough Bridge, Rotherhithe.
Let’s start with Jessamine Terrace since John was living at #6 at the time he wrote the will. It turns out that Jessamine Terrace is another instance where “terrace” is used to mean not a street but a particular group of houses. It is located on a street that changes names several times. The street starts out as Grove Street in the north, the next segment is called Victualling Office Row (later Victoria Road). The road takes another bend and the final segment is called Grove Lane (later Albert Street). By the 1869 Ordnance Survey map, the entire stretch of road is labeled Grove Street.
The 1841 census does not provide any indication of specific addresses and does not mention Jessamine Terrace. The 1837 map appears to indicate buildings in the approximate location, however, if Jessamine Terrace was built prior to 1841, we’ll need to look elsewhere for the evidence.
Jessamine Terrace does appear on some maps of the 1860’s including Stanford’s and Weller’s. If one were on the Thames looking southwest, as in the view below from a more rural time, the building would be roughly between the mast pond to the north and the wet dock to the south – except from the river level it would be hidden by the walls of the dock yard.
Joseph Farington’s view of the Deptford Dockyard (probably from the turn of the 19th century) when compared to the 1864 map gives a sense of the growth of the area in John Firmin’s lifetime. There’s not much visible beyond the docks that isn’t rural. He must have viewed property in the area as a good investment but it’s hard to be certain why this area in particular came to his attention. Administratively part of the Manor of Deptford, apparently the leases on the property were more accessible or attractive to someone of John Firmin’s standing than property in Stepney.
John and Sara were either good money managers, found themselves in the right place at the right time or received a good inheritance to invest – or a combination of all three. I don’t know what records might be available that would give a sense of the value of John’s property at his death in 1851 as there is no valuation in the probate record.
As to how the investment turned out, that’s another mystery. None of the family appear to have been noticeably well off, as they might have been if the properties were sold for a profit. In particular John’s grandson, John Firmin, is one of four grandchildren who were to have received income from the property on Jessamine Terrace. By 1880, grandson John was in Indiana making ends meet as a soda water manufacturer. If he had received any substantial inheritance, he did not manage to keep it.
What was happening in and around Jessamine Terrace before and after 1850?
The dockyards were founded in 1513 and formed an important part of the local economy. The main portion of Deptford grew up around the ford of the river Ravensbourne, while the dockyards were built a bit north on the site of a nearby fishing village. By the Firmin’s day, the dockyards were less competitive with newer facilities and the Royal Dock Yard, after intermittent closures, closed for the last time in 1869, two years before the youngest of the grandchildren in John Firmin’s will would reach the age of 21.
The Victualing Office for the Navy was moved in the mid 18th century to the site of “Red House” a collection of red brick warehouses north of the dockyard, just outside the view in the scene by Farington. It was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard in 1858, after a visit from the Queen. Essentially everything else on Grove Street that the Firmins would have recognized is gone, while the gates (circa 1788) remain. (Take a closer look and you will notice they are protected by black and white bollards constructed of old cannons set in the concrete.) A tremendous volume of food, medicine and other supplies were produced or warehoused here. Doubtless many of their employees lived nearby, possibly in Jessamine Terrace.
When the dockyards closed, they were replaced by the Foreign Cattle Market. Before refrigeration, meat animals were shipped live and quarantined in specific locations before being slaughtered. This no doubt greatly changed the character of the area as the skilled workmen building and repairing ships were replaced by tradesmen working with the hides an other non-edible remnants. The closing of the Market in 1926 had a severe impact on the local economy.
As Emily Firmin, the youngest of the grandchildren mentioned in the will of John Firmin, turned 21 in 1871, it’s possible that the Jessamine Terrace property was sold just about the time the Foreign Cattle Market was opened. I don’t have enough knowledge of English property records to be able to follow up. After 1861 none of the Firmins are known to have lived in the property.
One of the developments close by that may have caused the area to be attractive to John Firmin was the construction of the Grand Surrey Canal, which I will cover in a separate post when I look at his property in Rotherhithe.
It seems very likely that the property had passed out of the Firmin family by 1899 when the Booth poverty survey looked at Grove Street. The notes from the 1899 notebook indicate that the area was improving and “losing rough character.” Many of the homes were occupied by “Victualling Yard men.” The description that I take to be the portion that includes Jessamine Terrace reads: “On north side are two storied houses modern style with bay windows, extending to the high wall of the Victualling Yard.” Would houses built before 1850 still be “modern” in 1899? The bottom line is that the middle segment of Grove Street was colored purple – “some comfortable, others poor.”
Whenever the Jessamine Terrace property was sold, it seems probable that the character of the neighborhood, which I assume was “comfortable” around 1850 (to use Booth’s terminology), had changed to include more families that had difficulty making ends meet. Increased manufacturing and the cattle yard also made the neighborhood less desirable.
Not much of Victorian Grove Street remains, and very little of it is from before 1850. In the 1960’s, the Pepys Estate was built in the area and as best as I can tell Jessamine Terrace is now Pepys Park or just to the southeast of the park.
I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Deptford blogging community. Here are selected sites:
Deptford timeline from the South London Guide
St Paul’s, Deptford from a 1796 work at British History Online