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The Autostacker

The Autostacker

The 60s may have been the period of “Peace and Love” but it was also a golden age of economic growth fuelled by advances in science and engineering. Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology speech captured the mood of the decade and Woolwich embraced it wholeheartedly. Since the founding of the Royal Academy 1720 and the opening of Woolwich Polytechnic (now Greenwich University) in 1890 the area had a long tradition in science and engineering. As Woolwich Borough Council was preparing to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee in 1961 what better way than to build an automated car park; the first in the World.

It was designed by J. A. Sterling who was responsible for building the longest Bailey Bridge in the World across the Rhine during the Second World War. He first thought of the automated car park when he was the General Manager of the United Africa Company and had to deal with fifty varieties of timber. It was difficult to get timber from the bottom of a pile so he set about experimenting with a Meccano set how to solve this problem. He used the same approach to designing the Autostacker. In fact, Meccano celebrated the opening of the Autostacker by making a scaled model.

Parking was fully automatic and carried out by remote control from a kiosk on the ground floor. The cars were transported mechanically at the turn of a key and the complete parking or collect cycle was planned to take a mere 50 seconds. There were eight floors each with a capacity for 32 cars. The official opening was 11th May 1961.

Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, accompanied by her husband The Right Honorable Anthony Armstrong Jones, were the guests of honor and there was a grand Civic Ceremony. At 3.50pm Princess Margaret, Councillor R B Shike The Leader of Woolwich Borough Council and other officials proceeded to the AutoStacker in Beresford Street. What a day in Woolwich, the crowds, the anticipation and later the embarrassment.

Princess Margaret was to park a van donated by Dagenham Motors for use in the meals on wheels service. There were 256 keys in the Control Panel each corresponding to a parking bay. With one turn of the key the automated process begins. Well, not in this case the key stuck and the van remained stationary, Princess Margaret was unable to park the car. In fact no-one managed to park a car as the facility was closed to the public until the “snagging problems” were ironed out. They never were and it was one mighty engineering failure. The Autostaker never did open and was demolished in 1965.

Short video of the Autostacker


Guest Post BK

The Tolly when it was a serious drinking establishment

The Tolly when it was a serious drinking establishment

My first two postings tracked my gradual disillusionment with the corporatisation of The Tolly. I think much of this can be put down to the transition of Youngs, the owners, from an independent brewer with a small chain of pubs in South London to a subsidiary of Charles Wells. Charles Wells now not only brew Young’s beer but also that of Courage and McEwan’s. However, this feeling is as nothing now that I have seen what is proposed for the future.

The Tolly has been closed for refurbishment since March. Details of what is planned have now been posted here.

The Tolly mood-board

I have studied Mood Boards (urrgh!) 1 & 2 with some difficulty as I have found it impossible to read the script; but essentially I think they propose to merge the public and lounge bars by knocking through the dividing wall at the Royal Hill end. A considerable loss of seating also seems to be involved. The area from the back of the current bar in the lounge to some distance into the garden will be a giant restaurant/conservatory. The whole lot will be kitted out from some central warehouse with all sorts of ersatz French shabby chic fixtures and fittings.


The size and layout of the front bar, it only has two full size tables, seems to indicate that it isn’t really designed as a serious drinking establishment but is just some sort of holding area for the dining room which is where the real action will be. So, it looks like The Tolly will be a restaurant with a small bar attached.

What sort of a restaurant will it be? Young’s do a corporate menu of the usual pub standards; crab cakes, goats cheese tarts, battered fish and chips; bangers and mash and burgers. The sort of thing you can find anywhere. Perhaps the pub that The Tolly will most resemble would be somewhere like The Dulwich Woodhouse. However, there are two main problems if The Tolly is to make a success of being a successful purveyor of pub grub. First, it has very little passing trade and why should anybody want to make the journey; and second, it is next to impossible to park anywhere near in the day, and still difficult in the evening, again why should anybody make the effort.

Perhaps they hope to turn the old place into a gastropub with its own gourmet menu. The problem with this is that are already two such establishments, The Hill and The Prince Of Greenwich, within fifty yards, and also an artisan craft brewery/restaurant next door. Throw in the nearby North Pole, Davy’s and The Rivington and I reckon that Royal Hill needs another gastropub as much as Blackheath Village needs a new Estate Agent.

So, who will be flocking to dine in this wonderful new conservatory? Perhaps the new residents of the area’s rapidly proliferating luxury apartments will stop drinking their Sauvignon Blanc on their Juliet Balconies; abandon their Waitrose ready meals in their designer kitchens, and flood across Greenwich South Street. But this is unlikely, especially as most of them would find it a bit of a slog from Singapore or Hong Kong.

Is this the end of The Tolly? A corporate gastropub among so many others. What would Harry and John and their pickled eggs have made of it?

And can anybody explain the bicycle?

Previous Posts on The Tolly

Slip Cover Chatham Docks

Slip Cover Chatham Docks

There is something awe-inspiring standing in a big cavernous space with shafts of light penetrating from the roof. This isn’t a sacred place or even a royal place it is a place made by craftsmen for craftsmen. The Slip Covers at Chatham Docks are functional buildings of true beauty.

Slip Cover Chatham Dock

It was refreshing to read, earlier this year, that Simon Thurley the Chief Executive of English Heritage had identified the No 6 Slip Cover at Chatham Dockyard in his top ten best historic buildings. In fact, in list almost half of the buildings were from England’s Industrial Heritage.

Slip Cover Chatham Dock

Covers to ship-building dry docks were introduced to the Navy yards in the early C19th to stop the deterioration of wooden ships exposed to the rain and damp. Designed by the Royal Engineers these buildings pushed the boundaries of engineering and these were the first wide spanned structures in the World.

Splayed Scarf Joint

Stop Splayed Scarf Joint

The light pours into the building through roof spaces which allowed longer working days. In 1904 a mezzanine floor was added to create storage space but it does obscure the original lighting effect. From the mezzanine you can begin to get a sense of what it was like when it was a place of work.

Slip Cover Chatham Dock

The wooden structure of No 6 is worth exploring in some detail as many of the joints are so big and so unusual, such as the stop splayed scarf with folding wedges. The workers, who normally built the wooden boats, used their skills to craft this magnificent structure. In fact, the building does look like an upside down ship.


The slip now houses a collection of heavy plant machines and lifeboats but the building is far more interesting than its contents.

Banks of the Darent

Banks of the Darent

Bank Holiday Monday and I realised that I’d missed the International Dawn Chorus Day. Well, I didn’t even know it existed until I switched on Radio 4 that morning to find out that it is held annually on the first Sunday in May. People are encouraged to rise early to listen to birdsong. Motivated, I planned a walk from Datford to Erith determined to listen more carefully to the birdsong.

Darent Valley Path

Darent Valley Path

The walk was along the Darent to the confluence with the Cray and then following the Cray as it flows into the Thames. My starting point was the railway station at Dartford then picking up the Darent Valley Path close to the Court House. Still in the heart of the town there was a coot’s nest in the river, an omen that this was going to be a good birdsong day. However, I could still hear the constant hum of the ringroad traffic and a distant radio helping the workers at Wickes get through a Bank Holiday shift. Momentarily I shifted focus from the birdsong to the abundance of wildflowers along the banks of the river: Native Geranium; Ragged Robin; Meadow Cranes Bill; Meadow Sweet; Vetch; waves of Cow Parsley interspersed with escaped Oil Seed Rape. Beyond the boundary of the town the sound of birdsong came to the fore again.
A bed of reeds was alive with the sound of birds: Robins, Blue Tits, Wrens, Warblers and the shrill sound of Black Caps.

View of the QE2 Bridge from the Darent Valley

View of the QE2 Bridge from the Darent Valley

In the distance the distinctive QE2 Bridge and the grey outline of massive distribution sheds. Still 160 square feet available for rent, the same as last time I passed this way. The switch to follow the Cray involves negotiating an unpromising stretch of the A206 the only interest being the dog roses on the side of the road. Beyond The Jolly Farmers, now another derelict pub up for sale, is the first section of the London Loop that follows the Cray to the Thames.

River Cray - London Loop

Banks of River Cray – London Loop

The first stretch is a post industrial waste land made more hazardous by the fierce looking and sounding scrap yard dogs. Cranes perched on the top of piles of earth adding to the apocalyptic feel of the place. Ten minutes brisk walk takes you beyond this and on to the estuary flat lands. On the west side of the river is a slight manmade hill of landfill with pipes, to release the methane gas, clearly visible. In the river are shell ducks but the birdsong is drowned out by a loud and constant drone of cross country motor cycles on the other side of the river.

Thames Estuary - R. Cray entering Thames
An interesting walk with lots of birdsong but not for those who want a more pastoral scene.




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