In light of the recently proposed library cuts in Lewisham, it seems a timely moment to publish a conversation I recorded in Deptford Lounge a few months ago. For some time now, I’ve been meeting Marion, Michael, John and Peter to talk about their views on Deptford. They meet regularly at Deptford Lounge, their one and only social space where they feel welcome to spend their afternoons together and chat. Over the years, the group has grown and together they engage in lively discussions about history, Deptford and life in general. I spend most of the time talking to Marion and Michael, and John, a local chap with special needs who loves Deptford market and record shops, occasionally joins the conversation. Marion is a ‘true Deptfordite’, born and bred in the borough of Deptford and whose nan used to own a shop on Tanner’s Hill. Michael is a mixed-race Lewisham man with a degree in Sociology who comes to Deptford most days. Together they engage in a fascinating discussion about life in Deptford that spans across the whole of the 20th century up until now, covering everything from growing up here to being compulsory purchased, the racism of the 70s and 80s, feeling isolated and left behind and visions of the future. They provide an insightful analysis of how they view the changes happening in the area. Please note that the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect my own.
Marion: I grew up in Deptford in the 50s and I remember all the shops from that time. There was a pet shop and we used to have a shop called Peery’s just up the High Street where my mum would buy all the sheets, towels, pillow cases and other household goods. Then under the bridge used to be Fanto’s, which did the same thing but had more higher-class things to sell, and there used to be a tailor’s under the bridge who would make suits to measure. My nan opened up a second-hand shop on 19 Tanner’s Hill, where my mum was born, and she also bought the house next door for my aunt so as children we could walk through the two houses. Although there was already quite a few second-hand shops, my grandmother was noted for mending, washing and ironing the clothes, and she didn’t distinguish between the people from Carrington House and others, even if they didn’t have pennies to pay her, she would let them have it because they were poor. My grandmother always used to look out for the poor. She remembered all the poor people queuing up outside the Deptford Mission on Creek Road without shoes on and never forgot that the poor people were treated so badly. They were given one jug of soup and, depending on how many were in a family, between one and two loafs of bread. Even my father used to go to school without shoes because his mother couldn’t afford them, and he would get beaten by the school master because he got to school with dirty feet. How terrible when you think that they can do that to a child when it’s not even their fault. There was also a murder in a shop in Deptford High Street, the first case where they used fingerprints to capture the murderer. Well, my mother knew the people in the shop and the buggers that did it, and their mother, and it was only because they were so poor that they killed those people because they believed these people had money. They were cruel times.
Marion’s nan holding her auntie outside the shop on 19 Tanner’s Hill. Image kindly supplied by Marion
My grandmother always used to say ‘You don’t wanna live over the tramline’. Now the tramlines went all the way from New Cross to Blackheath and over the tramlines, the Tanner’s Hill end, that was the better class of people, working-class but they were a better class, who worked for what they wanted, they saved, didn’t let the children run wild, made sure that everything was in place, whereas it was perceived that if you lived across the other side of the tramline, you were not good, that people would steal and do terrible things. It was a class within a class because you could almost say where the person came from by looking at the way they were dressed. A lot of the women were very poorly dressed, whereas the women up Tanner’s Hill may have had a pinny over them and were much more affluent than these poor women on the other side. My grandmother always felt sorry for them and she often used to do up some clothes and send them to the Mission for them to give out.
The poor people of Deptford. Images kindly supplied by Marion.
In the top half of the High Street, the Tanner’s Hill side of the tramline, we had everything we needed within that area. There was Finchey’s which did everything from hair shampoo down to ice cream to children’s dummies, we also had a baker’s that baked its own bread, we had Clark’s Butchers with one shop on top and another on the bottom of Tanner’s Hill. Mr Clark’s daughter actually married Charlie Chaplin. We also had a fish shop, a greengrocer’s, two doors from my nan’s there was a cycle shop called Wickham’s, and next to my nan’s was a gentleman called Cupboards who repaired saddles, handbags, belts, and other things, and opposite my nan, where there’s now a record shop, there used to be a pickle factory.
John: There used to be a record shop on the High Street, but it’s gone now. I love music. And I like the market. I go there every day.
Marion: They did pickled onions and gherkins and the smell in the summer was horrendous. The smell of vinegar put me off for life, but it was a part of Deptford and you knew where to go if you wanted your pickles for Christmas. In the 60s, I remember, there was a fish stall that stood just on the corner of the High Street [where the Lounge stands] and he would have live eels and people would come up and ask him for the eels in a jar, and as children we could take a jam jar to him and he would pay us a penny. And then there was more pubs in Deptford than there was anything else, and we had 2 cinemas where my mum worked as an usherette and where she met my father. One of them was a significant building with all plushed seats and a chandelier. How they came to pull it down I’ll never know.
[John comes over with the book Lewisham & Deptford in Old Photographs by John Coulter to show us photographs of the cinemas of that time, particularly Deptford Broadway Theatre.]
But that’s all gone now. People no longer go to the corner shop and talk to each other like they used to. You used to go in the baker’s and you’d say ‘Have you seen So and So?’ and Joyce Bowley, who owned Bowley’s the baker’s would say ‘Oh I’ve seen her but she’s not too well’. Today you can go weeks without seeing somebody and you don’t know who to ask.
One of the shops on Deptford High Street. Image kindly supplied by Marion.
In the 70s you could see Deptford changing. My mother’s house was compulsory purchased and basically, they pulled down whole rows of houses that really didn’t need pulling down; they just needed doing up to the standard that people expected. They were firm houses, all quite large 3, 4, 5-bedroom houses, some Georgian, some Edwardian, some Victorian, but they pulled so many of them down and nobody asked what people thought about this. The council made all the decisions – they compulsory purchased you and only offered you the basic value of the property, regardless of the work you’d done inside, and you had to take it. They built an estate on the land, which is wonderful in one way but people are enclosed in their own area and don’t really talk to anybody outside of their estate. When my mother moved into Friendly Street, all the people were talking to each other but on the new estates people didn’t talk. They brought in people from other areas, some came from Dagenham, others from East London, and it was difficult to get to know them. This was all very upsetting because a lot of the people whose houses were pulled down didn’t stay in the area, they all moved. My mum and a few others were the only ones that stayed around, either in Strickland Street, Baildon Street, Lucas Street and Little Gloucester because them houses hadn’t been pulled down then. But the house that I’d been born in was pulled down, and I also get upset about my nan’s shop; it’s actually a listed building but the people that bought it have altered the front of it.
Marion’s nan’s old rent book. Image kindly supplied by Marion.
Michael: so, when you look back and then come forward, how do see yourself as a Deptford person, how do you see yourself currently then?
Marion: very isolated, it’s very isolating because the number of people I knew, all the older generation, the true Deptford people, they are all dying off now, and their children, like my children, can’t afford to live in Deptford so they’ve had to move out. One of my daughters is over in Orpington, my other daughter is over in East London; they would love to come back to Deptford but they can’t afford it, they just can’t afford the properties around here. My eldest daughter did try to get a property round here but it was so astronomical – there’s no way they could afford it. I understand they have regenerated the area, they want to make money from what they’ve laid out and they obviously want to make a profit on that, but they’re making so much of a profit at times that it’s absolutely astronomical. I mean they’ve made the place tidier but they’ve not made it a community because they put up flats which tend to be very isolating because people tend to go in, shut the door and don’t talk to anybody, and I know that from the flats that surround me. I never expected Deptford to change so vastly
John: there used to be buses down the High Street, the No1 used to go down here
Marion: yes, the No 1 and the 47 used to come down here
Michael: so, do you see yourself as the last bastion of what you would call a Deptford person?
Marion: oh yeah, I’m one of the last surviving ones. Years ago I could walk out of my mum’s front door, even in Friendly Street, and no sooner would I walk down the road and it was ‘Hello Mrs So and So, Hello Sir,…’ It’s quite strange that I remember being able to talk to so many people but now they’re all different faces, there’s nobody to whom you can say ‘Oh I remember you from like when I was a child’, there isn’t anybody anymore, and that is very upsetting. The new people that move in are always on the way to somewhere, drawn into Deptford because of all the transport links, and sure some of them talk to us but it’s not the same as seeing somebody that you know. My aunt never accepted the change in Deptford
Michael: but are you accepting the change in Deptford Marion?
Marion: I’ve had to because I can’t change Deptford back to the way it was; you would need the people that grew up in Deptford, knew Deptford, to be able to bring back all the community that was here. Now, it’s so vastly different, I accept it because I have to, but I don’t like it and it upsets me to see all the things I once knew gone
Michael: so, what’s your fear for the future…and your hopes?
Marion: my fear is that Deptford will be no longer Deptford, that it will be swallowed up and become Lewisham. I know it’s in Lewisham but to Deptford people it will always be Deptford. But I fear that mentality will pass because nobody today will grow up with the same feelings for Deptford. But I’m hoping that the council and developers will remember that people will need somewhere they can go. I mean we’re lucky we’ve got this library because where else would we go?
Michael: but what about the places under the railway arches? There’s lots of little shops that cater for local people, so that’s an aspect you haven’t particularly looked at in the wider sense
Marion: but them shops are for the affluent people, not for the proper Deptford people. I’m not being funny but a true Deptfordite would go ‘I’m not paying that price!’ The younger generation probably think it’s wonderful because they got all of them artisan shops and coffee and food places, but they will only serve a certain percentage of the community, basically people that get up the trains that live here or that are just passing through, but the actual Deptford people won’t go there
Michael: I don’t see that myself but that’s how you’re seeing it for yourself because this is how you’re perceiving your Deptford
Marion: yeah, that’s right. I do hope that people who move in will start to come together and be a community, learn Deptford’s history although they’ll never know the little nitty bits that shape the essence of Deptford. Deptford is my home, right from birth it’s always been my home. I’ve lived in other places but I’ve always come home to Deptford. I’m happy here, I’ve had to accept Deptford as it is, it’s wrinkles and crinkles, but I’ve still got people around me
Anita: so would it make a difference if the people coming in would engage more with local people and places, would familiarise themselves with Deptford’s history, and if there were more social spaces for local people?
Marion: yeah, absolutely! I hope that the community will come together eventually and be much more open like years ago and not so transient
Michael: Deptford has created a problem for itself because how can we now address this divide and how can we grow so Deptford is for everybody? Deptford is its people, but in a capital society, where it’s all about money and always will be, how can we all exist together? The people who move, they don’t spend their money here, their money goes elsewhere, and we’re left with the council to provide for us. You have to use a pragmatic angle and be realistic: we can’t stop change. Deptford was for many years crying out for regeneration but it’s about the balance between keeping some of its old character and uniqueness, and progress, and this is very difficult. The Lounge is the greatest input compared to any other borough. There were times where coming to Deptford wasn’t very conducive, in fact it was very dangerous. I know Deptford was very unique for working-class families like Marion’s, but I know more about the wider aspects and understand more about it from a more critical perspective. Being mixed-race and coming here from Catford with my mates many years ago – we also experienced the ‘you’re not from here attitude’. I know history is important, but it’s also important to understand change and how things need to change. In the 1970s, change was perceived in a negative way, politically, such as how Marion described it. Deptford was a place whose history changed dramatically when you think of the National Front coming in at the time. It was when the white working-class people felt marginalised and stamped on with all the new people coming in – this is exactly where Marion’s perspective is coming from – they felt threatened and couldn’t adapt to the new situation. These feelings were very strong in Deptford.
1977 and the Battle of Lewisham was the turning point for the borough of Lewisham because of what was happening socially. Between 1970 and 1977 Lewisham was not at ease with itself, its people, but I can only tell you the narrative of my older siblings as I was too young to experience this, I know this from what they told me – they would have been between 17 and 22, they were young, evolving and looking at aspects of how society was shaping. The institutional racism at that time…you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time…lots of pubs used to be full of racists and you could be subject to racism just by walking past. My siblings faced a lot of verbal abuse. The National Front had walks here, they thought they could take over Lewisham, believed they had lots of in-road in Lewisham. They wanted a seat in the government in the 70s and set up stalls to sell their paraphernalia. Up until that point, people weren’t addressing what was going on which is why the NF was so successful. But after 1977 and the Battle of Lewisham, black people for the first time felt they had a voice, “this is where we live, we live here too”. We experienced a tremendous hope for tomorrow and that we can be perceived as having a perspective and a voice without fear. It made the government look at all aspects. I was growing up then – you could go out, you didn’t feel threatened, that’s why I feel passionate about my borough which is very different from my siblings. We could be expressive, there was hope, I was allowed to come to Deptford. Where would we be without the Battle of Lewisham? That’s why I went to the unveiling of the plaque in the summer 2017.
Deptford is the area of the true working-class of the borough, working-class in every sense of the word: socially, economically, their habits, they are unlike in any area in the borough. Deptford’s always been viby and edgy due to the working-class. In the 90s, it was not at ease with itself, it was searching for a new soul, the old was gone and there was a clash with the new. This was at the start at how I saw Deptford, but again I’m coming from a perspective from outside looking in. In my view, it couldn’t remain as it was, it had to grow, but how do you grow from within? Whatever designs the council had – ways of creating finances – were close to how East London was seen financially, how it could make money and how this could be done in Deptford. But it’s about trying something without losing its identity; there will always be winners and losers but how do you merge the history of the real Deptfordites, people born and bred here, with the younger generation? We can’t keep it romanticised like Marion’s version of Deptford, we have to change this kind of mindset to incorporate all people, it’s about trying to find a balance so that we can be part of something and are proud to be from Deptford at the same time.
It’s very important that Deptford keeps its working-class roots, but I believe working-class people are going to be squeezed to such an extent that I don’t know how the working-class view Deptford’s legacy. I can see why developers have chosen Deptford – it’s got the river and there are lots of opportunities to generate money, and it has an investment agenda, but investment for whom? It will not incorporate everyone. I see the enterprise, the very nice, well-planned financial investment in certain areas, like the railway arches. Are they technically saying this is for everyone? That type of business, in a brutal and psychological way, keeps people in a financial war because people are asking: “Where are places for me? Does this investment include me? Am I comfortable here?”
It’s not good to have this us and them mentality but the new shops in the area create this because they are, I hate to say it but it’s true, not for us. I can’t think of anyone who’d go there. It’s perhaps not people’s intentions but these kinds of establishments like the ones under the railway bridge create a divide, psychologically and mentally. This is a working-class area and I’m wondering what is tomorrow’s Deptford? How is it there for everyone? I cannot say what Deptford is going to be like in the future. Why don’t they [developers, councils] liaise with people and allow them to express their views rather than decide what’s right for them – let them live here too. I mean, we need to ask ‘what do you really want for Deptford?’ Things are now so far removed from the working man, I’m surprised people haven’t gone out into the streets again. People don’t want that much, just something that is theirs and something they can identify with. Identification is really important, and they can’t identify with what’s out there. If you’re pushed out because of your class, and Deptford is now more middle-class, then it’s about cleaning away the past, and the past wasn’t always romantic. These are testing times for Deptford, and we don’t know what’s gonna happen, we don’t even know what Lewisham is up to and it leaves ordinary people wondering where they fit into the picture, what their place is in this place and society. They will have to address certain aspects.
Yes, Deptford has to adapt. How can Deptford people survive if they can’t adapt but at this point in time, I don’t see regeneration for local people, what I see is investment for a financial bracket of people. We need everyone’s view of how the Deptford of tomorrow has to be reconstructed as it will affect everybody. I can see a segregation mindset developing if they’re not careful, and this is happening with the help of the borough and they need to start taking responsibility. We have seen this in other parts of London with a Labour council, Lewisham is also a Labour council. I’m a Socialist and I don’t like what this Labour council is doing. They are adding to this dilemma of no place for the working-classes, the poor, and I find it hard to accept because I want to believe in a Labour council, but I find it increasingly harder to understand what the Labour councils are doing. I’m feeling more and more disillusioned! Deptford is the most important part of Lewisham, no other area has what Deptford has but this kind of regeneration creates individual problems: mental health issues, housing issues, the welfare system, all these aspects need looking at with these changes. Or alcohol, drugs, those who are marginalised. There has to be a focus on the white working-class aspects because how do you address issues of the white working-class? In itself, Deptford has a wonderful social mix, but we need to think about how we can address the issues that are fundamental to the white working-class in this agenda? From a Socialist point of view, the Labour council’s agenda is not for everyone even if they say it’s for everyone. And we need to think about the importance of family life. If the children of local people can’t afford to live here, it fragments family life, as in Marion’s example. Where do local people go? Are young people going to be pushed out completely? I see more and more young people living with their parents and this can lead to mental health problems. There clearly is a shortage of houses, we know that, but if people see all this new housing developed for other people, it will lead to mental health problems. We have to think about all these important components that would make up a Deptford that works for everyone. We have to reach out to everyone so that everybody has opportunity, because otherwise we have a society that’s mentally and psychologically dead, with no hope. There has to be hope.
I can’t stipulate enough how important the Lounge is, it has basically become a vocal point for people, it’s a community, our social space. The staff here are very aware of that and have become open to that aspect of how the library is being used. They allow all kinds of people in – drinkers, the homeless, people with mental health issues, and some come from way beyond to socialise here – like us. Where else would we go? You can drink your tea, coffee or hot chocolate, you’re not harassed and sent away, there are comfortable chairs. Where else can local people spend their money if there’s nothing there? Many are unemployed or earn just a little, and the funding has changed – many people can’t access help anymore. Where do you get comfort from if you can’t see anyone for your weekly routine? Where you can have a cup of tea and an outlet to talk about issues. So this space has wider implications; take it away and you will have more social problems and mental health issues. And we also need to find links between the generations to allow parties to engage. These engagements I believe will be even more important in the future because the facilities won’t be there anymore. There are all these cut-backs for all of us and at the same time all this new stuff for new people.