Wednesday 14 September 2011

More achievements by Merryweather of Greenwich

Neil Bennett has sent us the following:

Did you know that a Rotary Internal Combustion Engine was conceived and developed in Greenwich High Road, in 1895, thirty-four years before the famous German, Felix Wankel, secured his first patent?

James Compton Merryweather, and his equally eminent engineer, Christopher Jakeman, diverted their energies from fire-fighting equipment to this intriguing project at the zenith of late-Victorian mechanical engineering enterprise.

A drawing of the Merryweather rotary engine is attached, but there isn't space here to try to explain how it works. I doubt very much whether the engine ever worked for more than a few revolutions, even assuming a prototype was actually built, because the builders did not have access to spark-plugs as we know them today, and instead proposed 'hot tube ignition' which must have been far less effective.

Interestingly, itwas not the world's first patent for a rotary internal combustion engine: three earlier ones were taken out in America alone. I have yet to discover an earlier patent for such a thing in Britain - so there's a challenge to all you googlers and researchers.

Ihe mid-late 1960s the London Fire Brigade were seeking new premises to replace their old fire station in Cannon Street. In 1956 the hovercraft had been invented, and ten or so years later, firechiefs were ambitiously contemplating a high-speed fire and rescue hovercraft for the Thames. It was even proposed that a gently sloping ramp would lead from the fire station building into the water, the vessel could be rapidly launched like an R.N.L.I. lifeboat, and would hover her way back up the ramp after each mission for servicing.

What seems to have been overlooked, however, is that when the fire-fighting water jets from the water cannons (monitors) on the vessel were at full throttle, the whole hovercraft would shoot off in the opposite direction, by Newton's Law. That is unless a huge amount of energy was expended in fuel powering highly-tuned aviation propellors, just to maintain the hovercraft on station and remain manoeuverable while it fought a fire. This was not the answer.

The firm Hovermarine had what is known as a 'sidewall' available -a vessel with the hovercraft's virtues of an air-cushion giving high travelling speed, but able to rest in the water, having a ship's rudder and ordinary diesel engines. The sidewall design of hovercraft,as opposed to the better-known amphibious type, cannot leave thewater.

In May 1967, Hovermarine and Merryweather together announced their fire-fighting and rescue vessel and there was a serious intention to build at least two of them. They would have been over 50 feet long, with Merryweather pumps and fire fighting equipment...but it never happened.

Financial issues and a fire at the Hovermarine works contributed tothe vessel never seeing the light of day. The Cannon Street firestation was replaced by Dowgate Fire Station, in the huge Mondial House building in Upper Thames Street, which is close to the river,but in its final form does not have access to the Thames bank. By about 1980, Hovermarine had indeed built four similar high-speed Fireboats for the Port of Rotterdam, but sadly by this time Merryweather and Sons had been left out of the contract and were in the throes of their move out of Greenwich.

Here is an artist's impression from 'Fire' magazine, June 1967, of what the Hovermarine/Merryweather vessel might have looked like... and what's more, I seem to remember having a clockwork toy boat looking exactlythe same - has anyone got one?

Merryweather and Sons has made the progression from a large heavy-metal manufacturing company employing hundreds of men (and a few women) between the banks of Deptford Creek and the Ashburnham Triangle, to a compact and profitable business in rural Kent. Britain's manufacturing prowess, with Merryweather on its meridian in Greenwich, has given way to the Service sector, as seems to befi tmodern times. The company's increasing range of services to corporate and municipal clients remains wedded to fire protection, as follows:-

- Servicing of fire extinguishers

- Service inspection and repairs to dry fire rising mains

- Service inspection and repairs to wet fire rising mains

- Installation of fire alarm systems

- Installation of emergency lighting systems

- Carrying out of fire risk assessments

- Carrying out of structural and passive fire protection work

- Fire training

Saturday 10 September 2011

Structural steelworks on the Greenwich Peninsula

Universal column being fabricated at Redpath Brown's East Greenwich Works for Babcock & Wilcox

"Redpath's", as it was known locally, was the Greenwich steelworks which stood south of the Pilot Inn - but the firm was actually part of the Teeside firm of Dorman Long.

At a quick visit recently to the Dorman Museum in Middlesborough there was a warm reception and a little surprise at a request for any information about the firm's branch in South London. They have now been kind enough to send two extracts from the Dorman Long company magazine - dated 1947 and 1960 - which include some pictures of Redpath's work.

As the accompanying text says:

"Founded in Edinburgh in 1802, Redpath Brown today is the largest single steel construction unit in the industry. Associated with Dorman Long since 1929, Redpath Brown continues to operate as a separate entity while enjoying the advantages of close association with an important producer of its chief raw material. At home and overseas Redpath Brown steel structures provide the framework of many notable public, commercial and industrial buildings. Among numerous contracts now on hand are:

Aircraft assembly hall for the Bristol Aeroplane Company requiring fabrication and erection of 7,000 tons of' steelwork. The structure has a floor area of 7.5 acres. The building comprises three bays, each consisting of a 331 foot arch span.

Nearly completed by Redpath Brown is the structural steelwork for the new House of Commons. Work on the 1,300 ton steel framework will be finished within the contract period of nine months.

British Nylon Spinners Factory, Pontypool. The first section, 1,000 feet long by 350 feet wide, rising in parts to a height of 100 feet, and involving the supply, fabrication and erection of 13,000 tons of structural steel, is well advanced.

Kingston Power Station, the first section of which is shown, embodies 2,200 tons of steel in the framework and bunkers. The second section of equal size is now under construction.

Robinson and Sawdon, Hull - cambered universal roof beams.

and - the Cleansing Department, Corporation of London.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Underground in Plumstead and Woolwich

The very wonderful Subterranea is out for September and is jam packed with articles of all sorts of interest (not just bunkers, that is!) including news of Dollis Hill and Fort Halstead - and articles describe visits and tunnels in many parts of Europe, and indeed China.  Nearer home is a fascinating article on the Mayor of Ramsgate's work on wartime tunnels now being renovated.

Among the news items are two of Greenwich interest

- the air raid shelter at Waverley Road, Plumstead - they note that the journal British Archaeology has featured this as one of six important threatened sites.  They note that the shelter is built in an unusual way with benches, ventilation, electrical fittings and a urinal. (they quote from Brit. Arch. May/June 2011)

-  Woolwich Crossrail Station - there is a short article about the proposed station and its funding, and in a different article note the timescale and methods for the tunnel to it.

Subterranea is the journal of Subterranea Britannica and impressively edited by Nick Catford (

Sunday 4 September 2011

A quick historical look at the Greenwich Peninsula

Docklands History Group Talk 3 August 2011
(the following is a set of notes taken by a member of the Docklands History Group during Mary's talk. It reflects their perception of what she said.)

Greenwich Peninsula by Mary Mills

The subject was so immense Mary said that she had decided to talk about the industrial area, the gas works, now the dome site, and recent changes.

In the 1690s the government had a site which it used as a facility for gun powder testing before the gun powder was exported, using a specially built jetty. Later Enderby’s Wharf, ‘the home of communications’, developed on that site although Enderbys, who had a rope making factory there, left in the 1840s. In the 1840/1860s underwater cables were developed there. The fourth underwater cable to be laid across the Atlantic, and which then worked, was made there. In fact about 97 per cent of underwater cables laid round the world before 1927 were made as well as special alloys and later optical fibres. The site was subsequently used by a series of telecommunications companies – and continues there under Alcatel. She regretted that the historic significance of the site was not better known.

Enderby House, built in the 1840s, was listed but had recently been badly vandalised. There was now to be a cruise liner terminal at the site. The river here was wide enough and deep enough for cruise liners to turn.

Mary then talked of Morden College, a charity, which ran almshouses and had been set up by John Morden of the East India Company and the City of London in 1680. For centuries the College had owned much of West Greenwich and the Peninsula and income from the land funded the charity. It owned the land on either side of Enderby’s Wharf. In the 1840/50s Morden College had parcelled up its riverside land on the Peninsula and encouraged developers to come in to found good quality industries on the sites.

In 1856 there was coal available plus tar and other chemicals from the gas industry and so manufacturing using these developed – a coal based manufacturing economy.

One works was Soames soap works later taken over by Unilever (coal tar soap!). The site later became a glucose factory. This was recently sold by Tate and Lyle to a French company who have demolished the works and the riverside silos leaving it currently empty.

Morden College is still the freehold land owner of much of the west bank area, still letting sites for development albeit now for housing.

At Bay Wharf slips were put in by Nathan Thompson and were later Maudsley Son & Field who had a ship building business there in the 1870s. They built the Halloween and Blackadder, fast sister ships to Cutty Sark, and in 1871 they built a Bospherous roll-on roll-off ferry among other vessels. It is known that this ferry was in use as a cargo ship until the 1990s. It is planned that the current operator of the dry dock on Piper's Wharf, which has to move from its present site, will move to Bay Wharf, which has planning permission for a boat building facility.

In the 1920s Lovells’ Wharf was let to a coal merchant Coles Child (it later became Lovells). Tarmac was on an adjacent site, Granite Wharf, originally Mowlems, where the Swanage Great Globe was made.

At Granite Wharf an early medieval tide mill has been discovered. There would have been mill ponds to impound the water needed by the tide mill. This was believed to be a site owned by the Abbey of Ghent and nearby at Ballast Quay was the Court House for old East Greenwich. The present centre of Greenwich grew up later round the Palace.

The Pelton Arms and roads around it, were named after Durham collieries.

On the east bank George Russell developed “New East Greenwich” in 1801. There were cottages and the Pilot Inn and a large tide mill where Richard Trevithick’s boiler exploded changing the history of the steam engine.

Angerstein had a railway from Charlton to the river, which is still use but much cut back. Also on the peninsula was a power station, Frank Hill’s chemical works and Redpath Brown's steel works. All that is left now from the past is a pub and listed cottages. The old East Greenwich power station coaling jetty remains, by a tower block. It is hoped that this jetty will be used by the Massey Shaw and maybe by other historic vessels.

One of the tower blocks has been named Bessemer Place to recall one of the former industries of the area.

There used to be a huge lino factory, which became Nairns of Kirkcaldy, which manufactured patterned lino to Victorian designs by an automatic process.

One interesting new development is the new Greenwich Yacht Club, which has been rebuilt on a wharf as a platform over the river.

The Millennium Village is still only half built. It has an ecology park, health centre, and shops. During the Olympics a Dutch man is proposing to use the open ground for a campsite.

The gas works was built by George Livesey, quite late but was extensive – and it aspired to the highest standards of quality. It had two gas holders one of which is still in use and one of the largest ever built. The works closed gradually after 1980.

The Peninsula has been re-developed by Greenwich Council rather than by a development corporation. Greenwich Council was party to the Joint Dockland Committee, but the land at Greenwich was left out of the development sites which passed to the London Docklands Development Corporation for urban regeneration. In the mid 1990s the site of the Millennium Dome, built on the gas works site and Ordnance Wharf, was a catalyst for development of the Peninsula. Now the only memory of the gas works, apart from gas holder No. 1, is the war memorial. On the jetty adjacent to where the gas works stood, there is a sculpture, “Quantum Cloud”, by Anthony Gormley. It is planned that there will be a walkway over the Dome by the time of the Olympics. The Architect who designed the Dome was Mike Davies from the Richard Rogers Partnership.

The Beckham Football Academy has become the Greenwich Football Academy and the new Ravensbourne College describes itself as an ‘arts factory’ teaching with an emphasis on digitisation. Their server is used by BT for its training.

There is still a safeguarded route for a new tunnel on the Peninsula to Newham. There is a plan for a cable car across to the Royal Docks and a new Siemens facility.

British Gas had bought up much of the land as other industries failed and this was taken over by the Govenment through their agency English Partnerships. Today the Home and Communities Agency own the remainder of the land and lease it out.

(with thanks to Sally Mashiter)

Friday 2 September 2011

Fort Matilda - Woolwich workers sent to Scotland

The following pictures are of the Fort Matilda torpedo factory in Greenock- now used by community groups and commercial organisations as a trading estate.

From web sites we learn that a railway tunnel was constructed to Fort Matilda railway station - this was an old coastal gun emplacement. The excavated material from the tunnel was used as landfill on an area which became the playing fields known as Battery Park - and which are still there today.

In 1907 the Admiralty bought some of this land for the Clyde Torpedo Factory. This opened in 1910 and 700 workers were transferred from the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. They worked on the design and testing of torpedoes. which tests were undertaken in Loch Long - which is across a stretch of water from the factory. During the Second World War torpedoes were made here.

This transfer of manufacturing capacity of technologies developed in Woolwich from the Arsenal to sites elsewhere in the country was not uncommon - green field sites gave space for expansion. Other London industries also moved. Shipbuilding is a prime example, moving out of London in the later 19th and early 20th century to sites in the north of England and Scotland.

More info on any of this is welcome - including anything about any influences that this influx of Woolwich people may have had on this Scottish coastal town.