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Kent marshes are a desolate, liminal place described by Dickens as a “dark, flat, wilderness….intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it.” Much the same as it is today although there are signs that the developers are moving in.
This remote village is in transition. The Church of St Helen dates back to 774 AD but over the centuries vicars assigned to this marshy land were reluctant to take up their office. For this place was left to a desperate population who had no option but to live on this fertile but fatal land. On both sides of the estuary the marshes were a treacherous place to live.
Marsh Fever or argue introduced a defining silhouette on the estuary landscape. The last outbreak of indigenous malaria on the Isle of Grain was in 1918. In the Church grounds stand the charnal house which received the bodies awaiting burial. In some parishes burials far exceeded baptisms. Now people requiring executive homes are moving in. A gated community is being built and marketed as within easy reach of Ebbsfleet International and a short journey to Central London.
North of the village are the marshes and despite the advancement of developers remain a remote and strange landscape. A sheep farm occupies the site of a former explosives factory which at one time employed hundreds of people. The Curtis and Harvey factory founded in 1901 thrived during the First World war and was eventually closed in 1922. The remnants of old buildings are scattered across the landscape. An isolated metal barn is the only sign of human life in this wilderness.
Strangely still; perhaps because its rival Felixstowe still offers a cheaper gateway into the UK. The lichen encrusted river wall keeps the river at bay but is obviously no defense against the perilous river surges experienced so frequently last winter. Along the wall’s edge stands a marker to the eastern boundary of the jurisdiction of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames erected 1861: London’s influence ever present.
Forty years ago eating out was a rare event for most families. It was a period when most families cooked meals from scratch; girls still learnt domestic science, boys did if they went to a progressive school but more usually did woodwork. The Kentish Independent, which covered the Woolwich area, had pages of job advertisements mainly skilled ones at that. Fitters, capstan setters, skilled machinists, junior reporters and photographers all needed in the local area. In the days before “out-sourcing” cleaners and semi-skilled workers could start a career in the local Civil Service. Skilled workers could earn £56 for a 40 hour week, unskilled workers £31.73. Then on the 19th September 1974 the advertisment for staff for the shortly to be opening McDonalds appeared. No experience required and pay was 65p per hour plus free meals. A weekly wage of £26 was considerably lower than most other local jobs.
In the same newspaper, which had converted from broadsheet to tabloid three weeks earlier, was an article, “What is left of the Old Town?” lamenting the demolition of lovely old pubs like The Ship in Half Moon Lane, The Anchor and The Crown and Cushion to make way for concrete skyscrapers. Yes, modernity was coming to Woolwich.
On 12th October 1974 McDonalds opened their first restaurant in the UK in Powis Street Woolwich. The grand opening was attended by the Mayor, Len Squirrel and DJ Ed Stewart better known as “Stewpot”. Top of the menu was the All Star Meal consisting of hamburger, French fires, and a triple thick shake at a cost of 48p. Relatively expensive by today’s standards. Paul Preston, from Ohio, became the first manager of the launchpad store. The Woolwich store was so influential, a month later, boxer Henry Cooper launched his autobiography from there.
Fast forward forty years. Well the store is still there but the footfall in Powis Street has fallen. Locals still lament the loss of the old town and the development of even more ugly high buildings. Skilled jobs in manufacturing have long gone. Fast food chains have flourished with commensurate low paid jobs. Paul Preston is now President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s UK. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and over in the US world figures Bill Clinton and Bill Gates are advocating for the reintroduction of domestic science into the school curriculum.