Monday, 21 November 2011

The Woolwich Ferry - views of GLIAS members

Over the past years GLIAS's Newsletter has contained several contributions about the Woolwich ferry.  As a London wide organisation concerned with industrial history clearly GLIAS members come from all over and are not usually local to Greenwich and Woolwich - having said that I do wish some of these contributors would get in touch with us -
anyway - the October newsletter has another article "WOOLWICH FREE FERRY - MEMORIES OF THE PADDLE BOATS"

The author begins by telling us his memories of the old paddle steamers which were replaced by the current boats in 1963.  He says that from 1958 he lived in Woolwich and worked in the Royal Docks "so had many free rides with or without bicycle on the ferry".

He describes the boats as doing the "300 metre river crossing in a strange semi-circular course during which the boat seemed to spend quite  bit of the time going sideways or backwards."(they still do that - don't they? I guess there is a good reason for it)

He then comments (something we all know!) that "compared to today the river was busy with commercial activity from all sorts of ships and from barges and lighters and the ferry's crossing would often be delayed awaiting the passage of a vessel going fast with a strong tide. So coupled with poor visibility from fog the crossing appeared, at times, fraught with danger".

He goes on: "The paddlers were coke-fired so perhaps the London County Council" who ran the ferry, were setting an example to their citizens on the importance of smokeless fuels if pea soupers were to be eliminated".   ...... and  ...."Normally, the ferries were berthed at the pontoons with the bow into the current, but when the tide changed the ferry had to be docked at the end of one crossing the other way round causing confusion on the vehicle deck as the cars had to leave the way they came aboard rather than being able to drive through. At busy times three paddlers were in use requiring a mid-stream dawdle until the berth cleared.

But - as he says  "for an observer with an engineering bent"  it was the engines which were the main attraction.   "The paddlers had two independent engines, single expansion I think, twin-cylinder arranged as an inverted 'V driving, big ends side by side, onto a single crank which was coupled to one of the paddles. This meant that in theory at least, the ship could rotate about a central vertical axis if equal power was applied in opposite directions. On most paddle steamers it suffices to have a single engine with the paddle wheels permanently coupled to opposite ends of the crankshaft but the ferry duties in Woolwich Reach demanded greater manoeuvrability.

And, interestingly, he says: "each engine required its own driver who took his instructions by way of the traditional chain-operated telegraph from the bridge. Every command was accompanied by a bell code and was displayed on a heavily built brass indicator with  last-forever vitreous enamel face on it. The order had to be acknowledged to the bridge by the driver (more bells') so there was always a certain theatrical excitement in the voyage.

And - of course "Added to this was the sort of smell only present in the engine rooms of steam ships, a pleasant warmth and an aroma of hot oil and damp steam  - the most relaxing feature was the lack of noise with only minor hissing and muffled thumping as the engines got to work pushing the boat against the strong tides.

A view of the old and new ferries together
(and is that the autostaker in the background???)

So far so good - however he then goes on, more politically  - "The future of the Woolwich Ferry is interesting to contemplate ....................with the demands of motor traffic now being what they are the ferry is an anachronism  ....pedestrians have the fool tunnel available (unpleasant as it is) and since the DLR was opened to the centre of Woolwich rapid and frequent access to the southern side of the now commercially silent Royal Docks ......................Further, this redundant and expensive to run mode is sponsored by the taxpayer .............and the main traffic that needs to use it are lorries .... Meanwhile the existing three, now elderly, ferries must continue to demand heavy repair bills as they rust away and wear out ...................there seems to be little justification for a ferry with its limited capacity especially as it is paid for by the taxpayer rather than the user.

Oh dear!!   What do we think about that then??!!

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