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Site of John Evelyn’s Deptford garden under threat

Posted on November 30th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Site of John Evelyn’s Deptford garden under threat

The site of the house and garden at Sayes Court — John Evelyn’s London residence by the then Royal Dockyard at Deptford — is currently subject to a planning application from a property developer which would see the site of the garden built over. A small group of concerned locals has mounted a campaign to conserve the site with a view to seeing it re-emerge as a public garden or park, integral to the riverfront residential development envisaged by the developers. At present, the entirety of the Sayes Court estate lies under an apron of concrete, but it is believed that garden archaeology could reveal much of its layout; the cellars of Evelyn’s house survive and have already been subject to some archaeological investigation. The site of Sayes Court takes up about one-sixth of the area to be developed, now known as Convoys Wharf. The proposal from developers Hutchison-Whampoa is for 3,514 residential units, 80% of them one- and two-bedroom flats, in three tall blocks of 32-, 38- and 46- storeys, plus a variety of smaller blocks typically between 8–18 storeys; one of the blocks is directly over the site of the principal parterre of the garden.

The masterplan gives some idea of the scale of the intended development, see the Sayes Court website for more.

The masterplan gives some idea of the scale of the intended development, see for more.

The GHS supports this campaign and is adding its voice to those suggesting that Lewisham Council looks favourably on the idea of conserving the site of Sayes Court as part of an overall development plan when the application is considered by Lewisham’s planning committee in either January or April. A revised plan would potentially mean the construction of approximately half the number of residential units, with a greater mix of commercial, community, artistic and other uses at the site, as well as the integration of green space on the footprint of the old garden.

The garden at Sayes Court (see Garden History 25:2, Winter 1997) was laid out by Evelyn from 1653 and included an oval garden, a terrace walk or mount, an orchard and the grove, which contained more than 500 specimens of standard oak, ash, elm, service, beech and chestnut. Numerous unusual and exotic spice and citrus plants were grown here (the proximity of the docks playing its part) and there was also a substantial kitchen garden of 38 beds laid out systematically. Other attractions included a banqueting house and an island reached by a drawbridge. All of this is well delineated in Evelyn’s own plan of the garden, held by the British Library and viewable in the online gallery section of its website.

Wooden model of Sayes Court made by George Carter in 1988, for the V&A Garden exhibition. The (originally) Thames side walk to the right of the model can still be detected on aerial photos of the site today. Picture by Tim Richardson.

Wooden model of Sayes Court made by George Carter in 1988, for the V&A Garden exhibition. The (originally) Thames side walk to the right of the model can still be detected on aerial photos of the site today. Picture by Tim Richardson.

Charles II visited the garden on several occasions, though the most celebrated story was the time when Peter the Great of Russia, who leased the house for a period, ruined some of Evelyn’s prized holly hedges having been pushed around the garden in a wheelbarrow for fun.

After Evelyn’s death in 1706 Sayes Court was used as a poor-house for 125 years. By the end of the 19th century both the house and garden were in disrepair. The old dockyard was transformed into the Foreign Cattle Market, leading to the conversion of a great double-arched slipway cover into cattle sheds. This is now a Grade II listed structure and must remain as part of any future development. The house itself was slightly damaged during the Second World War by a V1 rocket and was subsequently demolished. The local activists suggest that the great arched structure could be used again as a boatyard for the construction of historic wooden ships, and to that end they have teamed up with historic ship experts who have submitted their own detailed proposals based on other schemes which have been successful, not least as tourist attractions, in France and the Netherlands.

Today the surrounding local area is taken up by light-industrial units and low-rise residential blocks, but John Evelyn and the garden at Sayes Court is commemorated in local street names and remains very much a part of the folk memory of Deptford. Sayes Court has even been ‘saved’ on one previous occasion, when a descendant of John Evelyn mounted a campaign in the 1880s with the help of Octavia Hill (prior to her creation of the National Trust) to turn it into a public park. The campaign was successful and Sayes Court Park remained a public amenity until the First World War, when 3/4 of the park was absorbed into the Dockyard and never returned. The remainder of the park was remodelled in the 1950s.

In 2000 Lewisham Council commissioned a report on Sayes Court, its significance and the impact of development. Prof Burdett’s report recommended the reinstatement of the complete area of John Evelyn’s garden as part of the scheme and highlighted the role of the wharf area as a historically important site in terms of both ship-building and horticulture.

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