Thursday, 18 July 2013

Wood Wharf report 1998

The article below appeared in the second Greenwich Industrial History Newsetter in 1998.  It features extracts from a report drawn up by a local campaign group - along with some specialist researchers in an effort to draw attention to the importance of the site and to try and halt drastic redevelopment which would not respect the historic integrity of the site (which went ahead some years later).  It was reproduced with their permission in 1998.

No 32 Wood Wharf, Pope & Bond is the site of the last traditional barge repair workshop on the Thames. Sadly the company went into voluntary liquidation during the summer of 1996 after the collapse of their refuse lighter repair contract

Groundwork's local programme managers and officers from the Creekside SRB Executive Team were asked to explore if these unique facilities could be saved. The then owners wanted to redevelop the site but they were supportive of investigations into the site's historic value and how these heritage assets could be retained as intrinsic elements of redevelopment of the whole site

A technical and interpretative research study was undertaken by local building conservator, Steve Jones for Groundwork.  A complementary analysis of the tourism potential of the site was undertaken by Duncan Tyler and Martin Thomas of St Bank University for the Creekside Renewal SRB

An outline proposal for a heritage sensitive redevelopment of the whole site was prepared utilising the findings of both studies. It aimed to provide a positive influence on owners, developers and planners about the future of this valuable site.

In the first half of the 18th century, the time of the appearance of the first structures on or close to the site, the surrounding land was a mixture of marsh and reed beds known as Brooks Marsh. It is probable that this land had at an earlier time been farm land, meadow or pasture, but as a consequence of rising river levels and poor maintenance was no longer sufficiently well drained.  No site-specific documentary evidence detailing activity or structures prior to the end of the 19th century was discovered in the course of this study. Careful analysis of a selected sequence of maps does however provide a reliable history of the development of the site within its immediate environmental context.

No roads or structures are evident to west of the group of buildings identified as Billingsgate on the survey map of 1695 . On Rocque's map of 1746 a road or track is clearly marked running west parallel to the river bank and a new structure is evident which, allowing for the vagaries of scale, would appear to be on or about the location in which we are interested. Probably the most exciting and evocative map of all those examined is M. Searles survey map of the Medclafe Estate dated 1777. Here we encounter for the first time the name Wood Wharf identifying an isolated group of buildings directly on the river's edge and again on or very close to the study site. More important still is a clear declaration of function and activity: 'Boat Building, The marsh behind and to the west is being drained by the means of dykes and a sluice.

 It would appear that the initial seed of riparian industry an commerce which within fifty years would grow to envelope all the riverside land between Greenwich Town and the River Ravensbourne was sown in both material fabric and the practice of skilled labour at the very site under investigation.

Morris' map of 1832 illustrates the rapid pace of expansion to the south and west of the group of buildings at the western end of the riverfront road. The road itself has now taken on the name Wood Wharf and the presence of a gas works on the western promontory points to the pace of technological change. The current street plan is clearly evident, Wood Wharf together with Thames Street, Bridge Street and Horseferry Road. The exact position of the site can be easily located with the buildings at number 32 displaying a similar footprint to those standing now. Of equal importance is the identification of a ferry which departed from the end of Horseferry Road established by an Act of Parliament in 1812 the ferry was specifically for the transport of horses and vehicles. It should be noted that at this time the Horseferry Road continued right to the river's edge across the land which is the present day site of number 28 Wood Wharf.

The greater detail of the Ordnance Survey Map of 1869 reveals blocks of dense residential development on either side of Thames Street and the wharves, jetties, shipyards and plethora of riverfront buildings abutting the Thames foreshore. A foundry, ironworks and two breweries are also in evidence interspersed with the residential fabric. The footprint of the cottage on the south side of the site now appears to be that of the presently extant structure and a second storey element to number 32 can be seen to bridge the alleyway as it does today. The Ordnance Survey map of 1895 records little change to the detail of the site and nature of activity on the adjacent water front with the marked exception of the railed landing station on the site of number 28 and the massive concrete slipway running down to the low water mark. These two structures and their opposite parts on the northern shore were installed as part of the mechanically audacious but commercially unsuccessful Greenwich Steam Ferry which opened in 1888.

By the time the Ordnance Survey Map of 1916 was produced a new structure has been built on the site of number 32, the exact replication of the current footprint and the bridging first floor element confirms the arrival of the present day building. Though the last of the large shipyards to the west has now gone, the foreshore east towards the town centre is still dotted with a variety of small buildings, wharves and jetties. The current structures at numbers 30 and 28 are still not in evidence and the demise of the steam ferry at the end of the previous century, though the concrete slipway still remains, marked the end of sites significant as a ferry crossing point for the lower reaches of the Thames.

The importance of the Wood Wharf as the location of the first post- medieval development of the Thames waterfront immediately to the west of Greenwich Town has been firmly established The commercial and technological imperative that drove the following expansion was that of industrialisation It is interesting however that the earliest documented activity on this site was a pre industrial craft the skilful practice of which had exerted a powerful influence on the history of the British Isles for more than 2000 years. Searles map of 1777 clearly identifies Wood Wharf as a Soar Building yard. To what extent can we establish a continuity of this practice in and about this yard?

It would indeed be unusual for a single small site to be exploited without interruption for a single purpose, despite changes in technology, design, demand and practice, over a period of more than two hundred years. Indeed we are told that on the Laurie map of 1821 Wood Wharf is marked as a timber yard, By this time all along the foreshore east of the site was being developed as wharves with jetties and associated riverfront buildings. Here goods were unloaded either from seagoing craft accessing the foreshore on the top of the tide, or more often, both loaded and unloaded to and from smaller craft that transported the bulk of goods and individuals up and down the Thames. 

By number by far the greatest proportion of boats plying trade on the Thames would be such small craft, under 30 or 35 foot: cutters, gigs, lighters, wherries, and small fishing craft such as the Greenwich Peter boat It has been suggested that the absence of slipways indicates that boats were not actually constructed along this stretch of the Thames during the 19th century however such an assertion cannot be sustained Graft of this type under 35ft required no slip to be launched they are built as close to the water as possible preferably under cover and manhandled to the waters edge, just as they are in daily use for their succeeding working life

Any of the properties along Wood Wharf, the road running east to Greenwich Town, would be suitable for the fabrication of such craft and they must have been built in large numbers What is different about the original Wood Wharf site is that it is blessed with a particularly firm and shallow sloping foreshore which due to its position at the centre of the curve of the river on the outside of the bend, is the area least prone to silting As a consequence it is an ideal place to beach a boat for maintenance and repairs Given a choice this is the best place between Greenwich and the Ravensbourne to carry out the fabrication and maintenance of small wooden craft

By the second half of the 19th century iron plate and later steel were beginning to replace wood as the material of choice for the manufacture of large and medium sized vessels (note the Iron Shipbuilding Yards to the west of Wood Wharf on the OS maps of 1865 and 1895). In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century a huge number of flat bottomed barges and lighters of both wood and iron or steel construction transported materials up and down the Thames and the east coast The Wood Wharf foreshore provides an ideal location for the maintenance of such craft without the expense of cranes, slips or dry docks The occupation of the extant building at number 32 by specialist barge and lighter repair yards, can be traced back to the time of its construction just after the turn of the century; Percy Talbot, Whitehair (who specialised in the transport of grain to the flour mills in Deptford Creek), Union Lighterage and most recently Pope & Bond The form and layout of the building suggests that it was purpose built for this activity The remarkable similarity of the preceding structure represented on the OS maps of 1895 and 1865 would support the supposition that there is a direct link to the earlier days of boat building and repair at Wood Wharf

Only thirty five years ago there were six barge repair yards between Wood Wharf and the entrance to Greenwich foot tunnel The unfortunate demise of Pope & Bond brought to an end the local practice of a craft which long preceded the industrial revolution, initiated the industrialisation of this section of the Greenwich riverfront and all but weathered the post industrial decline Should Greenwich loose from it's riverfront both the site and the skills that most poignantly demonstrates the human bridge between the inevitable cycle of social technological and economic change and the timeless ebb and flow of the tidal Thames we will be forever impoverished. When as a society we acknowledge the true worth of river that lies at the heart of our city as an amenity for leisure and sport and sustainable transport, as we inevitably will, where will the industry that services that new demand reside if the skills and sites are no longer with us?

Wood Wharf and Greenwich Ferries

It has long been supposed that there have been ferries from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs from the earliest times. The evidence for the exact sites at which different ferry services embarked and disembarked passengers on the southern shore and how and when these locations changed is a little sketchy Potters Ferry crossing from Billingsgate to a landing point on the northern shore at the approximate location of the termination of Ferry Street is indicated on the 1695 survey map ). It seems this or another ferry also ran from Garden Stairs. It is reported that there are legal records of transfers of ownership of these various ferries dating back to at least 1570

A ferry at Greenwich that was capable, in favourable conditions, of transferring horses and carriages across the Thames is mentioned in Pepys' diary and a legal document dated 1762 grants the rights to watermen of Greenwich to provide "passage for men, horses, beasts, and all other cattle and carriages whatsoever. In 1812 an Act of Parliament was passed creating a statutory ferry for horses and vehicles and it is around this time that Horseferry Street first appears on maps The end of Horseferry Road which is now the site of number 28 Wood Wharf must have run directly onto the sandy foreshore so that regardless of the state of the tide a horse and carriage could be driven onto the ferryboat. The Horseferry continued to operate from this site until it was closed by the Metropolitan Board of Works Act of 1883. This was not however the last ferry to operate across the Thames from Wood Wharf.

The 13th of February 1888 saw the opening of by far the most ambitious and mechanically daring ferry operation system ever to be seen on the River Thames. The principle utilised to effect the smooth transfer of passengers, horses, carriages and even railway trucks onto a ferry steamer whatever the state of the tide had been first employed in the USA. It is a truly remarkable testament to the ambitions of the late 19th century engineer. This device is described in some detail in an article published in 2nd December 1892 edition of The Engineer . In short a concrete slip 350ft long and 53ft wide ran from the end of Horseferry Road down the foreshore. A massive landing stage weighing 270 tons travelled up and down this slip on rails with the flood and ebb of the tide Two travelling platforms each weighing 125 tons shuttled back and forth between the end of Horseferry Road and the landing stage transferring passengers, horses and carriages in either direction.

A duplicate of this awesome construction was of course operating on the opposite shore and between these landing stages steamed two purpose built ferries.

The ferries themselves were technologically very advanced being double ended with steam driven twin screws at each end. Underneath the end of Horseferry Road on the site of no. 28 a large chamber housed steam engines which through a system of gearing turned drums so as to draw the landing stage and travelling platforms up and down the slip by means of 4 inch diameter steel cables. In order to reduce the work of the engines the landing stage and platforms were counterbalanced by 20 ton weights which travelled down three iron lined shafts which are sunk over 145ft into ground beneath the chamber.

Despite its mechanical ingenuity the ferry was never a commercial success principally due to insufficient traffic. It closed between 1890 and 1892 and finally closed for good in about 1899 after less than ten years active life The history of Greenwich and of the lives of the people of Greenwich is inextricably bound to the river and the movement of people and goods up and down and across the river. The history of the Thames watermen who plied their trade in wooden boats of the type that were being made in the original boatyard at Wood Wharf is one of slow demise with the incremental emergence of two earth bound forms the bridge and later the tunnel. By the end of the 19th century engineers had taken the science and art of both bridge and tunnel design and construction to heights never before imagined. It seems deeply ironic that in their enthusiasm to tame the eternal cycle of the tidal Thames they should conceive and construct such an ingenious development of a system of transposition that was all too visibly in decline as a result of the application of those very same skills to a more efficient resolution of the problem

From the river the varied form and massing of this small complex of buildings, its direct physical association with the foreshore, a sand and pebble beach revealed with the fall of the tide, all in combination present a scene once characteristic of the entire west Greenwich riverfront and the banks of many other Thames reaches. Approaching and walking across the site along Wood Wharf itself, between and under the riverfront buildings and the houses and workshops tucked in close behind, is to experience a streetscape of a character all but lost to the Thames riverside This is the last remaining 25m of a narrow road that twisted between and beneath riverfront buildings eastward to Billingsgate Street and Greenwich town centre the first road along the west Greenwich riverfront and the seed of the street plan extending south to Bridge Street. Dreadnought, Victoria and Norway wharves and the remaining associated warehouses and workshops to the west will be lost or irrevocably changed with the proposed Greenwich Reach development and to the east Highbridge wharf is undergoing similar change.

Riverboat Repair Workshops
The building now on the site of number 32 was erected at or around the turn of the century. It comprises two ground floor workshop spaces either side of the roadway, a third larger first floor workshop facing the river behind which is a unit subdivided to provide locker room office and kitchen facilities. Purpose built, probably based on a pre-existing structure an archetypal form of which there are no other examples left on Greenwich waterfront. The trade practice for which it was designed and built and the activity it serviced are a testament to a pre-industriaI past and the unbroken history of boat building and repair on and around this site. The mater al and form of its structure and utility of its external detailing are characteristic of construction practice towards the end of the great industrial age which had changed forever the once marshy land to the west and south. The rear workshop still houses a forge tools and machinery employed to cut and form metal sheet and bar necessary to maintain the most recent incarnation of working Thames cargo vessels: steel barges and lighters. This building and if at all possible some aspects of its intended function should be retained.

The special nature of this smell section of tidal foreshore, a site naturally suited to the repair and maintenance of river craft, preceded and promoted the landside development The same characteristics of gently sloping, firm sand and minimal silt deposits were the prerequisites for a vehicular ferry The riverside buildings and foreshore are both physically and historically interdependent The most conspicuous reminder of the final stage in the history of the site as a ferry crossing point, the concrete slip completes the connection between the landside structures and tidal foreshore With the demise of the ferry the slipway was immediately utilised as an additional facility for the beaching and repair of barges and lighters Despite the passage of more than 100 years and at least one direct hit by bomb during World War II the slipway is still in remarkably good condition its sturdy proportions a remarkable testament to the scale of the moving landing-stage which serviced the long past Greenwich Steam Ferry

The large chamber beneath the buildings currently occupying the site of numbers 28 and 30 which housed the engines and counterweights for the moving landing stage and travelling platforms together with the concrete slipway is the only remaining material evidence of a great 19th century engineering edifice. Above this structure, like a camouflage net over a military bunker, is a hotchpotch of early and mid 19th century structures. The massive counterweight shafts descending nearly 50 ft into the ground below, roof beams formed from riveted steel plate and angle supporting the woodblock roadway above, and the circular chambers in the retaining walls which formed part of the boiler system, as well as the chamber itself, are all of archaeological significance. What is more the 190m chamber which was also used as an air raid shelter during World War II, could be the ideal environment within which to recreate and recall Wood Wharf past life on the late 19th century industrial riverfront; sailing barges and bargemen, lighters and lightermen, the steam ferry and its moving landing-stage; before the age of steam, ferrymen and watermen pulling on their oars against the flooding Thames in slender clinker craft the origins of which date back to vessels of the distant past, the longboats of the Norse raiders and settlers from a previous millennium

Past and present economic development and planning strategies for this and neighbouring riparian sites as well as Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Thames, point to the retention and exploitation of these assets as an assent al part of any proposal for future development

The primary economic activities in Central Greenwich are tourism, leisure and retail'. A recent study has identified the 'lack of any interpretation or presentation of the h story of Greenwich.  The lives of the people of Greenwich have historically been greatly influenced by and inextricably bound to the riverfront and its activities and businesses, traditional craft and the people who built and worked them.

The full technical and interpretative study identifies broad options for the inter-related utilisation of the heritage assets. The ideal option combination for Wood Wharf would be:

The preservation of the existing fabric of the workshop at number 32 Wood Wharf and the associated tidal foreshore as a centre for the conservation, repair and fabrication of traditional craft

The exploitation of the remaining elements (slipway and engine chamber) of the Great Greenwich Steam Ferry as the core around which to present a dynamic history of the riverfront at Greenwich and promote future uses of the River Thames far transport and pleasure.

Utilisation of the scenic and atmospheric potential of the location to generate further income and employment from a riverfront restaurant

The separate South, Bank University study into the viability of sensitive development suggests that such a combination could be viable and would


The site is adjacent to a major proposed development (Greenwich Reach 2000), an estate regeneration project 'Meridian Estate) and an environmental improvement programme (Cutty Sark Gardens). In addition a proposal to build a boardwalk across the front of the site's tidal foreshore has received outline planning permission. The site at present comprises two freehold units under separate ownership. Both freeholders are currently seeking purchasers and/or developers.

Be compatible and highly complementary to the Greenwich Reach 2000 development

Provide an acceptable neighbour to the Meridian Estate and contribute to the various related local SRBs.


The historic significance of the site, both by association and in material fabric, its potential as a viable tourist attraction and the private and public aspiration to recognise and utilise these values have been clearly established,

The immediate 'environment' is complex and there remains uncertainty about proposals for surrounding landholdings and the potential impact of the proposed boardwalk on future use of Wood Wharf. Given these pressures and the diversity of interests in the future of the site it will not be easy to achieve and maintain a broad consensus. Compromises will be necessary if all parties are to benefit from the redevelopment of the site and the following broad objectives are to be met

Landowners & developers achieve appropriate financial returns from site development

The site and parties involved attract a suitable organisation willing to make full traditional boat building and repair use of the foreshore and retained workshop facility.

The preservation and development of the steam ferry chamber as a viable entity that provides interpretation of Greenwich's working riparian heritage.

These are realistic, particularly if the various parties, including the local authority, consider a number of potential options for land and planning deals around the site


William Harris said...

Josephine Bell appears to be describing Wood Wharf in her 1938 novel The Port of London Murders.

Samuel and Rose Eade said...

My great grandparents Samuel and Rose Eade were the licensees of a pub at Wood Wharf, Greenwich in the early 1900’s, I have are photo if any historians are interested, the sign above reads “The Sun”