Bugsby's Reach, March 2014

There’s been some baffling stuff happening on the Greenwich Peninsula, but none quite as head-scratching as a plan to rename part of the River Thames.

The Port of London Authority wants to rename Bugsby’s Reach, the stretch of the river along the east side of the Greenwich Peninsula towards Charlton. It plans to call it Watermen’s Reach, to commemorate 500 years since an act of parliament began to regulate those who worked on the river.

The plans are currently out to consultation – you’ll see these notices on the Thames Path:

As far as is known, Bugsby’s Reach was so named originally, because Mr Bugsby, believed to be a market gardener in the mid 1800s, owned land
which touched the river bank where the stream turns to the northwest. What does seem clear is that other than the coincidence of owning land adjacent to the river, Bugsby’s overall contribution to the River Thames since the mid-1800s is markedly less than that given by watermen, wherrymen and bargemen over the past 500 years and more.

Local councillor and historian Mary Mills is less than impressed.

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.

“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.”

But nobody knows who Mr Bugsby was (or if he really existed). What we do know is that Bugsby’s Hole had a grisly history“used as a site for gibbeting the bodies of pirates who had been hung, with due ceremony, at Execution Dock in Wapping”.

So while Mr Bugsby may not have been very significant, the land he left behind was – so the name really honours the past of the Greenwich Peninsula, one that’s slowly being wiped out by new development.

But instead, the PLA wants to wipe this out too – an evocative old name swapped for something which sounds like a bad theme pub.

Of course, there is one place where Bugsby’s name would linger – naming an ugly dual carriageway after a place where dead pirates where displayed as a warning seems rather apt. But hopefully enough people will contact the PLA and tell it to commemorate the watermen in another way, and keep Bugsby’s Reach as it is. If you want to keep a bit of riverside history alive, the consultation’s open until 21 April.

Friday update: Charlie Connelly writes…

“I did a bit of rummaging and have found a couple of 18th century Bugsbys who might have had connections to the area.

“First off there’s a ‘Richard Bughsby’ of Deptford who married in Lewisham in February 1714.

“Secondly I found a ‘John Buggbsy’ who married a Grace Clark in Stepney in 1732. No immediate link to the area from that but he is described as a ‘mariner’ and Stepney back then was home to a number of well-to-do seamen (I had an ancestor who was a captain in the East India Company who lived there at the turn of that century) so maybe he was associated with that part of the river, or came to some mishap there or something.”

17 replies on “Bugsby’s holed? Why a bit of Greenwich’s history is under threat”

  1. Thanks for all the quotes – PLA are completely wrong about Bugsby being a landowner – as two minutes research at the Greenwich Heritage Centre, or the Museum of Docklands archive would have told them.

    However, in writing the latest piece about this I was very interested to learn that the gibbetted Thomas Williams was a real pirate who had made off with a ship on the high seas, sold it in Cape Town, and murdered the captain ‘by cutting his throat with an axe’. It was also said that they were only tried him for one of his murders because to do all of them would take up too much time.

    Can supply some graphics of local gibbettings if you are interested.

  2. Can anyone point me in the direction of a good book on the history of the Thames Path please, particularly ‘our’ bit of it?
    I’m miserable at all the construction and gentrification going on. “Suitable” name changes are just part of that. Do you know if, once it’s all poshed up and built up, we will still be allowed to cycle down it? Thames Path west of here is mostly pedestrian only and private land requiring a cyclist to buy a permit to use it.
    I so wish that planners had allowed/created a cycle and walking path from east to west London.

  3. “the Port of London Authority intends to rename Bugsby’s Reach as ‘Waterman’s Reach’ at a ceremony on 18 September 2014.” – looks a bit like a fait accompli. Could be my computer but none of the links seem to be working.

  4. The current construction is largely an unholy mix of council estate and far eastern buy to let investment in nature. In fact the only marketing of the flats taking place right now for the blocks north of John Harrison Way is in Singapore.

    I’d hardly call that gentrification…

  5. Paul’s comment is perceptive, the PLA statement seems to indicate how effective this “consultation” is going to be. Incidentally, I understand that there’s no plan to rename Bugsby’s Hole (Waterman’s Hole being too indelicate?)

  6. Just a quick note about the riverside path – SUSTRANS declared most of it a cycle route in the mid-1990s. Don’t know the current status and funding of that now though. Most of the Peninsula bit of the path is privately owned but the Council has taken owners to court several times – first in 1875 – to ensure the right of way.
    One of my retirement options might be to write a book about it all. (but have to publish it myself as usual I suppose)

    Darryl – I am having great difficulty getting through to this site. Are you trying to shut me up??

  7. I’ve realised why this area is so poorly-run – everyone simply assumes things are “a done deal” and so aren’t worth shouting about.

    Mary, blame WordPress.

    Post updated to include Charlie Connelly’s research on who Bugsby might have been.

  8. I read some time ago that, when the River was under the control of the City Corporation, it wasn’t dredged. This meant that boats could only sail from about an hour before high tide, so that passage up and down the Thames was done in stages. They would then rest in the deeper parts of the Thames (holes) where they could still float at anchor.

  9. Bugsby’s Hole and Bugsby’s Reach are one and the same. For a while, the name disappeared and the reach was just considered an extension of Woolwich Reach. An even older name was Podd’s Elms Reach (the elms themselves feature on maps and would have been a landmark).

    Interesting bit of trivia, not quite related to the topic: Whilst looking for Greenwich Bugsbys, I came across the “clandestine” marriage of Catherine/Katherine Bigsby of Greenwich at Fleet Prison. It would appear that, until the law was changed, poor clergymen in prison for debt, for a bit of ready cash would turn a blind eye and marry couples who otherwise could not. Busbys and Busbees in the area too.

    Mary, I understand that no deeds have ever been discovered that would show Bugsby was a landowner. Is it this you were referring to when you mentioned a couple of minutes research at the Heritage Centre or Museum of Docklands or do you know who Bugsby was?

  10. Is this conversation still alive as I may be able to contribute some interesting family history!

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