WOOLWICH RIVER CROSSINGS
By Diana Rimel
Lord Roseberry of the London County Council officially opened the Woolwich Ferry in March 1889.
The very first ferry at Woolwich can be traced to 1308 when William de Wicton sold a small wooden boat, used for transporting people and goods, to William atte Hull for £10. A series of ferry services followed which frequently changed hands and competed vigorously with each other to such an extent that in 1330 Woolwich people petitioned parliament to suppress the rival ferries at Greenwich and Erith. Yet another ferry was established in 1811 by Act of Parliament between Woolwich and Charlton, but the sheer expense of this venture and lack of custom resulted in its downfall. In 1847 the Great Eastern Railway Company opened the Penny Ferry operating until 1908 from North Woolwich Pier, the remains of which can still be seen.
These early ferries demonstrated the need for an inexpensive reliable ferry service capable of carrying people to work in the docks of North Woolwich. There was also a thriving boat building industry at Woolwich. Local traders demands for a steam ferry were finally met in 1881 when the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to fund a free ferry for the people of Woolwich, as an acknowledgement of the contributions made by its ratepayers towards the cost of bridges built in London
In rapid succession the river gained other crossings, the Blackwall Tunnel in 1897, the Greenwich Foot tunnel in 1902 and the Woolwich Foot Tunnell in 1912. By the time the Ferry opened the London County Council had taken over from the Metropolitan Board of Works. There were great celebrations in the town, shops were decorated with bunting, and a lively procession wended its way through Powis Street, then Hare Street, to join the Gordon Paddle steamer on its first trip. People from all over the country came to see the opening and floating landing stages were installed.
The Gordon, Duncan and Hatton constituted the first paddle steamers, and were reminiscent of Mississippi steamboats with tall black funnels. They were replaced by the Squires, a second Gordon built in 1923 and the John Benn had the Will Crooks. During its 100 years of service the Woolwich ferry has not often been totally closed. The Squires went out of action in 1926 when it was struck on its port bow by the US vessel Coahama County when returning to the south pontoon. Fortunately no one was injured. These trusty coke-powered vessels clocked up a combined 400,000 miles until 1963.
From 1963 the John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman powered by diesel, took over from the paddle steamers and by their double ended loading design facilitated the loading and unloading of cars and lorries. They were able to sail in either direction and each boat has two 500hp diesel engines. In 1966 terminals with steel trussed ramps adjustable to a 30 ft. tidal range and designed by Husband and Co replaced floating landing stages.
In 1991 there were 84 ferry staff, 12 in the offices, 30 in the workshops, including shipwrights, plumbers, fitters, boiler makers, painters and welders - almost a fully-fledged dockyard. At that time the boats did 16 weeks on the river and eight being overhauled on the ferry's own dry dock.
General Charles Gordon of Khartoum (1833-1885) born in Woolwich and studied at the Academy. Gordon built 1888 by R & H Green.
Colonel Francis Duncan (1836-1888) author of 'The History of the Royal Artillery.' Duncan was a soldier and an MP, director of the St John's Ambulance Brigade from 1877-82. He died at Woolwich and is buried at Charlton. Duncan built 1888 by R and H Green.
Charles Hutton (1737-1823), professor of Mathematics at Woolwich Academy from 1773-1807, calculated the density of the earth using measurements obtained in 1774 by the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskeleyne. Hutton built 1893 by William Simmons and Co Ltd.
William James Squires (1850-1931), a Woolwich man, twice Mayor of Woolwich and for many years Chairman of the Woolwich Equitable Building Society. A bookseller and stationer who owned two shops in the town. Squires built 1922 by J Samuel White and Co Ltd.
Second Gordon built same date, same firm.
William Crooks (1852-1921) Woolwich's first Labour MP, took his seat in the House of Commons in 1903. Served on the London County Council from 1892-1910 and was Mayor of Poplar 1910. Crooks built 1930 by J Samuel White and Co Ltd.
Sir John Benn, (1850-1922) member of London County Council from its inception 1889 and chairman 1904-5, publisher, lived on Blackheath, grandfather of Tony Benn. M.P for Devonport for 6 years. Benn built 1930 by J Samuel White & Co Ltd.
James Newman (1879-1955) school teacher, was a distinguished citizen of Woolwich, school-teacher, mayor from 1923-25 and 1951- 52, many years a member of the Woolwich Borough Council. Co- founder and vice-President of the Woolwich Council of Social Services. Awarded OBE in 1948 for his contribution to local government.
Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) pioneer of modern trade unionism. Minister in two governments and Labour MP for Woolwich during the last year of his life. Bevin was known affectionately as the 'dockers' KC.'
All three current ferries were built in 1963 at the Caledon Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd. Shipyard in Dundee
John Elliott Burns 1858-1943, loved London's history and river. Called the Thames Liquid History; represented Battersea on Londonn County Council from 1889-1907; led the great dock strike of 1889 and was one of the first Labour MPs to represent Battersea. Also in 1905 the first
artisan to reach Cabinet rank. Flagship of the fleet.
artisan to reach Cabinet rank. Flagship of the fleet.
The right to run a ferry belongs like a fair or market to an English law franchise its origin by statue, royal grant or prescription. The owner can charge toll and take action against rivals. The Woolwich Ferry of the 14th century was a Royal Ferry, farmed by the King (meaning that he could receive payment from the owners). This was an attempt to stop rival ferries from Greenwich and Erith.
Gordon, Duncan and Hatton cost £.45,077 (including acquisition of property for approach roads). LCC built piers and pontoons (£119,367) and compensation of £27,500 to the Great Eastern Railway for the loss of its penny service. Service inaugurated by Earl of Roseberry in March 1889.
Duncan and Gordon were 164ft long, driven by four steam engines - two coupled to each paddle-wheel, producing a total of 600hp. They were able to carry 1000 passengers and 15 vessels. In their first year they transported 1,658,777 passengers and 67,614 vehicles. When the Hutton joined them it was a 20 minute service maintained between 5am and 11pm, except in fog. The old boats were sold for scrap in 1963, and many people were sad to see them go. They had closed only 3 times till then.
Burns, Bevin and Newman were diesel engined with Voith Schneider cycloidal infinitely variable propellers fore and aft. They are end-loading carrying some 330 vehicles and 6, 500 passengers between 8am-8pm each day. 1982 was their first year out of service. In December 1981 the engines of the Bevin were started up after a 3 day Christmas holiday. One blew up, its block split and it was a write off. During the holiday water had leaked into one of the cylinders of the engine, and when it was started the water in the cylinder caused too much pressure to build up.
In January .1982 the Burns's crankshaft split owing to metal fatigue, the engine was also a write off. Both boats were out of service on 10th January and the Newman carried on alone. The good engine was taken out of the Bevin and put in the Burns and she returned to service on 22 February. The ferry service broke down at the same time as the train drivers’ strike of that year. It increased road traffic in the Blackwall Tunnel and all round Woolwich.
In 1991 one million vehicles and two and a. quarter million passengers crossed the river. It cost then £3.3 million a year to run, paid for by the Government, but run by Greenwich Council. Captain Peter Deekes who was in charge in 1991 had been working for the ferry since starting as a relief hand in 1962, and was still in charge in 1997, when thick fog halted the service.
NB The Metropolitan Board of Works provided the crossing free of charge because the people of Woolwich had paid rates toward the cost of building the toll bridges in West London, which were made free in the 1900s.
The first Ferry Approach was built opposite Hare street, where he National Car Park? Waterfront Centre is today. Mowlem were the contractors. In the 1960s John Wilson street was constructed as the new Ferry Approach Road, and traffic was removed from the centre of the road. (Wilson was the Baptist Minister of Woolwich, 1877-1930).
In 1940 the ferries did not go to Dunkirk but on 7 September there was a big German raid on Silvertown. Ferryboats ran all night taking people across the river which was filled with burning oil.
All through the war the ferry ran a 24 hour service - sometimes without guide lights and with difficult steering. Once a bomb exploded near the stern, but didn't do much major damage. A VI flying bomb just missed the bridge of the boat and buried itself in the far bank of the river. The ferries also took shift workers between the Arsenal and Gallions Point. Two extra paddle steamers were used by the Red Cross (chartered from the Port Sanitary Authority at Deptford) and the John Herron a Wallasey steamer from the Mersey
Woolwich Foot Tunnel
Promoted by the North and South Woolwich Railway Company in 1904 - Bill for railway under river. Opposed by LCC but Parliament upheld it and the Council had to provide a free pedestrian subway. It was opened on 26 October 1912 by Major General Lord Cheylesmore, Chairman of the LCC at that time. Access is gained through the lift and stair shaft on the riverfront via Glass Yard. Built 1909-12, designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, architect and engineer. Cost estimated at £78,860 firm chosen, Waiter Scott & Middleton Ltd. It. has circular shafts for lifts (costing £5,000 to make and added later) and stairs, topped with glass domes. The shafts were sunk 25ft, close to the ferry piers. The tunnel 12ft 8in in diameter and 1,635 ft. long was bored by the standard method of a shield working in compressed air. It was walled with cast-iron, lined with brick and white glazed tiles. An earlier subway begun by J H Greathead was not completed.