Two hundred and sixty eight.
I know football and rugby teams who’d be pleased with that sort of attendance. 268 people would comfortably fill a decent-sized airliner, or man a large destroyer. And, let’s face it, 268 MPs changing their minds would deliver Theresa May’s Brexit deal by a landslide.
Why, then, did this impressive number of people turn out on a cold Tuesday night in winter in south-east London?
To listen to two old buffers rabbiting on about seventeenth century naval history.
Let’s face it, my friends, if that can happen, then there’s still hope for humanity.
Seriously, it was a quite extraordinary evening. My old friend Richard Endsor and I had been asked to speak at an event to raise funds for, and raise awareness of, the project to build a replica of the 1677 Third Rate man-of-war Lenox within the historic dockyard site at Deptford. (Richard, of course, is the author of the book about her, Restoration Warship, which originally inspired the idea.) I’ve blogged about this before on this site, and hope you’ll all go and visit the project’s own website, where you can find out about ways to donate and help the cause. So we duly turned up at the venue, the wonderfully historic Saint Nicholas church in Deptford, close to the site where the Lenox was built and where Drake’s Golden Hind spent her last years. Saint Nicholas contains many historic memorials to local figures, such as those to the Shish family of shipwrights and to one of the most famous local residents of all, seventeenth century diarist John Evelyn (whose famous garden at Sayes Court is the focus on another terrific local project). An ideal venue, then, in which to deliver talks directly connected to the history of the building.
I’d spoken to a great audience at the maritime history seminar in Hull a few nights before: probably about fifty people, but an absolutely packed house, with standing room only, and I suppose I was expecting a similar sort of number at Deptford. Then people started arriving. The first arrivals were members of the ‘band’ that was due to be playing seventeenth century and nautical numbers at intervals during the evening. I suppose I’d expected something like a string quartet, or maybe a small chamber group…but still the musicians kept coming. This, it materialised, was the South East London Folk Orchestra, and what a splendid group they are, with a lively repertoire that had people singing along! So we had musicians, and very soon, we had an audience. Richard and I looked on in bemusement as more and more people poured into the church, and more and more seats had to be found. Yes, I’ve been in churches before when it’s a case of standing room only, but generally only for the funerals of popular people. But all these people had turned out to listen to us – and if you don’t believe me, there’s ample evidence on the ‘news’ page of the Lenox website!
So Richard and I talked, with me providing a general overview of the history of Deptford dockyard in the Tudor and Stuart period, setting it in the context of the ambitions especially of Kings Henry VIII and Charles II, before Richard spoke on the women of Restoration Deptford – a tour through some of the racier episodes (such as Pepys’s successful pursuit of Mrs Bagwell, a shipwright’s wife) as well setting the record straight about the involvement of women in royal dockyards (much more than you might expect, with women in prominent roles as contractors or even serving in such posts as dockyard ratcatcher!). To be truthful, though, the evening passed in something of a blur, such was the buzz from the audience and the terrific atmosphere created by the orchestra. Even better, the event raised a significant amount of cash towards the Lenox project. So all in all, it was undoubtedly ‘a hit, a very palpable hit’, as somebody once said, and huge thanks to Julian, Esther, Reverend Louise, and the rest of the team for making it happen. I look forward to future events in Deptford, and if you’re within any sort of striking distance of south-east London, I’d strongly urge you to get involved. If you’re not within that striking distance, though, then I hope you’ll support the good folk of Deptford in the Lenox and Sayes Court projects in any way you can. These are genuine community efforts, very much ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’, and in a time of austerity, when pretty well anywhere, but especially London, seems to be regarded as fair game for nothing but soulless development, then efforts to steer a different, historically aware, and much more inclusive course should surely be backed to the hilt.