Deptford residents have launched an ambitious plan to reconstruct a 17th-century warship built in the UK’s oldest royal dockyard on the bank of the Thames.
A coalition of activists and fundraisers including marine historian Richard Endsor want to build a replica of the 70-gun Lenox, launched in 1678 from the Royal Naval Dockyard in what is now Convoys Wharf.
The group, Build the Lenox, says the project would take around eight years, aiming to “create jobs, build transferable skills, bring pride to Deptford, and create tourism and identity.”
Julian Kingston, 60, a boat-builder who lives on the water in Deptford Creek and has been a Deptford resident for 26 years, said the idea for the project leapt fully-formed into his head upon being handed a book by Endsor which featured the ship.
He told EastLondonLines: “My reaction was: let’s build it!”
“It was the first of the 30-ship building programme of Charles II, when Deptford and the yard were in their absolute heyday – probably the equivalent of Cape Kennedy now.”
He claimed the project could bring “a touch of sanity” to the long-running redevelopment at Convoys Wharf, which has been dogged by controversy and still has not received planning permission.
Local campaigners slammed the project last year for failing to meet its affordable housing targets, while English Heritage claimed that “the current approach does not offer a legible link with the river and the former activity of the site.”
But Build the Lenox hope their project would forge a deep connection to the docklands’ illustrious past and give Deptford people a project to rally round in the style of the London Olympics.
Visitors would watch the ship being built with traditional tools as well as modern technology, and be able to visit a museum or visitor centre featuring naval relics. Computer screens could show virtual guided tours of the finished ship and offer previews of the construction process, according to the campaign.
The construction of the Lenox was recorded in such detail by Deptford’s then Master Shipwright John Shish that its parts could be manufactured using modern computer design technology.
Kingston said: “Because so much information has survived on this ship, there is literally enough from the original Master Shipwright’s plans that we can digitise the whole lot.”
The group wants to use the project to train local people in CAD/CAM design – highly transferable to all kinds of industries, according to Kingston. But funds and local support are needed to get the Lenox afloat.
Kingston said: “At the moment we’re pretty much self-financing, staggering around doing this out of our own pockets.”
But he pointed to the huge number of tourists who visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, saying: “If we could get a quarter of those to come and look at our ship too, and if we could charge a reasonable entrance for doing that, then we calculate that we could be self-sufficient within two years of laying the keel.”
The group are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the French town of Rochefort, which recently rebuilt an 18th-century vessel called the Hermione.
Kingston, who visited the ship’s launch this summer, said: “It’s totally turned the fortunes of Rochefort around. The place is buzzing! A few years ago when I went there it was just a few ropey old bars and restaurants and sort of scruffy shops.”
“This is all centred on the fact that the dockyard area and the Hermione project have just sort of really inspired people.”
Kingston also stressed the multicultural history of the Deptford docks. He said: “There were guys from Africa working here two or three hundred years ago when most people hadn’t seen somebody with different coloured skin! It’s not just an exclusively white history.”
The 70-gun third-rate warship took ten months to build and was exhaustively recorded in plans, logs and schematics by Deptford’s then Master Shipwright John Shish, meaning it can be reconstructed in detail.
While ‘third-rate’ has come to mean ‘poor’ in modern English, it originally designated a ship that was lighter and faster than the wallowing first and second-rates but which packed enough cannon to demolish enemy shipping. Third-rates were considered the best compromise between speed and power.
The Lenox fought against the French in two crucial battles of the Nine Years’ War – the battle of Beachy Head, which saw England left open to naval invasion by the exiled King James II, and two years later at Barfleur and La Hogue, where the French fleet was decisively scattered.
But why this of all projects? Kingston said: “I like long-term projects and this is the biggest thing I’ve ever taken on, if I can manage to pull it off. There’s a certain element of – well, I’m not getting any younger, and it would be a bloody good swansong!”