Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Woolwich Ferry

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A ferry across the Thames between North Woolwich and South Woolwich has been in operation since the early 14th century or before.

As London expanded, the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. In 1810 the army established its own ferry that ran from Woolwich Arsenal to Duvals Wharf.

1811 an Act of Parliament was passed to establish a ferry across the Thames from Woolwich at the Old Ballast or Sand Wharf, opposite Chapel Street (now Chapel Hill) where the dockyard then ended.

The ferry became known as the western ferry and was run by a company that called itself The Woolwich Ferry Company. The western ferry continued to operate until 1844, when the company was dissolved after a history of inept management.

1880 A public meeting was held in Woolwich to see whether the town could afford to set up its own steam ferry. The cost of building the boats and landing piers was too great and so the town approached the Metropolitan Board of Works, with the argument the residents of Woolwich, through their rates, helped to pay for the toll bridges in west London that the board had recently purchased and opened to free public use. They insisted that they, too, should be able to cross the Thames free of charge.

1884 After conducting a survey, the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to provide a free ferry.

1887 Messrs Mowlem and Co were awarded contracts to build approaches, bridges and pontoons.

1889 The free ferry opened on 23 March with a celebration attended by locals and by members of the newly formed London County Council, the local MP and other dignitaries.

Initially there was only one boat, the Gordon, but the crowds poured on board to take advantage of the first free trips across the river. The Great Eastern Railway Company carried 25,000 people to its North Woolwich terminus that weekend, most of whom were intent on riding the ferry.

By 1893 three paddle steamers - the Gordon, the Duncan and the Hutton - weighed 490 gross tonnes, 60 feet wide and 164 feet long, were sharing the duty. They were capable of eight knots and were licensed to carry 1,000 passengers with room for 15 to 20 vehicles.

From 1922 to 1930 these steamers were replaced by four similar paddle steamers - the Squires, the Gordon, the Will Crooks and the John Benn. These new vessels were larger, weighing 625 tonnes and were 166 feet in length and 44 feet wide.

However the paddle steamers loaded at the side, so getting large motor vehicles on and off was a long and complicated process. Such vehicles were difficult to stow, fewer of them could be carried and there were long delays at the terminals.

1963 The third series of ferry ships, motor ships, replaced the paddle steamers. They were more suited for the increased weight of motor traffic. These diesel-propelled boats loaded from the end, speeding up the process. A new causeway was also built on either side of the river with hinged traffic bridges to make loading and offloading easier.

2019 Transport for London replaced the diesel ships with modern, low-emission boats. These have increased capacity, cycle-specific facilities and use a quieter, low-emission engine.

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