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.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Library Journal on The Marlowe Papers

Regarding the January 2013 U.S. publication of Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers by St. Martin's, Library Journal writes:  "Barber does know her stuff. She has three poetry collections and a Ph.D. in Marlowe studies to her name and won the Marlowe Society’s Hoffman Prize for this work. In-house enthusiasm, too, so watch." 

Click here for the full article. 
U.S. readers don't have to wait until January.  You can order The Marlowe Papers now on Amazon.co.uk.

A Kindle edition is also available at Amazon.com.