This article appeared in Bygone Kent in July 1996 - as development began on what we still called Greenwich Marsh with what were to call the Millennium Dome. It largely deals with the construction of the gas works in the 1880s
BAD SMELLS ON GREENWICH MARSH
The announcement has been made that the Greenwich peninsula - once known as Greenwich marsh - is to be the site of the Millennium exhibition. The world has seen pictures of it on TV, showing George Livesey's giant gasholder and putting across the message that this is a derelict area in need of cleaning. We have heard dramatic descriptions of the general air of decay, the pollution, the smell. This, they say, is a dirty smelly place, waiting to be reclaimed. Was it always like this, or was it once pleasant, green, countryside? It is instructive to discover that, in 1881 before the gas works was built, people felt just the same about the Greenwich peninsula as they do today. It was 'a sodden wilderness of decrepit wharves, forsaken factories, and melancholy marsh'.
The South Metropolitan Gas Company obtained the Act of Parliament necessary for them to build a new 'super' gas works on 140 acres of Greenwich marsh in December 1880. Discussions were already underway with the local authority on the new plant and its layout. It had been agreed that the purifying plant, thought to be the smelliest part of the works, should be placed on the northern most tip of Blackwall Point . This would ensure that smells were kept from Greenwich, while wafting over the Isle of Dogs.
A number of other people had plans for Greenwich peninsula in the 1880s. The gas company were aware of schemes for docks and a railway, planned by the South Eastern Railway. Coles Child, who had recently died, had operated a large riverside site, dealing in coal, cement and lime. He had owned many acres of marshland which his executors thought had potential for housing. Mrs. Fryer, with a parcel of land next to the proposed works thought so too. Both thought the gas works would not make a good neighbour.
It was difficult to see that much of the peninsula would be suitable for housing. Indeed, the whole area was waterlogged - it was after all called 'Greenwich Marsh' and lay six feet below high water. Although the river was kept out by a dyke around most of the area, on the eastern side, where Mrs. Fryer's land was, there was no river wall and the bank ran out into muddy shallows. Much of the land was covered by water during high tides. The area was crossed by innumerable ditches, full of water up to about a foot below the ground.
There were others who thought that the smell from the new gas works would harm them. They were the owners of the very large dry dock located at the tip of Blackwall Point. They claimed that the smell would damage the high class paint work on the boats which were in their dock for repair. This point was raised at the House of Lords enquiry which was made into the site of the proposed gas works. In answer Sir Edmund Beckett, QC, for the gas company, made what would today be considered an unacceptably racist remarks about the dry dock's owner. More reasonably he pointed out that the gas works would smell a lot better than the dock's existing neighbours, the Bisulphated Guano Company. Subsequently, the House of Lords made it a condition that before the works was built the gas company must buy the dry dock.
There were other requirements on the gas company before they were allowed to build the works. One was that they build the river wall on the eastern bank, and on the west bank provide Ordinance Draw Dock in return for an older public draw dock which would be demolished. A public footpath that had previously gone right round the river bank was closed. These changes did not please 'waterside people' who continued to cause 'difficulty' by insisting on their old rights of way. Docwra, the gas company's contractors, dealt with this by placing 'a gang of men' to 'divert this traffic'. Building work began very slowly. The contractors found access to the site difficult, describing it as 'a cul de sac - and approaches thereto were not inviting'. They set up offices in Blakely Buildings, a small group of houses built for the workers of the short lived gun manufactury at Ordnance Wharf. That site was ordered to be purchased by the gas company, although it was partly occupied by the guano company. The rest was derelict and 'useless great guns' lay all about, reminders of the failure of their manufacturer. Each of these would be worth many thousands of pounds today.
The centre of the peninsula, and most of the site on which the gas works was to be built was 'market gardens of poor quality'. The builders were constantly reminded of this by the 'sprouting of rhubarb' throughout the site. Other reminders of the rural past were the few remaining cows who lived in a shed which 'age had rendered rotten and insecure'. Perhaps the barn was the one that had been built on the field to the south of Riverway in 1815. This was of timber on a brick foundation with a thatched roof. Seventy years later it was, no doubt, showing its' age. One future gas works' employee was to remember that as a boy he had illicitly milked a cow into his cap on one hot summer afternoon. The resulting mess of 'milk, cream and hairs' led to a 'conversation' between his father and the cowkeeper.
Once the gas company contractors were on site any remaining cattle were impounded by two police kept for the purpose. Others who thought they might have rights there were gypsies for whom it was a 'happy dumping ground'. With them the contractors were in a 'constant state of warfare'. During one such running battle, Joseph Tysoe, the future works manager, only escaped serious injury when his assistant grabbed a heavy iron bar aimed at his head.
As work progressed, Docwra brought on site 'extraordinarily powerful pumping apparatus' and took borings to discover the state of the ground. Barge after barge came loaded with clinker and heavy rubbish to use as infill, but it took 'a vast amount of effort to make a sensible impression on this wilderness'.
Slowly the works took shape. 'Looming vast against the sky is the skeleton of the great holder'. This is the holder still to be seen today alongside the Blackwall tunnel approach road. It was thought it would 'darken the sky like a mountain of iron'. The jetty too was taking shape, sinking as it was built. It was reported that it was 'allowed to go as far as they would' until it became 'as firm as a rock'.
East Greenwich gas works would soon become the premier works in London.
Was Greenwich Marsh really such a dump? Was the river frontage really only 'scattered at intervals with factories devoted to evil smelling trades'? Many of those factories were, in their own fields, famous. One, which had evolved all the way from its origins in Samuel Enderby's 1830s rope walk, had handled the Atlantic cable. Their successors are still on site today. There had been some important innovators among the east Greenwich wharves - one, the engineer, Joshua Beale, had made steam cars, and there had been others like Kuper who developed wire ropes. Some famous names had had sites at East Greenwich, Henry Bessemer and Maudslay Son and Field among them. Works were strung out around the Peninsula from Coles Child on the west bank to the flamboyant millionaire, Frank Hills , on the east. Hills also occupied a large, and very important, tide mills at what was once, New East Greenwich. Interspersed between these were many river based trades who undertook the regular Thamesside traffic of cement, tar and barge building. The truth about Greenwich marsh was that it was a busy industrial area and its lack of access didn't matter to works that relied on barge transport.
East Greenwich gas works became world famous, and was once seen as an example of everything that was progressive in British industry. It must be ironic that in 1996 we are looking at the gas works site in just the same way as its builders looked on those they were to replace.
This article is based on contemporary accounts and reminiscences mainly from Journal of Gas Lighting and Co-partnership Journal. Some material is taken from the 1881 House of Lords Enquiry into the gas works site and other written and archival sources including Morden College.