Woolwich & Districts
Collins Family in Plumstead
sadly no longer alive, my Dad and his family had quite a history
in the Plumstead area going back some considerable time. Being
quite interested in family history, I’ve also managed
over the past few years to piece together the Collins family
and its association with Plumstead which I hope will be of some
begin with my Great, Great Grandfather John Collins who moved
from Gloucestershire around the mid 1800’s to live and
work in the Plumstead area. Like many thousands of others at
that time he found work at the Woolwich Arsenal as a labourer.
It is not clear exactly when or why he moved from his village
home in the English countryside but during the early 1850’s
migration from the country to cities was still very common and
around that time the Arsenal was increasing production to keep
the British troops in the Russian Crimea supplied with necessary
firepower. So perhaps that was the connection. Sometime following
his move and at the age of 21 he married a local girl from Deptford
(Ann Rood) and they settled in rooms in the Spray Buildings
(presumably now Spray Street), Plumstead.
raised six children and continued working at the Arsenal for
over 40 years. He was finally promoted to ‘Foreman Labourer’
some time prior to his retirement just before the end of the
century. The family had a number of lodgers during their time
in the Spray Buildings and for thirty odd years one of the lodgers
was John’s bachelor brother Joseph from Gloucestershire.
I had a cousin stay for a month once and by the end of it my
dear wife was becoming somewhat ‘tetchy’, let’s
say. So, all I can say is that G. G. Grandmother Ann must have
been a saint!
eldest son John Henry Collins was known to have been working
at the Arsenal as a ‘Cartridge Bag Machinist’ during
the early 1900’s; he lived with his family in Abery Street.
However, second son George Collins (my G. Grandfather - see
photo on right) , had different ideas. In 1882 at the age of
22 George married Emma Richardson from Woolwich and by the following
year he was running, (and possibly the owner of) a cheese shop
on Woolwich High Street. (No Monty Python jokes please.)
showing promise at this stage George certainly could not have
been said to have ‘made it’. James Thorne in his
‘Environs of London’ (1875) described the streets
in and around the Woolwich High Street as being,
‘narrow, irregular and lined with mean brick buildings
and small shabby shops’ In this area known as the ‘dusthole’
lived some of Woolwich’s poorest people—unemployed
labourers, prostitutes and vagrants in boarding houses.
have stuck at it, as he later moved on to own shops and a restaurant
in New Road just off Beresford Square. In addition there was
also a shop in Plumstead, as the 1902 Kelly’s London Suburban
Directory shows George Collins, Grocer and Provisions Retailer
at 32b and 33 Plumstead Road, Plumstead. By this time it would
appear that George’s businesses were prospering, as he
moved to a large detached residence in Bexleyheath. The house
was called ‘Yara’ (56 Crook Log) which was on or
near Bexleyheath Broadway. It was used as an ARP centre during
the Second World War and later became derelict. A supermarket
was later built on the spot where it stood.
Emma had five children: Gertrude, Violet, Eustace, Leonard and
Douglas. There was also an adopted son Walter Wiseman. Gertrude
married and emigrated to New Zealand. Violet married Victor
Cray, who served with distinction as a sergeant in the Royal
Horse Artillery and was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry
in France in WW1.
(my Grandfather - photo left)) went off to seek his fortune
in the USA in 1907, returning in 1914 to sign up for ‘King
and Country’. Leonard died in infancy and Walter was killed
in action in France during the War. His name appears on the
war memorial at Charlton Village. Douglas served with honour
as a 2nd Lieutenant in France, where he was wounded. Demobilised
in 1919, he married and I understand he later became Borough
Treasurer for Woolwich Borough Council.
In his business
heyday George Collins called himself the ‘Peoples Caterer’.
His grandson remembered having cutlery in his kitchen stamped
with the letters P.C. George was also a high-ranking member
of a local Masonic Lodge.
World War One there were business troubles which resulted in
the loss of the shops and restaurants and the house Yara. However,
enough capital was retained to purchase a shop with living accommodation
at Charlton Village where a grocery/off-licence business was
established (29 The Village Charlton) . George continued to
run the shop until his death in 1920. In the late 1990’s
the shop was owned by ‘Davison’s Wine Merchants’
(established 1875) and still run as an off-licence.
In his later
years although only 5’4” tall George had a 60”
waist. He was a heavy drinker and because of his obesity, wife
Emma was obliged to put on his shoes and socks each day. George
died on 3rd August 1920. He was 60 years old.
At this point
my grandfather (Eustace) took over the family shop in Charlton.
However, sometime between 1930 and 1933 a Co-operative store
opened in the village and as a result the shop, along with a
number of others, ceased trading. (Who said this was a modern
problem?) Eustace finally obtained employment with the Woolwich
Electricity Board, first as a labourer and later as a storeman.
(If it was good enough for his grandfather…)
At this stage
the Collins family breaks its ties with the Plumstead area.
My Dad (John Collins) was born in Charlton but joined the army
at 14 as a boy soldier and served a full 22 years around the
world. He never returned to the Plumstead area again to live.
I was brought up as an Army kid, (and loved every minute) living
in Germany and Singapore. My parents finally settled in South
Wales and I now live happily married in Scotland. (Although
I did live in West London for 12 happy ‘single’
An additional footnote to the story:
Employed by his father George Collins until May 11th 1907 when
he travelled by sea as a fare-paying passenger on the USS Philadelphia
from Southampton to New York with a friend Ernie Dickman. The
ship’s manifest shows Eustace as 19 years of age (he was
actually 18 at the time), from Woolwich, with the occupation
of ‘barman’. The destination of his journey is indicated
as ‘midway B. Columbia’. He is described as 5’
3” tall with a dark complexion, dark brown hair and eyes.
He is identified as being in possession of £5 (or possibly
$5). Friend Ernie (Ernest Dickman ) is 21 years old and
a soldier from Bexley Heath. Also shown as ‘midway B.C.’
but in addition, on route to ‘Friends Clark’s Ranch’.
Both travellers are processed on Ellis Island New York on arrival
on May 18th. An ‘over write’ on the ships manifest
shows them to be ‘in transit’.
Eustace is subsequently believed to have worked as a gold miner,
a fur trapper and lumberjack in Oregon, Washington and British
Columbia. In later years he would speak to his sons of such
places as Seattle, Portland and the Blue Mountains of Vancouver.
As a one time Deputy Sheriff in the town of Seattle, he was
shot through the left forearm while trying to apprehend a drunk
who, mounted on a horse, was shooting out street lamps in the