A collaborative project about a south London estate with a rich history. Written by Dr Tim Livsey, Lecturer in Imperial & Commonwealth History KCL.
Together with the film maker James Price, I have been working on a research project about the extraordinary history of the Pepys Estate in Deptford, South London.
Our Pepys Estate Project was rooted in the observation that artists have often responded to history more arrestingly than historians. Unencumbered by the need for footnotes, contemporary artists including Gerhard Richter and Jeremy Deller have engaged with the past in visceral ways that academic historians struggle to parallel. The Pepys Estate Project was an experiment to explore an exceptionally freighted site by bringing together the methods of a historian with those of an artist and film maker.
Where the Pepys Estate now stands was the site of a Royal Navy yard originally established in the reign of Henry VIII. It was regularly visited by the diarist Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century, whose concerns at Deptford included the threat of fire to the king’s ships and lusting after his subordinates’ wives. By the Victorian era the site was a major centre of navy victualling. A vast warren of warehouses stored the salt beef, ship’s biscuit, and rum that sustained British sailors.
As the navy got smaller in the 1960s, the site was deemed surplus to requirements and sold to the Greater London Council for housing. The warehouses still smelt powerfully of rum as they were converted into flats or demolished to make way for new buildings. An estate of around 1500 homes was constructed with a mix of medium rise blocks and three large towers, all linked by a network of raised concrete walkways to separate pedestrians from traffic. The Estate was formally opened in 1966.
By the 1980s, though, it was clear that the original vision of a harmonious working class community healthily housed in modernist buildings had gone badly awry. The Estate became associated with crime and poor maintenance. In the 1990s, the council demolished the concrete walkways and started to sell off council housing from the Estate to developers, particularly buildings with river views.
Our film, which is called Reading Pepys, offers an impressionistic take on this history. It combines footage of the Pepys Estate today with texts documenting different stages of its history, which are read by local residents. It is available to view online, and will be shown this summer as part of the celebrations marking fifty years of the Pepys Estate.
The project was funded by King’s College London Cultural Institute, and was a collaboration with Field Studies Ltd with additional help from the Pepys Community Library. Very many thanks to everyone involved.