The Deptford anchor was a much-loved local landmark. Then the council took it away. Chris Waywell looks at the four-year campaign to get it put back
There’s the beating of drums, then, through the freezing February drizzle, a procession of people appears, led by a man in a top hat. They’re singing a sea shanty. You can make out the words ‘Deptford’, ‘London mayor’ and ‘anchor’. They wind through the Saturday market to their destination: a huge old ship’s anchor, tipped on its side, at the junction of Deptford Broadway and Deptford High Street. Five years ago, it was mysteriously removed. Now it’s back. Back after campaigns, petitions and endless appeals to Lewisham Council. The procession is to welcome it home, like a party for someone who’s just been released from prison. Rum is splashed on the anchor. One bloke kisses it. You could be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on.
The story of the Deptford anchor is simple and complicated. Simple enough to tell in a short sentence. Complicated, because the anchor is a nexus of the multi-dimensional social and environmental stuff that goes on all the time in London. It’s a point around which arguments about gentrification, development and the places we live swirl like Thames currents. Above all, it’s a symbol. ‘It just looks like Deptford,’ says Peter Collins, chair of the Deptford Society. ‘Things like that make people recognise somewhere as its own place.’
Forty years ago, in 1978, Time Out’s cover proclaimed ‘Deptford is burning’. The magazine looked at the area’s bubbling art and music scene, but also its desperate neglect: a post-industrial landscape of giant scrapyards and council estates considered too unsafe to house families. A centre of shipbuilding and trade since Henry VIII’s time, Deptford suffered badly when London’s docks closed. Unlike nearby Greenwich, celebrating maritime heritage was way down SE8’s agenda. Then, in 1988, Chatham Dockyard gave Deptford an anchor: a nod from one naval town to another. For 25 years it was SE8’s most visible landmark: how you gave people directions (‘get off the bus when you see the anchor’). It had a ragged tree lashed to it every Christmas, got covered in wool by artists, tagged by kids and for a while bore the legend ‘I luv u anker’, spelled out in stickers.
It was also home to the local brew crew. Mel, a stallholder on Deptford market for 34 years observes: ‘It was raised [on a brick base] – the perfect height for them to sit on and rest a can on.’ When Deptford got some cash from the Outer London Fund in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, more regeneration got underway in 2013. A report to Lewisham’s Mayor and Cabinet from 2017 reveals the council’s thinking at that time: ‘Attitude surveys… highlighted concerns of safety of the high street, particularly at night. It was felt that the position of the anchor on a raised plinth… provided an opportunity for loitering, street drinking and antisocial behaviour.’
One day in April 2013, to the surprise of locals, a JCB hoicked the anchor off its antisocial plinth and it was taken away. In the words of the 2017 report: ‘The… project resulted in the redesign of the junction with the anchor being designed out and [a] new public realm created in its place.’ (This is also revealing of the way somewhere like Deptford High Street is described in twenty-first-century London: the pavement outside a Londis is now a ‘realm’.) ‘It wasn’t clear that it wasn’t coming back,’ says Collins. ‘In the early days, I was quite happy for it to come back to another space.’ But it didn’t come back. The anchor had disappeared.
So what? you might say. It’s sad, but compared to other stuff going on in London, it’s nothing. It’s not Georgian houses pulled down on Dalston Lane, the redevelopment of historic Norton Folgate, or The Carlton Tavern in Kilburn, demolished despite a refused planning application. There’s no faceless foreign developer, just a local council trying to prettify the street and move the boozers on. Actually, though, that was a big part of the problem. If somewhere has an anchor (of all things) as its community focal point and the council takes it away and hides it, while appearing to blame the most vulnerable members of that community, people are going to be pissed-off. ‘The problem wasn’t caused by the thing they thought it was,’ says Collins.
A campaign to restore the anchor saw a petition get more than 4,000 signatures; a Post-it note in the campaign grimly observed: ‘Anchors don’t make people drink on the street – capitalism does’. As Deptford got a new wave of bars, restaurants and not-very-affordable-at-all flats, its missing anchor readily stood for what the area was losing: a sense of its own identity. It was adrift. A photo from Open House 2013 shows the anchor sitting sadly in a warehouse at nearby Convoys Wharf, a proposed billion-pound Thamesside development, which generously claims to be ‘re-establishing a sense of place and identity unique to this part of London’. Boris Johnson (the ‘mayor’ referred to in the sea shanty) had stepped in to push Convoys’ planning through. It was like ‘The Thick of It’.
The campaign to get Deptford’s anchor back has been loud and long and ultimately successful. Alongside the petition. Deptford Is Forever (Sue Lawes and David Aylward) staged artistic interventions, which saw SE8 awash with T-shirts, totes and paper bags crying ‘Give us back our bloomin’ anchor’. There were free anchor tattoos, chalked anchors on the pavement, anchors made of red tape (symbolic!) on walls. Even in exile, the anchor was a constant presence. ‘I almost can’t bear to think about it,’ says Collins, when he reflects on how much effort it’s taken by so many people to get this result. He’s also realistic about it: ‘The anchor campaign was successful because it’s quite a small thing. What the anchor has taught me is that people power can work. But it took a lot of dedication and a lot of time and we had to do it ourselves.’
At the end of January 2018, the anchor was restored to its original site. It’s not on a plinth anymore. There are no ‘antisocial’ elements present (the street drinkers all sit outside the weird gold library now). It’s returned to an area that’s changed a lot in five years. When I ask locals about it coming back, responses are mixed. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to have a bit of heritage,’ says Phil, who’s sold fruit and veg on the market for 30 years. ‘But Deptford used to be a deprived area; now it’s not. That’s why they’ve brought it back.’ His pal Patrick joins in: ‘If they want to spend money, they should put the public toilet back.’
Most people do seem pleased that it’s returned (apart from those who don’t know about its history, who are bemused by the sudden appearance of a giant anchor on the street). There’s also pride in the community. ‘It’s not about the history of that specific anchor,’ says Collins. ‘It’s about the history of Deptford.’
Without being too wanky (or wanchory), the Deptford anchor stands for the personal associations that people have with where they live. Things that councils and developers often don’t see. Things that are important to us as individuals and as Londoners. If London loses its Deptford anchors, its Catford Cats (a giant ’70s fibreglass mog rumoured to be under threat, now safe) and its Carlton Taverns (ordered to be rebuilt) where will we be? I’ll tell you: all at sea.
A free exhibition about the campaign is at Deptford Does Art until Feb 28. Learn more.