History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Enderby House
by F.J.M

Introduction: This article on Enderby House, the listed building at Enderby's Wharf which pre-dates the cable works there, was published in the Telcon house magazine number 6 in 1949. In view of the present rumours of an uncertain future for the building, I think it worth reproducing the article here.

Note that although the date of construction of the house is given as about 1830, an 1840 map shows that part of the property to be empty. The 1845 report of a fire at the site, also in this article, mentions damage to the house, so it must have been built some time in that five year period.

The Enderby family and the association of Enderby House with telecommunications are the subjects of two new fully-illustrated booklets which may be downloaded from the main Enderby's Wharf page.

-- Bill Burns

Enderby House
Image courtesy of Allan Green

Believed to have been built about the year 1830, Enderby House, standing as it does right on the bank of the River Thames, must have been a very pleasant residence in those days when this part of the Thames was much more attractive than it is now. Certainly the house has a definite 1830-ish appearance. Proof that the Enderby family actually dwelt there is hard to find. Local records show various Enderbys as residing in other parts of Greenwich and on the edge of Blackheath, but the nearest approach to confirmation of their occupation of Enderby House so far found is in the Illustrated London News of Saturday, March 8, 1845. This gives a description of a disastrous fire which occurred at the Enderby factory on the previous Sunday evening, and we reprint this article below by kind permission of the proprietors of that periodical, the Illustrated London News and Sketch Ltd.

DESTRUCTIVE FIRE AT EAST GREENWICH.

"About 8 o'clock on Sunday evening, the extensive premises belonging to Messrs. Charles, Henry and George Enderby, patent rope, twine and canvas manufacturers, at East Greenwich, were discovered to be on fire. The flames were first observed from without, in the rope-walk at the rear of the factory, which was a strong brick building of about 140 feet long by 40 feet deep. It was not till daybreak on Monday morning that the firemen could extinguish the flames, when a scene of the utmost desolation presented itself. Of the main factory, which faced the Thames, and was the most prominent object on that bank of the river between Greenwich Hospital and Woolwich, nothing remained but its lofty. walls,. which in the course of the day were blown down with tremendous force by the wind. The machinery it contained was most extensive, and its immense value can be better judged from the fact that its completion has occupied a space of ten years. The whole of it was destroyed. It is proved that flames were first seen raging in the store-room in the rope manufactory, which was detached from the main building, where there had not been a light for several weeks.

"There was a considerable quantity of manufactured goods deposited there, which were seen perfectly safe a few hours before the outbreak. The supposition is, therefore, that the fire either arose from spontaneous combustion, or was wilfully caused by some incendiary.

"The factory, or waterside premises, containing joiners' workshops, spinning, card and loom rooms, is totally destroyed. The hemp and spinning rooms over the engine and boiler house are burned out, and the roof has fallen in. The engine room beneath is considerably damaged. The weaving workshops, fronting the factory, are greatly damaged ; the roof has been partly demolished by the falling of the opposite walls. They contained twelve weaving looms, worked by machinery, which are all damaged. The dwelling-house of Mr. Enderby, on the north side of the factory, is much damaged by fire, and most of the furniture and its contents destroyed, as also are the stores at the back, and part of the rope manufactory. The rope gallery, adjoining the manufactory, is a quarter of a mile in length ; about 100 feet is gone, and but for the firemen cutting off the communication, the whole would have been levelled to the ground. Unhappily, upwards of 250 workmen are thrown out of employment by this calamitous event.

"The exertions made by the military, parochial and other authorities, as well as by the neighbours and work- people, during the conflagration, were very efficient in saving much valuable property. The loss to the worthy proprietors, we are happy to add, is well covered by insurances."

Although the Enderbys were largely engaged in the rope, twine and canvas industry, the use of their Greenwich premises in connection with the whaling expeditions sponsored by them would appear to have been proved by the discovery of harpoons and blubber knives in the works in storage spaces below ground level.

Enderby House has served many purposes since being in the possession of The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company Limited. Members of the staff remember, its rooms as the staff dining rooms for many years. Like most of the buildings in the works it did not escape damage during the war, and it was a relief when the commodious rooms in the enlarged works' canteen building became available.

Location of the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company's works at Enderby's Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula, a site of approximately 16 acres

In 1948 shortage of office accommodation became acute, and as licences for fresh building work were out of the question it was decided that Enderby House should be repaired and adapted to the purpose by the Telcon maintenance staff.

When that work was commenced the war damage was found to be much more extensive than had been thought, but with careful treatment and the use of a quantity of extra material the building was made habitable for another fifty years.

During the reconstruction work many hitherto unrealized features of Enderby House were revealed. There was, for instance, the old original tank placed in a recess just over the main entrance for collecting rain-water, for it must be remembered that the house was built before the days of the Metropolitan Water Board.

The largest room in the house, that on the first floor with the large bay window looking down river towards Blackwall Reach, was particularly interesting. This bay window was supported at one time on wooden pillars somewhat in the style of those to be seen in the structure of some old houses near the L.C.C. generating station, and the corresponding bay window on the ground floor is a comparatively modern addition. The room had a highly ornate fireplace of cast iron weighing approximately half a ton, a splendid example of the iron-moulder's art. Opinions differed greatly as to its aesthetic properties as did recent estimates of its value, which varied from fourpence to one hundred pounds, according to whether the estimator looked upon it as scrap or as an antique. There being a vague possibility that it might come in handy again one day, it now rests in the General Stores.

The location of Enderby House on the riverfront can be
seen in this detail from a 1965 photograph of the site

Four canvas panels, approximately 7 feet by 4 feet, decorated the walls, and again opinions vary as to their origin.   It is thought by some that they were taken from the s.s. "Great Eastern" when the famous ship was broken up, while others say they came from the old Greenwich Palace. Careful examination by experts showed that it would be impossible to restore them and they, too, have found a resting place in the General Stores. Fortunately, the magnificent cast iron and glass dome with its decorative plaster work in the centre of the ceiling has been retained. Splendid examples of old craftsmanship in wood are the arc-shaped doors, made to line up with the perimeter of the landing at the top of the staircase.

A mystifying feature of the house was the fact that one window could be seen from the exterior of the house, but no room could be found inside giving access to it. It was known that two walls of the principal room described above concealed two rooms or empty spaces, and great was the speculation as to what might be found within. All fancy theories on the subject, at least in the case of the space behind the mysterious window, were exploded when one wall was pulled down. No treasure or skeletons were found there.

Some of the basement walls of the house were found to be made of cement of a type far harder than anything known to-day. More tools were damaged by it during repair work than would have been the case with any modern cement. It is thought, too, that the basement must have at one time contained cells for prisoners who fell foul of the laws of the time. Sketch and photograph on the opposite page show a still visible section of an old winding staircase now embedded in the ramp running alongside the house from the lower factory level to the pathway outside the house. With all damage repaired, alterations completed, and modern lighting, telephone, sanitary and general office installations, we may leave Enderby House, now disguised in its pseudo-block facing, to earn over the next few decades the cost of all these changes. 

F. J. M.          

Two views of Enderby House in 2004
See also A Photographic View of Enderby's Wharf and Allan Green's article 150 Years Of Industry & Enterprise At Enderby's Wharf

Last revised: 24 June, 2015

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