Julian Kingston has lived on his boat Sabine in the Theatre Arm of Deptford Creek since 1987. His wife Jeannie Seymour joined him in 1996 and together they have lived in Deptford ever since. Julian has been a wood craftsman and boat builder for over 35 years and was involved in restoring Massey-Shaw, London’s oldest fire-boat, and in conservation works on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth. Julian is also involved in the Lenox Project, which proposes ‘to build a replica of the Restoration warship Lenox in the dockyard where she was originally built – King Henry VIII’s Royal Dockyard’ (www.buildthelenox.org). This is not only to respect Deptford’s history as a shipbuilding area but also to create jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities for local young people. It was a response to the development proposals at Convoy’s wharf by Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa that totally ignored Deptford’s local communities and its heritage.
Julian in his workshop on a Thames Lighter
When Julian moved to Deptford, the plan was to restore Sabine, an 1895 German one time steamer in Deptford Creek and go travelling again, but Deptford got into Julian’s blood and he stayed. When I ask him why he stayed, he laughs: “It’s Deptford, isn’t it? It’s got something about it. I think there are enough people here who don’t like being pushed around and that makes it interesting. I also like the creative element in Deptford but not the one that’s marketed by developers but the creativity that comes from the people themselves.” Anyone who knows Deptford well will understand what Julian means.
Julian and Jeannie enjoy living on their boat. They also have two other boats, a dinghy and a Thames Lighter that had been used as a fireboat in the Millennium River of Fire, which houses their workshops (Jeannie is a dressmaker) and garden. They also have bees and together they produce Creekside Honey – sometimes for sale at Creekside Discovery Centre in years when the harvest is good. In her beautifully written piece about their life on the Creek (read full piece here), Jeannie describes it as idyllic and wonderful, at least until all the trouble started with nearby construction works.
‘It was absolutely magical. Julian’s boat was the only boat in this arm of the creek. We had the whole place to ourselves in the evenings and at weekends. There was no DLR, no one in the college, no one in Mumford’s Mill, no flats at the end of the Creek either. We could even star watch because we had no light pollution and we could sit out on the deck watching the water undisturbed.’
Jeannie and Julian’s garden and bees on their boat Sabine (at the back of bottom image)
Ever since the DLR was constructed in the late 1990s, their lives have been anything but peaceful as they have had to keep fighting for their right to remain on the Creek and with that their right to remain boat dwellers. I spoke to Julian in summer 2018. Here is his story:
“The first major disruption was the construction of the railway (DLR). Up until that point, the land was actually owned by a partnership of my kid-brother and two other guys. They owned a film catering company, which took them to film locations all around the world. I built and repaired their kitchen trucks and eventually became their transport manager. As they expanded, I suggested that they buy the land I was squatting on, where they could keep their fleet of trucks and where I could have my workshop and use a bit of the yard for my work. They bought it with the peppercorn arrangement that I am moored here, use their access and occupy a bit of the land with my workshop and that in return I also got paid as their transport manager and looked after their fleet of trucks and containerised kitchens. It was a really good deal…until the railway came along. It started with the bailiffs coming round about once a week in their Mercedes and smart suits telling us that we had to evacuate the site by a certain date. My brother and his lot were offered a paltry compulsory purchase which came to half the amount they had originally paid for the site, and an eviction notice from the council. I got so fed up with these characters coming round, I went to the planning office to see if there’s anything on file that would put them off. I found all sorts of interesting historical facts about the site but also an incriminating letter which in the end resulted in a very favourable deal for my brother’s company. They received just over a million and an agreement that they would continue to own the site and get it handed back after construction finished. They were nevertheless forced to re-locate outside London to keep going.
Unfortunately, this deal didn’t account for the fact that Jeannie and I were living on this site. We suddenly had the railway company breathing down our necks, demanding that we vacate the site immediately. To them we were just (quote) “water gypsies” and they thought they could just get rid of us like that. But this was our residence, so we went into a legal battle to get moved to another secure mooring while the railway was being built and that we would be able to move back once construction was complete. We had to move during construction because our boat was directly under the proposed railway and they had to put a batter slope against the sea wall (e.g. crushed concrete and brick rubble) to reinforce it during construction. The agreement was that this would be removed upon completion and that our berth would be recreated. We won in the end but it was a 4-year battle that turned me grey and nearly bankrupted us – I had different colour hair when it started!
Julian in his self-made study under a picture of Sabine at the beginning of the 20th Century.
They then put us on the mooring over in the main basin – under Mumford’s Mill in Deptford College. The trouble was, Sabine is a vintage vessel and needs proper mooring so I gave them exact drawings to make a suitable berth. The railway company hired a contractor to prepare and make a suitable berth but the contractor messed up and made the berth 8 foot too short. As the tide went out Sabine very gradually tipped over and there was the imminent danger of breaking the back of the ship. I was furious. The keel could have snapped! I rang the company, but they didn’t want to know. We spent the next tide furiously trying to dig out the keel and get her to sit upright again. We were absolutely knackered and went to bed only to wake up to the sound of running water under the floor. A huge piece of flint left in the berth by the contractors had punched a hole the size of a 50-pence piece into the bottom of the ship and we now had a leak in the most inaccessible place. We needed to get to dock and got our insurance company on the case to inspect the berth. After endless discussions, during which the railway company refused to be in the same room as me (the second time this happened was with Hutchinson Whampoa at Convoy’s Wharf), the insurance company, the railway and their contractor settled on a satisfactory deal, with the rail company paying for an over-plating both sides of the keel for the entire length of the ship, which was brilliant. So, we did alright in the end but boy it was a fight.
But the trouble just went on. When we came out of dock, we couldn’t get back in the Creek because they hadn’t removed the batter slope. They had allegedly run out of money, so instead of removing the rubble, they spread it all across the Creek. This meant the water was one metre shallower so there was no way of getting to the berth to moor our boat. Once again, I had to threaten legal action to get the railway company to understand that we couldn’t return to such shallow waters and that they had to create a berth where our boat could sit. I even contacted the Port of London Authority (PLA), who are responsible for navigation issues, but they claimed this wasn’t their waters. I had contacted them once before, soon after moving to the Creek to offer payment for mooring, but they didn’t even know where we were in the creek and said it wasn’t worth doing the paperwork. Attitudes are very different today. Anyway, the rail company very begrudgingly agreed to create a berth by lifting out tonnes of spoil. They cleared just enough for us to get in the channel. The rest of the rubble was left in the Creek. In a way, it’s turned into a rather nice environment now – especially in the summer you can see these great bushes of water pepperwort growing – grubbing in the rubble that’s left. It’s turned into a diverse environment rather than just gloopy mud. And I quite like the finished railway and living under its sculptural curves but it is a mixed blessing in that it is the prime instrument that has attracted the feeding frenzy of developers to Deptford, but it’s also the reason that we do not already have some vast “luxury tower” right next to us. It’s all rather funny!
Sabine under the DLR railway bridge, surrounded by water pepperwort in summer.
And then the current owner and landlord turned up and bought the site off my brother and his business partners. We’d only just got back to our residence and wanted to complete an agreed deal that me and Jeannie would buy the site off my brother’s lot for £200,000. I wanted to turn the site into mainly green space with a boatbuilding area but then suddenly there’s this chap offering £260,000 and wanting a vacant possession. Obviously, we weren’t just going to leave and so my own brother and his partners tried to get us out by taking us to court! I didn’t speak to him for about 10 years after that. Luckily the judge found in our favour and the guy had to buy the land with us as sitting tenants and the peppercorn arrangement still in situ, which allowed me to rent a small piece of land for my workshop and vehicles.
After that, more boaters arrived and we grew into a nice little community here. The landlord didn’t really care much for the site and my lease agreement never changed. Seven years later, the landlord teamed up with venture capitalists The Artworks Creekside, who came along with their redevelopment proposals in 2017. The Artworks Creekside were planning to construct shipping containers 3 storeys high at the yard for small businesses and studios, with “luxury” moorings, shops and cafes. Artworks had bought a controlling share in the site and now wanted to collect fees for mooring licences, which would make them a lot of money and pay money to the PLA as well, something the PLA had had no interests in previously. As the Artworks lawyer said: ‘We’d expect central London mooring rates for such a mooring because, after all, this is the Deptford Riviera’! A detailed overview of all this can be found on the Crossfield Blog.
Since our conversation, Artworks have put single-storey containers with little workshops into the yard in spring 2019.
We all objected to their plans and demands, not just us boaters but also people from all around. In the end, they backed down and amended their application to containers at ground level only, which seems to work well, albeit the planning consent is only for two years so what happens after that is not hard to guess! The boaters at Creekside No. 2 have formed a co-operative and after getting a surveyor to value the land, we made Artworks an offer of £380,000 for a long-ish lease on the waterfront. We wanted to secure enough space for our boats and a small linear path, garden and service area that would even double as a public path in daylight. As far as we can see, this doesn’t clash with any of their planning. But clearly they’re waiting for much more lucrative offers than that. It’s just like in other areas of Deptford, it’s social cleansing, just on water rather than land. It’s wrong to suddenly expect a whole community of people to radically change their lifestyles in order to feed the rental desires of some investors. Actually, I don’t really enjoy doing all this, I’d much rather have a peaceful life but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been here over 30 years and that gives Jeannie and I certain rights.”
Despite this small victory, Julian’s vision of a peaceful life is still a long way to go. Although the last year has been peaceful for the boaters, who actually appreciate some of the improvements made to the yard, it is uncertain what Artworks are planning to do with the site and the boaters in the future, and there are rumours that the space by Lewisham College, which is just opposite Julian’s and the other boats, will eventually see tower blocks constructed. This would mean a dramatic removal of Julian and Jeannie’s daylight, so dramatic it would subject to compensation in planning terms and relocation during construction. This would leave only two options: not build or completely relocate the whole community to an equivalent mooring. The chances of finding this are pretty remote. I ask Julian what having to move would mean to him. He says: “It would be a real challenge – we’d have to downsize dramatically. I think the only option would be either a marina somewhere on the Medway or possibly find another mooring somewhere nearby but that’s very unlikely. It’s funny isn’t it? From a practical level, the Creek is not great: air pollution is terrible because of the close proximity of Deptford Church Street and the almost constant slow-moving traffic due to the Tideway Tunnel and all the other construction sites steadily canyonising the creek, so there is the constant threat of something happening. But I’ve grown so fond of the place, I don’t want to move. It’s home, and besides, I’m passionate about seeing the Lenox Project through.”
Once again, I think of Jeannie’s piece, where she says towards the end:
Landlubbers might think we are strange but actually we are no different from them. Our boat has a TV, a bath, central heating and we pay Council Tax too. The only difference with us is we go up and down on the tide twice a day… which takes some getting used to’.
Boaters are dwellers like all other dwellers. They have a right to live at their residencies like leaseholders and tenants have the right to live in their flats and houses. Taking away their mooring spaces displaces them in the same way knocking down houses/flats displaces the people living in them. Whether it is a boat, a flat or a house, these are dwellings which are situated in a particular place – Deptford in this case. This together makes up their home and taking this away is taking away part of their existence, of their being-in-the-world, of their sense of belonging and membership, of their right to live in Deptford.
Julian in his kitchen