Street Parades at opening of Woolwich Ferry

Street Parades at the opening of Woolwich Ferry

It’s hard now to imagine the joy of the people of Charlton, Plumstead and Woolwich when the Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889. Contemporary accounts describe the thousands of people who flocked to Woolwich for the opening ceremony and festivities. The headline in the Kentish Independent was:

Magnificent Day at Woolwich – a day never to be forgotten.

Yet, 130 years on from when the Metropolitan Board obtained Parliamentary Powers to establish the Free Ferry (1884); the future of it is uncertain. The TFL River Action Plan confirms that it has the greatest volume of passengers than all the other means of river transport yet in its consultation on River Crossings it is proposing to re-site it to Gallions Reach with no assurances that it will remain free.

Woolwich Free Ferry

In the C19th the people of Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton campaigned for over ten years for a free ferry as a necessity for this part of East London. The crossings from Lambeth, Waterloo and upstream as far as Staines were all free. The people in East London were taxed heavily in order to subsidise the western gentry who crossed the bridges, from the city upstream, untolled. Transport in South East London was by ancient wherries and the railway steamers. On 18th October 1880 a Public Meeting in Woolwich Town Hall passed a resolution for the development of a Free Ferry.

A very different view of Woolwich

A very different view of Woolwich

South Pier

South Pier

The development of the ferry was not without setbacks. Disaster struck 11th March 1889 when a fire broke out on the South Pier. A tar barrel accidentally overturned. The fire brigade from Shooters Hill were called but they would take at least 20 minutes to get to the pier. The heroes of the day were the Warspite Boys who spotted the smoke and used their initiative to take the Marine Society’s launch,which had a fire engine on board, from Charlton to help. The Warspite was a training ship for orphaned boys that was originally kept on the Thames by Warspite Road.

Crew of the ferry

Crew of the ferry

On the opening day the Warspite Boys lined the road to the pier and were given a half-a-crown (twelve and a half pence) for their support in putting out the fire. Workers from the Royal Arsenal and Royal Woolwich Dockyards were granted an hour off work to attend the opening ceremony. Two hundred police, 30 mounted, lined the streets when Lord Roseberry, first Chairman of the London County Council, arrived to open the ferry. The barometer was high, there was a gentle breeze from the West and Hare Street was beautified. Venetian masts of crimson cloth and ornamental crowns decorated the streets. Five hundred masts were erected to fly 20,000 banners and flags.

Passengers

Passengers

Captain Young set sail from the North Pier and Captain Giles from the South to a salute of guns from North Woolwich. The two ferries were Gordon and Duncan and the journey across the river took three and a half minutes.

Gordon

Gordon

On that day over 25,000 persons travelled on the ferry. There was an official banquet for 200 people and street parties for the townspeople. The revelry went on through the night. The Kentish Independent describes the day as:

“A day the like of which few localities have upon their records.”

View of the ferry from Bell Water Gate

View of the ferry from Bell Water Gate

TFL are planning a further consultation on the future of Woolwich Free Ferry in 2014.

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