Carving out history

The regeneration of the Enderby Wharf Ferry Steps

by Berni Cunnane

The green water of the Thames today laps freshly-carved steps depicting the rich industrial heritage of the Greenwich Peninsula. The Enderby Wharf Ferry Steps are now owned by telecommunications giant Alcatel and their refurbishment was an initiative of Carol Kenna from Greenwich Mural Workshop. The official opening took take place in September 2001.

Historically, the steps were used by the ferrymen who rowed crew out to the cable ships. The new steps were carved by Deptford-based sculptor Richard Lawrence, funded by the environmental regeneration charity Groundwork, Alcatel and Greenwich Council.

Originally the steps were part of the December 2000 project 'An Hysterical Walk'. However, it soon became clear that the steps were too expensive to be anything other than an independent project. Fortunately Groundwork, which had received SRB (Single Regeneration Budget) funding for projects along the East Greenwich waterfront, was very taken by the proposal and, together with GMW and Alcatel, set about developing the idea further.

Carol Kenna talked to local community organisations including the East Greenwich Network and local historian Dr Mary Mills. She then contacted local sculptor Richard Lawrence. Lawrence has been a sculptor for over twenty years, working mainly on private commissions in wood and stone.

This was his first public commission and before he started work he headed off to the local history library to get down to some serious research. "I worked my way through loads of material and had to do quite a few drawings until I got it right." he says. "It involved a lot of consultation."

Lawrence carved 29 new steps plus 25 pieces of decking out of opepe, an African hardwood most suitable for the tidal conditions that the steps will have to endure. The entire structure is 54ft long and, beginning at the top step, charts the history of the area from its earliest days when it was just marshland and fledgling cottage industries such as basket making. It goes on to illustrate the extraordinary story of the Enderby family:

In the latter half of the 18th century the Enderbys owned a fleet of whaling ships. Herman Melville wrote about the company in Moby Dick: "Enderby & Sons; a house which in my poor whaleman's opinion comes not far behind the united royal house of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest." They were also involved in rope making and Antarctic exploration - Enderby Land in Antarctica is named after them.

Coming down the steps the carving portrays events including the discovery of gutta percha (a hardy plastic-like substance used for cable insulation), the laying of transatlantic cable, the winding of cable onto the Great Eastern, (Brunel's paddle-steamer), and developments in submarine cable using fibre optics.

"What the steps are trying to show is the changing r ole they have played in the history of the area." says Sally Arscott of Groundwork. " There is so much change going on in Greenwich that it is easy to lose sight of what has gone on in the past."

"People are very aware of telecommunications now and to actually say, well it's not new, it's something that has been going on since the 1800s, on this very site, I think is very exciting!"

First published in Meridian Line, September 2001

Web version with permission.

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