Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Secret Greenwich by David Ramzan

The Enderby's of Greenwich Marsh

Whaler Samuel Enderby by William John Huggins (1781-1845), after engraver C. Rosenberg. (Author collection)

Having produced several books for Amberley Publishing over a period of many years, a majority concentrating on the history and heritage of my place of birth Greenwich, in Southeast London, I was asked to compose a blog for the Amberley website. Not sure of what type of subject to write about, I took a look through other posted blogs, all of which made fascinating reading, describing how to photograph models, a writer’s passion for public parks and another documenting the history of Brunel’s steamship the Great Western, an account which gave me an idea for my own blog.

The Great Western was the sister ship of the Great Eastern, constructed opposite Greenwich on the north shore of the River Thames at Millwall. It was the largest steamship ever built up to that time. The vessel later became the first to successfully lay telegraph cable, which was made at the subsea cable works in Greenwich, from Britain to America. However my interest is not in the ‘Great Babe’, the name Brunel affectionately gave his ship, but at the works at Enderby Wharf Greenwich where the subsea telegraph cable was fabricated and manufactured. The site, developed commercially by a family of whalers, sealers and Atlantic explorers, was acquired by Samuel Enderby II in the early 1800s. His sons, Samuel, Charles and George, expanded their business interests through the manufacturing of rope and canvas to supply the family’s fleet of whalers operating in the subantarctic and Antarctic, several berthed on the Thames off Greenwich Marsh. At its peak the company owned or leased sixty-eight ships, one of which, the Amelia, sailed west around Cape Horn in 1789 to become the first whaler to carry out whaling in the Southern Ocean. The Enderby’s built a house on the river’s edge during the mid 19th century, which had an unusual octagonal room with a glass ceiling and a large bay window giving a panoramic eastwards view of vessels sailing up and down the Thames.

Enderby House, centre right, from Enderby Wharf, with the cable winding gear to the right of the image, prior to demolition of the site buildings to the rear. (Author collection)

Although commercial whaling is now a subject of intense ethical and moral debate, between the early 17th and mid-20th century, the hunting of whales for their oil, meat and bone was a respected and highly profitable industry. The Enderby’s became London’s largest whaling company, funding several pioneering expeditions into the Southern Ocean which led to the discovery of the Bellany Islands and the establishment of the Enderby Settlement at Port Ross in the north-east of the Auckland Islands. At one time only whalers and sealers ventured as far south as Antarctica, only the men of those ships ever having set foot on its vast and desolate ice sheets, and no one had ever seen the Antarctic mainland up until as late as 1820.

So well noted were the Enderby’s that the company and one of its whalers, the Samuel Enderby, feature in the novel Moby Dick, written by American author Herman Melville. The whaler Amelia is also mentioned in a chapter of the contemporary publication The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars, where the ship is taken as a prize by the American ship USS Norfolk.

The Enderby family originated from Bermondsey, South London, trading in leather tanning, and were supporters of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Their patronage of Cromwell and funding of his new model army earned them huge favour with the Parliamentarians, resulting in the family being granted forfeited lands in Ireland, which the Enderby’s later sold to finance an oil trading business with Russia and in founding their whaling and sealing enterprises. After many years of successful trading, the money invested in the unproductive Enderby Settlement in the South Atlantic eventually brought about the company’s financial ruin, and the family business was liquidated in 1854.

Painting of Enderby House and Enderby Wharf mid 1800s by David C Ramzan. (Author collection)

The site at Greenwich, along with Enderby House, was sold on to submarine cable makers Glass, Elliott & Co, supplying telegraph communication cables laid down below various stretches of water in the North Sea and Mediterranean. Glass, Elliott & Co later merged with the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, to become known as Telcon, the manufacturers of that first transatlantic telegraph cable successfully laid by the Great Eastern.

Enderby House, which retained the name of the whaling family, continued to be used as company offices up until the early 2000s, when much of Greenwich Marsh came under redevelopment and regeneration. The northern stretch of the site, including the Grade II listed Enderby House and Enderby Wharf, then owned by Alcatel-Lucent, was sold off to developers. While negotiations continued over the redevelopment of the works and wharf, where a proposed cruise liner terminal and hotel were planned to be built, Enderby House, where Major General Gordon, son of Elizabeth Gordon, nee Enderby, daughter of Samuel Enderby junior, was entertained the day before leaving for the Sudan, soon fell into a state of disrepair. Local campaigners fighting to save the celebrated property, which has important links to the historic industries and technological innovations associated with Greenwich Marsh, made various proposals to ensure the iconic house has a sustainable and productive future, initiatives which include use as a visitor centre, museum, cafe and bar. As large areas of Greenwich Marsh, now known as Greenwich Peninsular, come under redevelopment and regeneration, apartments, offices and hotels replacing industrial buildings and wharfs of the industrialised landscape, very few original properties have survived from a period of advancements in technological manufacturing and engineering during the late 18th to late 20th century. Enderby House, one of the most important historic structures still standing, although in a perilous condition, alongside Enderby Wharf, are the only surviving reminder of the important role Greenwich Marsh played in not only the development of global telecommunications but also in the early years of Britain’s whaling industry.

Artistic impression of Enderby House during the mid 1800s. (Author collection)

Incidentally, in 2010, the bones of a huge North Atlantic right whale were uncovered in the mud off the Greenwich foreshore, believed to have either beached itself or having been caught and brought to shore from the Thames estuary. The remains we said to be the size of the white whale as described in Moby Dick, its bones dating to the early 19th century, a period when half of the Britain’s whalers gathered on the Thames off Greenwich, including many Enderby company ships.

David Ramzan's new book Secret Greenwich is available for purchase now.