One of the earliest industries in Greenwich was a chemical works. In the late 17th century ‘copperas’ was made on Deptford Creek, writes Mary Mills…
Copperas is nothing whatsoever to do with copper – it is an inky black substance which had been known in England from at least since the 14th century. Works were typically found near a river side and the best known, at Queenborough and Whitstable in Kent, have recently been subject to archaeological investigation. By 1764 England was Europe’s biggest producer of what was then called ‘green vitriol’ .
Copperas was made from pyrites – ‘gold stones’ – which were collected from the Kent and Essex shoreline by ‘pickers’ and sent by barge to Deptford. These were put into trenches, covered with water and left for years. The resulting liquid was then boiled and produced a black dye. If it was more strongly heated, it produced ‘oil of vitriol’ – sulphuric acid.
The Deptford works appears to have been promoted by a particularly busy Royalist entrepreneur – a Sir Nicholas Crispe. This is not the Sir Nicholas Crispe who was based at Quex in Kent – but someone with the same name who came from Gloucestershire. At the age of 20 he had gone to Africa and set up the first English settlement at Kormantin, in today’s Ghana in the 1630s.
Inevitably, I am afraid, this was all about slavery. He also had an exclusive right to trade on the Guinea Coast and he made a great deal of money. In 1641 he was knighted and became a Member of Parliament although he was expelled from the House of Commons because of his monopolies. During the Civil War he devoted himself to the Royalist cause, raising regiments, providing ships, underwent a court martial and many other exploits.
After the Civil War he was eventually pardoned and settled in Hammersmith where he began to experiment with new ways of making bricks and some of his bricks were used in the gardens of the Palace in Greenwich.
He also tried to sell bricks to John Evelyn, the diarist, who, of course, lived at Sayes Court in Deptford.
In 1655 Crispe visited John Evelyn to suggest building a ‘mole near Sayes Court’ at Deptford. A mole was a sort of breakwater or pier in the River. Evelyn mentions Crispe’s visits in his diary and he also kept the letters which Crispe wrote to him about it and they are in the British Library. I was very amused to read them – first of all Crispe had really terrible hand-writing, but the letters show that Crispe made several visits to Deptford to discuss his ideas with Evelyn, who was apparently always ‘out’.
Later he raised with Evelyn ideas for a ‘project for a receptacle for ships’ which Samuel Pepys noted entailed a dock at Deptford to take ‘200 ships of sail’.
Crispe had rented a piece of land alongside the Creek in Deptford before the Civil War in the 1630s. It was called ‘Broomfield’ – Great Crane Meadow’ and this was probably where the copperas works were, although we know very little about it. He was certainly manufacturing copperas thirty years later when he petitioned to be released from prison – he was there for debt. He gave his copperas works as an example of his usefulness to society and a reason why he should be released.
Crispe died in 1666 – still selling bricks at 12/- per 1,000. His heart is buried in St.Paul’s Church in Hammersmith as part of a monument to the memory of Charles I.
He left the copperas works to his three sons, who each got a share but it in effect it was taken on by his son, Nicholas.
As part of the new regime, there seems to have been and evaluation of the copperas works and probably some modernisation. A plan of 1674 shows the “coppris works” on Deptford Creek in the area between the Creek, so slightly north of what is now Creek Road. There were a ‘coppris beds’, a ‘coppris house’ and ‘docke’ into Deptford Creek, which is marked as ‘Ravensbury River’.
One of the younger Nicholas Crispe’s friends was a Daniel Colwell, who was a member of the newly formed Royal Society. Colwell went down to the Deptford copperas works and wrote a descriptive article about it for the Society. This gives details of the set-up of the works and how copperas was made there in the 17th century. It is often quoted in descriptions of other works as to how things were done.
Colwell described how the pyrites – the stones – were put into ‘beds’ – trenches of about a hundred by fifteen feet and twelve feet deep. They were then covered with rainwater – and it must be rain water, other water would not do. It was then left there for several years. The stones, he said would ‘turn into a kind of Vitriolick Earth, which will fwell and ferment like leavened Dough’.
The liquid was run off into a cistern ‘made of strong oaken boards’ which was ‘under the Boiling House’. This liquid was very strong and ‘within one minute after an Egg is put in, the Liquor will boil and froth; and in three minutes the shell will be quite worne off’ and it would burn a hole through cloth – wool, hemp or leather. This liquid was then put in a ‘boyler of lead’ along with some ‘old iron’. It was then boiled for as much as ’20 days’ using ‘Newcastle coals’ and they also added more iron.
However Colwell explained that through some new and clever devices the ‘boyling’ time was being cut to a week. The whole process gave off an ‘acrimonious smell’.
After being boiled, the copperas was run into a twenty foot long cooler where it crystallised on the sides where it was bright green – but what remained at the bottom was ‘foul and dirty’. It was used to produce a dye and if it was processed further it produced another dye, Venetian red. Most of all it could be used to make vitriol – sulphuric acid, an extremely valuable commodity and its production is often cited as an example of a nation’s industrial strength.
The younger Nicholas Crispe consolidated his wealth with a fine house in Kent. In the early 1680s, he bought Squerries Court at Westerham and built the house which still stands there. The house – which is sometimes open to visitors – remains as a symbol of the sort of money made by entrepreneurs with what was undoubtedly a smelly and dirty works down on Deptford Creek.
Copperas continued to be made in Deptford, and later also in Greenwich until at least the 1830s. It was later owned by the Pearson family – and there is another story there to tell.
The Greenwich Industrial History Society meets once a month.
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• 12th March, Roger Williams Thames Fishing industry and Greenwich whitebait
• 16th April Richard Buchanan on Street Furniture
• 14th May Mike Clinch Underground Kent
• 11th June.Tracy Stringfelllow & Charlie MacKeith.Jacobean Vistas and public conveniences, Meeting will be in the Studio not the Bakehouse
• 15th October David Waller. Men of Iron – Maudslay
• 12th November Pieter Van der Merwe A Great Light in the East (End): Gas and the Royalty Theatre, Stepney’ 1816 This will be held in the Studio not the Bakehouse
Meetings held at 7.30pm at the Old Bakehouse, Bennett Park, SE3 (rear of Age Exchange) There is no parking.