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Opening ceremony of the Woolwich Free Ferry

Thousands flock to Woolwich for the opening ceremony 23rd March 1889.

Gordon one of the original Woolwich Ferries

The original ferries were called Gordon and Duncan.

South Pier of Woolwich Ferry

The South Pier of Woolwich Ferry

Woolwich Ferry Crew early C20th

Woolwich Ferry crew early C20th.

Woolwich early C20th

Industry along the south bank of the Thames at Woolwich.

The Thames at Woolwich

London’s industrial heartland  serviced by the Woolwich Free Ferry.

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

Passengers using the ferry for pleasure in 1960s.


Woolwich Ferry

You may well scratch your head to think what New York,Brisbane and Woolwich have in common? Well they all have a free ferry service. Statton Island Ferry is listed as one of the top ten things to do in New York and millions of tourists each year make the 25 minute journey from Manhatten. With great views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island it’s easy to see why it’s a favourite with tourists. The bargain basement fare of one nickel was dropped altogether in 1997. 21 million passengers, commuters and tourists, use this ferry annually.

Brisbane’s Free City Hopper allows tourists to travel along the Brisbane River with the option of “hopping on and off” to explore the riverside and city sights. The historic ferries were made free in 2012 as part of a strategy to encourage tourists to use the river. As the river is used more for leisure is there anything to learn from these overseas models?

Woolwich Ferry 1961

The Woolwich Free Ferry may not be of the same scale or fame as The Statton Island Ferry but it is of historic importance and provides a service for 2.5 million foot passengers and 1 million vehicles annually. 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.

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

The people in East London were taxed heavily in order to subsidise the western gentry who crossed the bridges, from the city upstream, untolled. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to much celebration in the town. As these photographs of the 1960s demonstrate it has been used for leisure as well as a means of crossing the Thames.

Street Parades at opening of Woolwich Ferry

Street Parades at opening of Woolwich Ferry

Thanks to the hard fought campaigning of our ancestors a Free Ferry Service is required to be provided by statute at Woolwich now all this may change. TFL are consulting on new River Crossings which sets out four options:

A new ferry at Woolwich
A ferry Service at Gallions Reach
A bridge at Gallions Reach
A bridge at Belvedere

If the ferry is replaced or moved it will become tolled so back to the pre 1889 situation in East London.

Cllr John Fahy and Leigh Pattison

Cllr John Fahy and Leigh Pattison

I had expected that with Greenwich’s maritime heritage that the Royal Woolwich Dockyards would be celebrated. I was disappointed when I visited back in March that there were no information boards. The dockyards closed in 1869 but a remarkable number of remnants remain. Just west of the Woolwich Ferry and you can still see two slips and two docks which were used to make and repair the ships. Woolwich dockyard was opened in 1512 when work started on Henry Grace a Dieu for Henry VIII. There are several original buildings including The Clock House 1783-4, the Master Warder’s Lodging and guard house, school and police station.

The Clock House

The Clock House

I wrote to the Royal Borough of Greenwich suggesting that they should put up information boards. It wasn’t until Councillor John Fahy, who represents Woolwich Riverside ward, got involved that I have seen progress. I met with him and Leigh Pattison an officer with the council to walk the site of the dockyards. We had also picked up from Greenwich heritage Centre contemporary images of the prison hulks or floating prisons that were docked at Woolwich. Throughout the history of the dockyard convict labour was used initially for dredging the mud. In 1778 there were two ships off Woolwich with 632 convicts. The prison ships remained a presence here until the 1850s.

Entrance to Royal Woolwich Dockyard

Entrance to Royal Woolwich Dockyard

Two information boards will be placed along the river front to celebrate the rich heritage of the dockyard and also the Woolwich Free Ferry. Councillor Fahy said:

“It’s important that the river front is opened up and the River Thames walk is a real opportunity for people to appreciate the history. Obviously, with the tall ships coming back to the Royal Borough on a regular basis appreciation of the river and its history is important.”

At last Royal Woolwich Dockyard is getting the recognition it deserves.

Royal Brass Foundry 1717

Royal Brass Foundry 1717

The recently published TFL River Action Plan proposes that piers should become destinations in themselves. An interesting concept which motivated me to try a few out. So why start at Royal Arsenal Woolwich? As well as being the eastern end of the Thames Clipper Line it is also the part of the river that has most passengers. Not on the Clipper but on the Woolwich Free Ferry. Of the 6,000 passengers travelling on the Thames each year a third are using the Woolwich Free Ferry. The Thames Clipper provides a commuter service to Royal Arsenal Woolwich so you can arrive at 9.39am then there is no further service until 17.41pm during the week. At the weekends there is a shuttle service between North Greenwich 02 and The Royal Arsenal. With this skeleton service you won’t be surprised to learn that the pier is basic.

Anthony Gormley sculpture

Peter Burke sculpture

Yet, when you arrive at the Royal Arsenal you are in a site with over 20 Grade 1 & 2 listed buildings which makes it a landmark heritage site. As you leave the pier there is a group of life size figures by Peter Burke to greet you. The Thames Path flows eastwards and there is a parallel small green space to the back making a sympathetic walkway. No 1 Street is ahead and it is a pleasant tree lined avenue that leads to The Royal Brass Foundry 1717. The Arsenal was organised into separate departments and there are corresponding buildings: the Royal Laboratory, Royal Carriage, Royal Brass Foundry and Storekeeper’s Department. Some buildings are known by their Ministry of Defence numbers, No 41 is the Academy. The Dial Arch now a public house was also known as The Great Pile. A group of engineers working in this block formed the Dial Square Football Club which in 1888 became the Woolwich Arsenal Football Club.

The Academy

The Academy

The integration of the heritage and the new buildings is very good. The restored buildings are still dominant which gives the place a unique historical feel. Compare the interest in this site to the new riverside apartments you can see on the north side of the Thames. Public spaces have been enhanced by historical features such as original cannons which are displayed proudly. Each of the listed buildings as a Heritage Plaque which gives you information about its previous purpose. It is reassuring to see these important historical buildings finding a new purpose as riverside apartments. Overall the signage is very good which makes navigating throughout the site easy.

Grand Store

Grand Store

On the Thames Clipper website they list a place of interest for each pier. For Royal Arsenal they list The Fire Power Museum. Whilst interesting and well worth a visit there is much more to see. The Greenwich Heritage Centre has a permanent exhibition about the history of The Royal Arsenal and temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was an exhibition of 19th Century etchings and watercolours of nearby Eltham. Refreshments are available at The Dial Arch Public House or Fire Power Bistro.

The imposing Royal Arsenal Gatehouse is physically separated from the Royal Arsenal by the A206. From the Dial Arch you can cross into Woolwich Town Centre. The town has a long and proud past and there is much to see. You can find on this blog previous posts about the town centre, a Heritage Walk around the town, a walk along the Royal Dockyard and The Woolwich Free Ferry.
Is it worth visiting? Yes though you may want to use the DLR, bus or overground train.

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.




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