Woolwich Free Ferry
“The ferry has been a constant in my life – the one thing that hasn’t changed around here since I was a boy” this is the message on a “Precious Place” plaque I discovered recently in the passenger lounge on the Ernest Bevan ferry. The ferry has been a constant at Woolwich for centuries and there are references to a crossing dating back to the 14th century but that may soon change.

Transport for London (TfL) are currently carrying out a second stage consultation on proposals for new river crossings. A good thing in the main but the details hold some worrying prospects for the continuation of a free ferry. Plans include a new road tunnel linking North Greenwich and Silvertown and a new ferry at Gallions Reach. Read the consultation documents closely and it becomes clear that the proposals are not about a new additional ferry but a replacement one. Will it remain a free? The consultation is seeking views about toll charges so it is doubtful.

Transport for London is legally obliged to operate the Woolwich Free Ferry and it’s useful to look at its origins. The Metropolitan Board of Works (BMW) was responsible for strategic infrastructure developments across London from 1856 until the formation of London County Council in 1889. However, the bridges in the City of London have been the responsibility of City Bridge Fund from the 12th Century to the present day and there are no tolls. The BMW were responsible for river crossings to the east and west of the City. The Board had taken over the toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use. So, when they agreed to a new crossing in east London it was also free. Up until the Act of Parliament in 1885 people living east of the City of London did not have free access across the river. A lesson in fairness I think. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to great celebration and a procession through the town centre.

It is clear that if there is a new crossing at Gallions Reach TFL will try to remove the obligation to continue running a Woolwich Free Ferry. The land currently used by the ferry will be sold off for development.

The first phase of consultation ran at the beginning of the year and there were only 3,800 responses. The second phase consultation is open until 1st February 2013. TfL are holding a series of consultation roadshows about the proposals, including one at Woolwich Library on Saturday 15th December between 10.00am and 4.00pm.