Sunday 24 June 2018

A perspective from 2000 on the history of the Greenwich Peninsula

I wrote this for the OU's student magazine in March 2000  - does anything change. Please comment!!


Writing a history of the industries which preceded the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula was, as it turned out, far from easy.  The official story was about site pollution with a subtext that the old and bad was to become the new and clean.  They didn't want to know about anything that suggested past was not, perhaps, all that awful.  How does the historian cope with a subject, which 'authority' is wary about and which a number of others are likely to be upset by?

Research into the Dome site raises a lot of issues, some in the wide historical context and others of interest only to historians of particular industries.  My research at the OU on the waste products of early gas manufacture in the context of surrounding industry gave me a head start with some of the manufacturers who had been on site in Greenwich. Further work produced exciting material, which validated some of my previous conclusions and identified a number of exciting and innovative factories.  Any eventual book had to appeal to the widest public, and time constraints would leave much of the research only half-done.

Despite all this activity I had, however, never really been able to address what I felt were the wider issues raised by the research. Tentative attempts to draw attention to some of them had met with a horrified response from several quarters 'how can you compare the Millennium Dome to the industries which went before it? I was aware, as they should have been, that the construction of the Dome on that particular site in Greenwich was yet another step in the exploitation of the area for economic gain.  I also felt it likely that there were some bodies who would not welcome publicity about their activities – albeit that these activities took place over a hundred years ago. 

Greenwich Marsh, as the peninsula was once always known, had been embanked and drained in time immemorial and administered by its own management body separately from the rest of the town.  Much of it had been in institutional ownership from the seventeenth century and these charitable bodies acted as developers in the nineteenth century to encourage and promote industry.  Many sites had harboured manufacturers who had been both ground breaking and important in a very wide context. I could not believe that subjects like the first Atlantic cable, the biggest gas holder in the world and guns for the Confederates in the American Civil War, financed by the opium trade, would not find an audience. 

There were a number of points I wanted to make. First was that the Dome is just another stage in the continuum of development in an area which has been home to many industries with a world wide influence - and that the reasons for this are connected to the geographical context, land use and ownership.   Publicity represented 'Royalty and Time' as the main historical contribution made in Greenwich but it seems very clear that its people have had a much wider impact beyond that.  The presence of the Tudor Royal Palace with its military requirements and the consequent need for scientific research, also engendered by the Royal Observatory have been of great significance to local industry. There were a number of important points concerning individual industries and their influence in a wider context- for example, the aspirations of the gas company which encompassed new ideas on public service and industrial partnerships.

There was also a wider, more political, context about the role of the historian in regeneration. In Greenwich, throughout the 1980s, we had watched the development of the London Docklands Area. What had been the greatest port in the world simply disappeared. Many sites of great interest to industrial historians were demolished without the smallest attempt at recording. As they were replaced with new developments an ethos emerged which appeared determined to deny what had been there before. Reference to the past was only made in reference to jolly cockneys or to soured industrial relations.   It is remarkable that of all the industrial centres of Britain, London - arguably the greatest of them all, has no industrial museum and this situation seems likely to continue despite brave attempts.  Very few people from outside east London have any idea of the extent of this industrial heartland and most people would not believe in it.  Why has the history of the vast engine for the economy of Britain simply been written off?

In Greenwich there was already a groundswell about the fate of the site of the Royal Arsenal.  This vast armaments factory had been closed to all except those who worked there.  Among the army of ex-workers however are a number who have become historians. When the site was eventually opened up to the public much had already been demolished and the only 'heritage' input into the site's future was to be yet another artillery museum – nothing about the technological and scientific skills which allowed the military machine to function.   Many ex-arsenal workers were ready to protest and my work on Greenwich marsh found a ready audience with them.

I began to try and get some support for a book about the industries around the Dome. Publishers and booksellers, could not grasp its wider context, but only saw it as, unsellable, local industrial history.  I was told that no one would be interested outside a few enthusiasts in the local area.  Others, including some local academics, could not see the Dome as part of continuum of development, saying anything that went before it was not of interest and was old and dirty. The official line was that the Dome was a break with the unpleasant past.  They have been perfectly happy to promote the past of Greenwich when it is about Henry VIII, or Lord Nelson,  - but not, in the most extreme example, to talk about the contribution of one local factory to the development of the Internet.   They were also, of course, afraid that something embarrassing might be uncovered.

I published the book myself in June 1999 with some help from my ex-employers, a Docklands 'community watchdog' organisation. It was not easy to maintain the integrity of the research while at the same picking my way through the various sensibilities. Initially sales were to friends and locals and, then, increasingly to those who had lived and worked on the Peninsula.  The press, except for one national newspaper has taken no interest.  A number of other books have been produced and an 'official' history is on its way.  As far as I am aware none of them have taken on the issues of the past of the site in a global context – the 'old and dirty' theme remains.  The only information about the past which will be available to visitors on site will be the official history of the politics behind the Dome and  - I presume – some populist stuff about 'Royal Greenwich'.

Recently the landscape designer on the Dome site said that in laying out the park area that they would not adhere to the 'current fashion for industrial heritage'.  This comment reveals a great deal about what is wrong with the way that 'regeneration' tackles history.  Much industrial history has been presented in what has sometimes been a very trivial way.  Objects are isolated from their context and used as decorative features.  Museums are often set up to present the past in a way which is easy to take in and, frequently very superficial. It is no surprise then that the whole subject is seen as a 'fashion' by urban designers - rather than something which was the stuff of so many lives. A similar problems is that it is often very difficult to get decision makers to understand that people researching their family histories are ordinary folk who have become historians through choice and that their search for knowledge will often lead them far beyond the mere names and dates of their ancestors. So sources of information are cut off and destroyed because it is thought they will be of interest only to the few. The desire of people from all walks of life to know about the past needs to be taken in a serious and unpatronising way.

I began by describing the difficulties I knew I would encounter in writing a history of the Dome site - and it has been a minefield - but one I have quite enjoyed finding my way through. Perhaps this article is the first step in saying what I really think about the site and its history.  Those who visit the Dome will have no chance to find out about the achievements of its forerunners. I don't want this to sound like a complaint. - I didn't and don't expect anything.  What emerges – and this is also a conclusion from my experience as a 'watchdog' in London Docklands – is that historians and regenerators each need to keep themselves apart.  The regeneration of industrial heartlands all over this country is a political issue and developers will manipulate the background to the site for whatever purpose – often for very good on es.  Historians mustn't be sucked in by this – they need to keep their own integrity and they do need to have an independent and honest stance when meeting the developers.  They also need to be kept informed, or to take steps to find and not be afraid to engage in debate. No one will take you seriously if you go along with trivialities but you do need an intelligent appreciation of what the political agenda is.

PS  - That was all 18 years ago. I eventually sold a just under 4000 copies of the book, Greenwich Marsh, and am constantly asked for copies (try Amazon!).  It is very out of date now and needs revising. Last year, because of new residents, who might be interested, I considered an update.  Self publishing is all very well but bookshops won't take it, and you end up selling it all, via reviews, by post and in the few friendly shops (thanks to the - now closed - Glass Wardrobe, and more recently Warwick Leadlay and Sabos).  In 2000 my husband was still alive and very willing to pack and post - but I can't face  doing it on my own.  I have contacted various publishers with a record of publishing local history - but, no, they would only take it if - I financed it,  halved the written content and provided more pictures, and guaranteed that the proposed cruise liner terminal would display it in their foyer.  

and - while I am in a bad temper - I could say a thing or two about the 'independent' bookshops.  Its not so much that they won't take your book but it's the sneers that go with the refusal 'Oh! whose the clever one then?'.   I have never met so many unpleasant people. One (now defunct) local bookshop did take 6 copies of Greenwich Marsh - on the understanding that they kept the entire cover price. They sold the 6 in three days - and then refused to take any more on the grounds that they had to 'cut the leaflets up with scissors'. I have no idea what these leaflets were and why they had to be cut.  As a result of this I don't care how evil Amazon is but I will not go into 'independent' bookshops. I remember the TV series 'Black Books' - it was too right!

Friday 22 June 2018

Friday morning notes

We understand that GIHS members and Arsenal experts Ian Bull and Ray Fordham are currently at Crossness as part of the Peabody London International Festival of Theatre event. They are talking to visitors about the history of the Royal Arsenal. We would encourage people to go and see them – and, of course, also the pigeons and ‘Fly by night’ as featured in the Guardian and on the BBC

Newsletter DOCKYARDS

This includes a call for papers for their next conference which will be on “we stand on Guard for Thee” Dockyards and naval bases in North America, the Atlantic and the Caribbean.  This is on the 18th of March, 2019 at the Maritime Museum and, as usual, will follow their AGM. Please send 300 word synopsis and title before 30th October 2018 to Dr.Ann Coats. email

They are also looking for a volunteer Twitter manager.  A report on the Navy Board project at the National Maritime Museum says that this has been extended for another year when it is hoped it will be finished. There are also notes about an oral history project on the knowledge and recollections of work and experiences in the Royal Dockyards 1946 - 1984. Contact  if you would like to be involved in any of these projects.

Thank you to the Editor for a mention of my booklet ‘Innovation, Enterprise and Change on the Greenwich Peninsula’ (still available, see There is also a note about changes at Maritime Books. They also mention preservation of historic cranes - people will remember the two cranes at Lovell’s (aka Riverside Gardens) which were destroyed against local wishes in the 1990s. They have a special offer for members of the Naval Dockyards Society of a book by Dr.Brian Newman “A work of Titans. A history of the Swan Hunter floating cranes” – of interest to anyone researching work on the Thames.

Rather nearer home for us they review the New Researches Seminar at Docklands History Group last November. Many of the items will be of interest to historians in Greenwich – one about convict prison hulks in Woolwich might well be of interest to Greenwich Industrial History Society as would a paper on “Shipwrights, patronage and the Thames Royal Dockyards”.


They reported on their May meeting which was about the London Gateway - the new Deep Water Container terminal on the Thames at what was Shellhaven, this includes a great deal of detail which we are happy to pass on if anyone is interested.  Their conference next year will be about the medieval Port of London.  They also mention a new book by Peter Stone on the History of the Port of London.
Derick Morris is leading a walk around Limehouse for the Group. This starts at 6.00 pm at Limehouse DLR. He charges £4 per person.
Their AGM will be on 4rh July at the Museum of London Dockland starting at 6.00 pm


We have a note from Elizabeth Cutajar are about some of the trips they are doing ‘off the beaten track’. Contact them


It is understood that funds are available for ‘Greenwich Park Revealed’ and a project leader is being recruited.  The WW1 project is underway and some items have been put on the Royal Parks web site about allotments in the War, about the age of park car workers and about sights and sounds during the Great War.  The Queens Orchard has been planted with historic plants, about which the snails have not been helpful. The next meeting is on the 7th of September, at 11 am.


The Thame Estuary Partnership has commissioned a cultural assessment strategy for the Thames Strategy East Study Area. Museum of London will be responsible for the archaeology and Alan Baxter Associates for the Built Environment. It will take account of the archaeological, cultural, industrial built and environmental heritage. We hope to hear more about this in due course.


And we are informed that work will start soon at St.Alfege’s Church Greenwich High Road

And also in Woolwich at the Ferry Approach

We have the links and details if anyone would like more information


Thanks to a legacy the Association is offering free places to students for their annual conference 31st August - 5th September (check out

They also point out that places for this conference are still available for those who will pay. 


We have their Transactions (No. 64) which is a very good read and includes an interesting article about Steamboat Stewards in 1842 as well as an article on local brewers.

Their programme:

10th September.  The enlightened Robert Pocock of Gravesend. Malcolm Jennings

8th October. Training ship Worcester. Ken Chamberlain

12th November. Women munitions workers in World War Two.  Ann Kaeif

10th December. From Greenhithe to Greyhithe and back again. Christopher Bull

14th January.  Rosherville Village and Gardens.  Michael Thompson

11th February. Cobham landscape detectives. Andrew Mayfield

11th March. Medieval Gravesend. Toni Mount

 8th April. World War I poets. Bob and Fern Ogley

13th May AGM

10th June. Ex-president's evening

All meetings at Saint Mary’s church hall Wrotham road, Gravesend   7 for 7.30


Thanks to Elizabeth we have been sent a copy of the London Archaeologist for Winter 2017 (Vol 14 No11) on the bronze age landscape of the Greenwich Peninsula by Mary Nicholls with Nigel Cameron, Rob Scaife, Karen Stewart and John Whitaker.  This is clearly ab important document for anyone interested in the history of the Greenwich Peninsula and in its archaeology. As with most archaeological reports it bases all of its references from other archaeologists rather than from historians. It is based primarily on studies of sites in Blackwall Lane and in Bellott Street (which is not actually on the peninsula). They describe how the Bronze Age landscape can be reimagined and illustrate what would have been a series of islands between inlets and tributaries feeding into the river. The islands would have been farmed.  They also describe the discovery of trackways. It would be interesting to know how this relates to the subsequent building of the river wall and other later developments in the area. However the article is to be recommended.
 Woolwich stoneware kiln.  This article is in the London Archaeologist, Spring Vol 15 No.4. And is about "The Re-excavation to a 17th century stoneware kiln in Woolwich" by Edward Bidduph and John Cottar. You may remember that we all went chasing down to Woolwich last spring when the kiln which was excavated in 1974 on the Woolwich ferry Approach was examined and destroyed. This article describes the work done on it by Oxford Archaeology. The kiln was used to make salt glazed stoneware bellarmine jugs and is dated at 1660 and is thus believed to be the earliest stoneware kiln in England. The article gives a detailed examination of the kiln and what it produced. It is a very import sat account of one of the most important finds archaeologists have made in the borough and useful or anyone interested not only in archaeology but also in the Greenwich and Woolwich pottery industries

I had a riveting morning with a group of Goldsmiths students listening to David Cuffley talking about brick making in the London Borough of Greenwich.  He has left with use a series of maps and an exhaustive list of references to brick makers in the Borough.  This  is very interesting and  David is very keen to get more information about many of these firms - looking at this myself I can see things which we have featured at various times and also for example he mentions the Greenwich Peninsula brick fields near the Pilot in 1790 which I know a bit about.

David has promised to speak to us next year on Salutation Alley in Woolwich – and I am also keen to remind people of his wonderful talk to Greenwich Historical Society on the bricks of the Greenwich Park Wall.

Friday 15 June 2018

East Greenwich Gas Holder -latest - and what happens elsewhere!

East Greenwich Gasholder

Please sign the petition

We hope to take the petition to the Council meeting on 27th June - thanks to Cllr Denise Scott-Macdonald.  This will, as usual, just be Denise handing it (a memory stick actually!) over to the Mayor.

People may have noticed that the gasholder is on the agenda for the Planning Board on 20th June.  This is basically an administrative item and not to to directly with the holder's demolition. It is to remove the Hazardous Substances Order which was in place while the holder was full of gas.  There is a bit of a history to this but the order set up a blast zone around the holder which was stopping development of the new school and some other items.  We have however written to the Council saying that we assume that the actual hazardous substances which are on the site and under the holder will be dealt with in a future management order.

However - Darryl in the 853 blog has also pointed out that this has an impact on the plans for the Silvertown Tunnel.
He says that, of course, the hazardous substances order needed to be dealt with before the tunnel could open and that this is one step towards that.
However it is very possible that the gasholder has a lot more to do with the Silvertown Tunnel than that  - Darryl needs to look at a map!


We have quite a bit of news about other luckier gasholders

Old Kent Road - it appears that Southwark Council has done a deal to keep holders on the site at Old Kent Road Gas Works. The big Livesey holder - our East Greenwich holder's little brother - is listed and will be kept in their entirety.  The two smaller Livesey holders are being partly demolished as features in future landscaping of the site.

Chelmsford - there is news that a very ordinary gas holder at Chelmsford is to  kept having been bought by the local council on a site to be used for housing.   They have also got Government money for decontamination and development.  The holder itself has been listed Grade II.

Barcelona - apparently the gasholder frame there was kept as part of the works for the 1992 Olympics.

MEANWHILE IN EAST LONDON - the holders at Poplar, just the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel, appear to have been demolished - despite a massive petition.  Pleas to list it were turned down.  The Bethnal Green holder - the oldest of its type and in a wonderful setting - appears to be still there (last we saw) but has been turned down for listing.

Barbara Berger has now got her PhD in gas holder construction.  Here is a page of gasholder history from her ... more to come later

Barbara Berger, Research Associate, Technical University of Munich

Before the rising structures of gasholders changed the cityscapes it was the gas light itself that was revolutionizing the daily life in cities in the beginning of the 19th century. In 1813 public illumination from gas was inaugurated for the very first time in the London district of Westminster. This new lighting technique revolutionized cities worldwide. Paris in 1819. Hannover in 1825 and Turin 13 years later

The gasholder was introduced as a technical building for the storage of locally produced coal gas. Its emerging iron structure presented a new kind of industrial architecture and became symbolic
of the gas industry.

The gasholder's structure was determined by its function. It had to fulfil two basic requirements: first a variable capacity. and secondly a gas-tight construction . A water-based system met both requirements. It was composed of a water tank and a lift for the gas.The latter was immersed into the tank and rose and fell according to the current content of the gas.. An external guide frame guaranteed the reliable movement of the lift. Because of the increasing demand for gas receptacles with more storage were needed. In the 19th and early 20th century there were generally two different kinds of water sealed gasholders, the Belltype gasholder (or single-lift gasholder). and the  gasholder(or multi-lift gasholder).

Initially the lifts of both types were guided via an external linear guide frame. but at the end of the 19th century the new spiral guided technique allowed the building of gasholders even without
a guide frame. Another special form was the so-called gasholder house. that totally hid the filigree iron structure of the gasholder facades were often architecturally ornate.

Over the century development advanced from the water sealed to the waterless or dry-sealed system: the Piston-type gasholder was invented 1913 in Germany. The new sealing technique was adapted along the edge of the piston and guaranteed contact between the piston and the shell of the cylinder. This new sealing technique led to a new appearance and form of the gasholder.

The arrival of natural gas was the beginning of the decline of coal  gas and historic gasholders because the increasing demand on gas required new storage systems - thus new types of gasholders.

Today historic gasholders are industrial relics although very many have already been demolished. The remaining examples are often abandoned and their architectural value is not realized A gasholder facilitates a column-free, tall, symmetrical space,that offers a wide range of reuse projects.

One of the very first examples of revitalization was second world war: a massive gasholder house in Berlin formed into a bunker known as the 'Fichtebunker ' . The inner lifts were demolished and the circular brick walls reinforced. After being modified into a storage depot and shelter for homeless men and women this space is used nowadays as a museum. However. the dome of the building was developed fferentkly. Under the filigree iron structure. exclusive, elaborate loft houses are located with a spectacular view over the city of Berlin.............................(to be continued)

Sunday 10 June 2018

Greenwich Riverside Path before 'regeneration' - An hysterical walk

 I thought that perhaps - for all our newer resident readers - that we should put something about what the riverside path used to be like.  Well it wasn't all industry - there was ART too.

The riverside walk described below dates from 2000 and was 'a local counterpoint to the Dome Festival'.

I have scanned part of the publicity leaflet - and -being an arts based production it is a bit of a funny shape which my (nice new) scanner is unfamiliar with.   The drawing of the Greenwich riverside is by Peter Kent - and, Peter I am sorry, I have had to scan it in chunks and it would look so much better if I could do the whole thing in one bit - but it would end up very very very tiny.

So - I also thought a bit of explanation might be in order - interpretation - or something

This bit will be the most familiar at the start of the walk.  It begins at Trinity Hospital - there is a sort of raised platform there on  the riverside and I seem to remember a big picture frame there which they put up so you could imagine where you were going was a 'picture'.  So we see the power station, and its jetty - and then the path carries on to Anchor Iron Wharf.  The flats were not built then and you had to walk down a little narrow path with a scrap yard either side - and then - there you were at Ballast Quay,

This stretch is the bit between Ballast Quay and Enderbys - then Lovells Wharf, Granite Wharf and Pipers. Pipers were famous barge builders and  the area was in use by the boat repair yard until very recently.

At Lovells were two huge cranes - Scotch Derricks - which had been left by the previous owner.  They were a local landmark and there were plans to keep them - but the owners demolished them early one morning without any prior notice. Here they are the 'wounded giants'.

The stretch illustrated also includes the Alcatel jetty and the group did a musical performance on it. It was just the same then as it is now - but it did have public access then,

Further up and more wharves - And here we are at Enderbys where there was an 'artistic group' of Penguins - I seem to think they were plastic and floated about in the water.

Chuck Out Your Mouldies was the title of play which was put on locally with lots of local people taking part and based on memories of childhood in the 1940s and 1950s.  It was a lot of fun to do. The 'mouldies' was supposed to be loose change and children would call out to passers by to 'chuck out your mouldies'  and they would then scrabble for pennies and ha'pennies.

and here we are at the end  -  and the road to the Dome. 

The Amylum Silos - something else the riverside has lost. This was a group of concrete silos 'which would make Le Corbusier weep with envy' [cf Owen Hatherley - thanks Owen that's a great quote].
Amylum was a glucose refinery and  was sold to Syrol who were/are French. One day a French demolition crew came in and demolished the lot - with never a by-your-leave, planning consent, a polite note to next door, or anything.  Silos were gone before we knew it. They cleared off back to France and left the site empty and open to all.

If anyone is interested in more info let me know.

Thursday 7 June 2018

More news from Greenwich and its industrial history

GLIAS Newsletter

Congratulations to GLIAS (Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society)
Congratulations – because after nearly sixty years Newsletter 296 is partly in colour and includes some photographs.  It’s very nice – but whatever next!

They advertise some walks for this summer.   The one most relevant to Greenwich is on the 7th of July when they are looking at Deptford - the site of the Dockyard, the Victualling yard, the power station, the railway station and Creek bridges
You can book by Emailing

(and by the way – this walk is being led by Peter Finch – and if he would like to get in touch with Greenwich Industrial History Society I’m sure we would welcome his input – so – Peter – please email)

Another reasonably local walk is around London Bridge and Bermondsey on 6th October – book through same email as above.

On 26th June is a visit to Morden College on Blackheath which is arranged by Dave Perrett. Book for this before 21st June at  Morden College as a major Greenwich landowner made a huge contribution to the industrial history of Greenwich and their archive is a key resource for any historian working in our area

We have already noted the European Year of Cultural Heritage competition to serenade any remaining Industrial chimneys. I would recommend the videos of the 14 entries – many of them are Greek tomato factories.

GLIAS has noted this and accompanying it is a wonderful picture of our own amazing chimney at the Dockyard site in Woolwich Church Street – they say it one of the best surviving examples in London as an octagonal brick chimney built about 1843 for the steam factory at Woolwich Dockyard.

Although I think voting on the best video has already taken place if any musician reading this wanted to take themselves down to Woolwich and play Ode to Joy by the chimney and films it I would be happy to circulate this around Europe!

Thanks also to GLIAS for circulating the link to our gasholder petition.


And thanks for the review of Greenwich Historical Society’s Journal with Tony’s article on the unfortunate dead parachutist, Robert Cocking, and my article on early gas in Greenwich.
And for noting the death of our late friend Darrell Spurgeon


This is the national newsletter – No. 185 – and quite a bit about Greenwich again –

- the newsletter includes articles about European links and work on industrial heritage in Europe.
There is an article about Enderby House and the work of the Enderby Group – particular stress is laid on proposed sculptures funded by Barratts.

And also, a half page article on the London County Council and the free Thames Crossings – in particular the Blackwall and the two foot tunnels.

Note about the possibility of a public ferry over to Trinity Buoy Wharf from QE pier.

Westcombe News

Thanks for the link to the gasholder petition

Greenwich Info
Note they have taken an interest in historical groups – but only mention family history and groups which are part of community centres – no mention of Greenwich Historical Association, Woolwich Antiquarians, us, and many others. Strange!

One of the others - Greenwich Park History Group

We have been sent copies of their minutes and are very impressed at the work they are doing and what they have uncovered – history of the bandstand (please – Barbara – we would love to publish this here!) – the Queens Orchard and changes made for observing the Transit of Venus – project on allotments in the Great War – and the conduits.

Hope they keep in touch – guess we have a big overlapping membership.  Always happy to help.


This is the web page of the Thames Estuary Partnership which sends out newsletters on a regular basis

Thank you them for including the East Greenwich Gasholder petition as an item
Other issues raised include environmental and social items as well as subjects of general Thames interest


and ....

Thanks to Darryl the 853 blogger who was kind enough to let me contribute an item about the Greenwich Borough Hall which was built by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich and now has an uncertain future. I understand there is likely to much more to this story than I knew when I wrote it ………………………………. watch this space

Monday 4 June 2018


Here's another view of the holder:

Sign the petition and keep fit  -

(thanks to GMVA for the pic)