Thanks to Dr Mary Mills from the Greenwich Industrial History Society for this article - the first in our new Platform series, where issues relating to the river are raised in essays and opinion pieces.
We understand that moves are afoot to change the name of the bit of river which runs from the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula to Charlton. The historic name is ‘Bugsby’s Reach’ but the plan is to change it to ‘Watermen's Reach’ for the 500th anniversary of the Watermen's Company. In the days when the river was the River and had real ships on it, Bugsby's Reach was a place name which sailors worldwide would have recognised and it appears in a great deal of maritime literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
To be fair however to those who want to change the name – it more properly refers to ‘Bugsby’s Hole’. Those of you who knew Greenwich Peninsula before 2000 will remember that The Pilot Inn once stood in a road which went down to the river. Going out into the river was a long jetty and basically the road and the jetty were going to Bugsby’s Hole. So what was all that about?? There are a number of ‘holes’ in the river and it is a traditional term meaning ‘an anchorage’. So we are looking for someone called Bugsby who had an anchorage somewhere off the Greenwich Peninsula
The name ‘Bugsby’ has been the cause of a great deal of speculation, most of which does not seem to have got very far. Maybe there are people out there who can comment and who know much more than I do.
First, I think, we need to establish how long this name has been in use. We know that earlier this part of the river had an entirely different name. It was once called Cockle's Reach or Podd's Elms Reach. The ‘Roque map’ from 1744 shows a great semi circle of trees stretching across both sides of Horn Lane (Horn Lane still runs as a derelict pathway parallel to Peartree Way’)
The earliest reference to the name of ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ seems to be a report in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' of March 1735 to 'Williams the pirate' being hung in chains at Bugsby's Hole'. Williams, incidentally was dead when he arrived here to be gibbetted – have died by hanging with due ceremony at Execution Dock in Wapping. As a further diversion from my main subject it might be of interest to know that Williams had been convicted at a specially convened Admiralty Court for “running away with the ship Buxton Snow, late Captain Beard, bound from Bristol to the Island of Malemba Angola in Africa, and selling the Ship; and also the Murder of the said Captain Beard, by cutting his Throat with an Axe”.
I also think that we need to look quickly at the geographical context of the Bugsby’s Hole. I think it is a given that the Greenwich Peninsula was at that time cut off and fairly inaccessible from the land (it was a gated area with its own staff) – but every river has two banks? On the north bank of the river from about 1617 was the East India Company Yard. By the mid-18th century it was in private hands as the great Blackwall Yard – world famous – then the largest ship building and repair establishment on the River. High tech – cutting edge –vessels in the yard, and in the river, - vessels which were going off to conquer the world. Don’t take this lightly – a considerable chunk of the modern world was developed there. Whoever Bugsby was he/she must have been part of this.
F.W. Nunn discussed the question of Bugsby’s identity in the Kentish Mercury of 5th January 1923. 'Who was Bugsby? The article quoted A.G.Linney who, he says, referred to Bugsby in The Lure and Lore of London's River, and suggests that he was a market gardener. He also cites a 'book published about a hundred years ago' which talked about a robber who had 'a cabin' in the osier beds and who, in order to 'escape the vengeance of the law' 'cast himself into the river' and that later 'much treasure was found'.
I have tried to find out about this, and failed. The records for the Greenwich Peninsula and its riverside, covering this period are very good. I have spent some time going through the records of what was then St. Alfege Parish, through the minute books of the City Conservators and – most importantly – struggled through the handwriting of the Wallscot Minutes, the body who managed Greenwich Marsh. And I found nothing – there is loads of information in the Wallscot minutes if it is nettle and bramble growth in drainage channels you want, but nothing about pirates hiding in the reeds – who I guess wouldn’t have remained hidden from the marsh bailiff and his staff for long, never mind the soldiers guarding the Government Gunpowder Works at what is now Enderbys.
So – all we really have in answer to ‘Who Was Bugsby??’ is a lot of speculation.
Some of that speculation has been around bugs and bugaboos and ghosties – and relates to the aforesaid gibbets. It has been suggested it is really ‘Bugs Marsh’. This is the subject of an article by Muriel Searle in 'The Importance of being Bugsby' (Port of London January 1975) – and the same theme flung into hyper inflation by Iain Sinclair in 2000 in the London Review of Books.
Some other speculation has been around the place name ending ‘by’ which apparently refers to a Scandinavian root. Was it a Scandinavian farm, the author suggested?
I would however like to point to a couple more issues. The name ‘Bugsby’ is fairly unusual. A brief trawl of it on Google will show you that the name is more common in the United States and the West Indies than it is in the UK. Perhaps that might point again to a link with all those big vessels from Blackwall Yard – or even the activities of some of Thomas Williams’ friends on the high seas on the other side of the Atlantic. And dare we mention a possible link with the slave trade??
The other thing - which I think is strange – is that round the world there are other ‘Bugsby’s Holes’. The nearest is to the west of Sheerness on that crumbly bit of the coast where anything that was there in the 18th century is now well out at sea. I have been down to see and it looks nothing like Greenwich. There are however others, for instance on St. Helena.
This, I think, leads me back to my original point – and why I think the PLA and Waterman’s’ Company should not be allowed to change the name. All of these associations, the date and everything connect back to when ‘Bugsby’s Hole’ along with ‘Blackwall Fashion’ were names known to sailors and adventurers around the world. They relate to when Thames shipbuilders developed amazing vessels which soon ruled (and plundered) the world. It isn’t just about the Navy and Nelson and all that – it is also about trade, and economic thrust. But while we might want to distance ourselves from the politics of empire and exploitation, surely we can respect the technologies developed by a hierarchy of shipwrights, artisans and others - along our bit of the river. Our comfortable lives derive directly from them.
In the early 20th century there was a whole lot of romantic literature written about the river and the ‘great days of sail’ – W.W.Jacobs conflated with Treasure Island.. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go down that route myself but it is one with which Bugsby as a name is associated – and it is an attractive medium to many people – and – er – tourists.
As for me – I will keep on with the research. Who was Bugsby?
Updated 03/03/2014 - Link to the PLA's consultation notice on the name change
by Dr Mary Mills, who runs the Greenwich Peninsula History website and is a councillor in the Royal Borough of Greenwich representing the Peninsula ward.