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St Nicholas Deptford
Photograph: Caroline / Flickr

The secret London churchyard that inspired the pirate flag

This spooky south London church has many morbid associations

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell
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Two questions: do you know who invented the idea that pirates go ‘Aaaaaaarrrh’? And do you know where the famous Jolly Roger skull-and-cross-bones pirate flag came from?

Well, the actor Robert Newton is supposed to have come up with the ‘Aaaaaaarrrh’, when he was playing Long John Silver in the 1950 film of ‘Treasure Island’. Why he did this is more obscure, but he was a notoriously heavy drinker, so he might have just been feeling a bit groggy (in both senses) that day. In terms of the flag, though, there is a good case that it might have originated in a secretive churchyard in south London.

St Nicholas in Deptford is on a quiet side street, among council estates and former industrial spaces. Badly bombed in the war, it wasn’t restored until the 1960s. Up to the 1980s, it was overshadowed – literally – by a massive power station, since demolished. So it’s had a difficult twentieth century. Before that, though, its churchyard already had notoriety as the final resting place of Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe, who was murdered in a house nearby, supposedly after an argument about paying for dinner and drinks.

That’s not the most interesting thing about the churchyard, though. The entrance to it is dominated by two huge stone skulls above a pair of crossed bones on the gateposts. Like the majority of the church, and an ossuary (bone vault) designed by Sir Christopher Wren, they date back to the seventeenth century, and are some of the most dramatic pieces of funerary architecture in London, especially at twilight. Thanks to the skulls’ proximity to the river and the area’s history of violence and crime, there’s a popular myth (which you can’t really prove one way or the other) that they inspired the pirate flag of a skull and crossed bones on a black background.

So, why are they not better known? Well, partly because Deptford was not a very visited bit of south London until recently. The area also has a more famous, and visible, church: the baroque masterpiece of St Paul’s on the high street.

Go and check them out. A misty winter day is the perfect time to shiver ya timbers. Aaaaaaarrrh!

St Nicholas Church, Deptford Green, SE8 3DQ.

More river stuff: there’s a new Uber boat service from London to Kent.

More secrets of south London: like this beautiful subway.

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