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The History of the Woolwich Free Ferry.

A brief history
D.J.Payne, C.ENG. F.I.E.E. F.C.I.B.S. M.B.I.M.

The right to run a ferry belongs, like the right of fair or market, to the class of rights called "English law franchises". Its origins must be by statute, royal grant or prescription. The owner of the ferry need not be the owner of the land on either side of the water, but he is bound to maintain safe boats and employ fit persons as ferrymen. In return, he can charge tolls and has a right of action against those who disturb his franchise or diminish his custom by setting up a new ferry.

From very early on, when Woolwich was just a little fishing village, the people of Woolwich had the right to run a ferry. This was perhaps the more necessary since part of the parish of Woolwich lies on the northern side of the river, an outpost of Kent in what would logically have been Essex, and an anomaly which is probably a survival from early ecclesiastical parish groupings. The Abbey of Lessness or Westwood, in the parish of Erith, founded in 1178. Was granted several parishes and manors in Essex, by Henry II and Edward I . In later centuries, the parish Abbots caused scandals by appropriating even more land by rather questionable means.

The ferry at Woolwich ran between north Woolwich and Warren lane on the south shore. There is an early written reference to it in the state papers of 1308, when the waterman conducting the ferry, William de Wicton, sold his business and a house, to William Atte, a mason, for £10. It may be that this ferry was a descendant of the one from which the abbey was receiving dues in the previous century. In 1320, the ferry changed hands again, and twenty years later, several acres of land, the ferry and rent in Woolwich were conveyed by William and Mary Filliol to Thomas Harold and his heirs for 100 silver marks.

In 1320, the people of Woolwich petitioned Parliament to suppress the ferries at Greenwich and Erith, because Woolwich ferry was a "Royal Ferry" favoured of the king. This probably means that it was an appurtenance of the Royal manor of Eltham, the equivalent of today's Sandringham.
There is no further mention of the ferry during the years in which Woolwich rose to prominence as a Royal dockyard under the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I .
Pepys tells of journeying, with his friends, using other ferries up and down the Thames, but he does not mention the Woolwich ferry. He does however speak disapprovingly of the sinking of ships across the Thames at that point as a blockade against the Dutch. Pepys thought it would have been more sensible to fit out these same ships as Men-o-war.

An ordnance depot established at Woolwich during Henry VIII reign became in time, the Royal Arsenal, and as London grew bigger and busier, the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. So in 1810, the army established its own ferry which went from the T pier in front of the Arsenal, to Duvall's point (the old barge house landing site) on the northern bank.

In 1811 the act of parliament was passed for the purposes of establishing a ferry across the Thames at Woolwich, from the old ballast or sand wharf, which was opposite chapel St ( now chapel hill) where the dockyard then terminated. This was to be a common ferry consisting of one or more boats or such other vessels as shall be sufficient and proper for the passage or conveyance of persons, cattle, carriages, goods, wares and merchandise over the said river Thames. The shareholders of this company, which called itself the Woolwich ferry company, included among others, the lady of the manor, Dame Jane Wilson. Her son, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, John Long and John Stride.

The waiting rooms on either bank eventually became public houses. The Marquise of Wellington on the south bank, and the prince regent on the north. Both public houses have long since been swallowed up in the dockyard, though the prince regent probably stood somewhere in the area of the present prince regents wharf..
Plans of the Bowater estate dated 1820 show an old road from Eltham leading to the marquise of wellington, marked "to the horse ferry".

The minute book of the Waterman's company, show that the watermen of Woolwich were very dissatisfied with the monopoly given to the western ferry by the 1811 act. The position of the western ferry was stated to be half a mile from the town, and its promoters asserted that it did not prejudice the inhabitants of Woolwich or the watermen, but since there was a penalty of 40 shillings. ( increased to £5 in the 1815 amendment) imposed on anyone carrying any person, carriage, beast or chattel over the water within half a mile of it, the watermen petitioned for , and obtained a repeal of the act in 1816.

However, the western ferry continued to run until 1844, when the company was dissolved after a history of inept management and general confusion. The thousands of pounds raised by shares and mortgages seem to have been swallowed up in unprofitable expenditure. There is no mention in the accounts, of revenue derived from the working of the ferry, which was after all the company's chief business.
Also, no dividends were distributed to the company's unfortunate shareholders.

As its rivals fortunes grew worse, the Barge house ferry, at the old warren lane crossing, took heart and prospered. In 1838 we read:

The lessees of Woolwich ferry have within the last few weeks stationed here a new ferry boat of larger dimensions than any on the river, with a view to meeting the increase of traffic that has lately taken place between the two counties. Mr hose, the proprietor of the "Old barge house" is constructing an esplanade extending along the banks of the river, 300 yards, the depths upwards of 130 foot.

Later the greater part of this esplanade was incorporated in the royal Victoria gardens, which still exist to this day. This ferry had at one time floated a public company which proved that it had from time immemorial, conveyed men, cattle and goods across to north Woolwich from warren lane. About 1810, it was owned by one "John Bull", and after him it was worked by "John Punter". The ferry later passed into the hands of John Fulford, a lighterman, who also became proprietor of the barge house hotel.

In 1846, the great eastern railway company built its Thames wharf branch. It was planned as a freight line, but at an early stage, some of its promoters realised how easy their line could be extended along the riverbank to the old ferry house which crossed the river at Woolwich. Two steam ferries were built at Barking in 1847 and ran in connection with the London trains. Later, a third boat was added and they were named, the "Essex, Middlesex and Kent".

From 1850 onwards there were proposals for superseding the ancient horse raft of Woolwich ferry by a steam vessel, the prevailing idea being a flat bottomed boat grounding on the beach. There was no movement on this proposal until thirty years later, when the existing means of crossing the river were rapidly becoming inadequate. In October 1880 a public meeting was held in Woolwich to see whether the parish could afford to set up its own steam ferry and a deputation of 60 townsfolk waited on the local board.

However the cost of building the boats and landings proved too great and representations were then made to the metropolitan board of works, forerunner of the GLC. The people of Woolwich pointed out that, there rates had helped to pay for the toll bridges in west London, which the board had recently bought and opened to free public use, and suggested that they should be able to cross the Thames free of charge.


In 1884, after making a general survey of existing communications across the Thames, the metropolitan board of works agreed to provide the Ferry, and in the "Metropolitan board of works ( various powers act ) of 1815," obtained statutory authority to ferry across the Thames at Woolwich, Passengers, animals, vehicles and goods, free of all tolls, rates or charges.

After a delay of two years, while sites were being acquired, In September 1887, Messrs Mowlem & Co, were given the contract to make the approaches and pontoons.
On March 23rd 1889, The Woolwich free ferry was opened by Lord Roseberry, Chairman of the London County Council.. The Metropolitan board of works, had ceased to exist just three days previously..

The opening ceremony took place amidst quite extraordinary rejoicing. Woolwich was arrayed in flags and bunting. The streets were lined with volunteers of the 2nd Kent (Plumstead) Artillery, the 3rd Kent ( Royal arsenal) artillery and the 3rd Kent (Royal arsenal) Rifles.
In procession through the streets of Woolwich, preceded by mounted police, came the various trade and friendly associations, with their emblems and bands. Behind came the official party, driving in open carriages. This comprised Lord Rosebery and other members of the London County Council, the local member of parliament for Woolwich and representatives of the local board of health, and the Plumstead district board.
On reaching the river, the party boarded the "Gordon", which took them across to North Woolwich, where they were met by another procession, which included in its ranks the steam fire engine from Beckton gas works, manned and decorated. Half an hour later, the party re-crossed the Thames, and Lord Rosebery, standing in his carriage before a crowd of 600 people, declared the ferry open, free for ever.
To round off the day's proceedings, there was a banquet for 200 at the Freemason's hall.

The total cost of the scheme was £191,444. The three boats cost £45,077 .
The construction of pontoons cost £75,907 and the acquisition of land £67,081. This last figure includes compensation for loss of income to the Watermen & Lightermen of Woolwich and to the Old barge house steam ferry company, which went into liquidation. Lastly a payment of £27,500 to the great Eastern Railway Company which continued to operate until 1908.

The first ferries, called the "Gordon", "Duncan" and "Hutton", were 490 tons tons gross and had extreme width over the sponsons of 60 feet. They were 164 feet in length, with a draught of 4 feet. Soon after their construction, they were fitted with electric light throughout, a fact which was reported with great pride at the time. The ferries were driven by 2 pairs of diagonal surface condensing engines, each pair being connected to one paddle . They were capable of eight knots and licensed to carry 1000 passengers, with room for 15 to 20 vehicles.

After about thirty years of service, the original boats were replaced by four similar paddle steamers. These were the "Squires" built in 1922 and the "Gordon" built in 1923, at a total cost of £69,920.. The "John Benn" and the "Will Crooks" were built in 1930 at a cost of £74,000. They were built by J.Samuel White Ltd: of Cowes and had a gross tonnage of 625 tons, 166 foot in length and 44foot wide.. Because of the limited depth of water at the pontoons, at low tide, the loaded draught of the boats had to be kept to about 5 feet. The engines were coke-fired by hand stoking to avoid excess smoke, and worked at a pressure of only 60 pounds per square inch. Each ferry used about eight tons of coke a day.

Sadly, after many years of useful service, in the mid 60s they were sold for scrap to Messrs Jacques Bakker and zonen, Belgium.

The passing of the old paddle steamers called forth expressions of regret from all kinds of people, not least from their crews. By the time the old ferries had finished their lives on the Thames, they had covered some 4 million miles and carried about 180 million passengers. They sailed back and forth in all kinds of weather only being stopped by the thickest of fog.

Contrary to popular belief, the ferries did not go to Dunkirk, although they did have their hour of glory. On the night of the big docks air raid, 7th September 1940, they plied to and thro all night evacuating the people of Silvertown from the blazing essex shore, with oil burning on the river.
All through the war, the ferry ran a 24 hour service whenever it was needed, and for a while during the blackout, was not allowed to use any navigation lights, steering was made difficult because the wheelhouse was closed in with slabs of concrete as a protection against shrapnel. On one occasion a bomb exploded just beneath the stern of one of the boats, but did not do enough damage to put the boat out of service. Another time, a V1 rocket just missed the bridge of a ferry and buried itself in the opposite riverbank.

A collision in 1926 could have been a tragic accident had it not been for the quick thinking of the "mate". At 5.42pm one June afternoon, the Squires had just arrived alongside the south pontoon, with 400 passengers on board. The rope had just been made fast, when the Mate (who was in charge of the ship) noticed a large steamer, steering an erratic course downriver towards the ferry boat. He gave orders to let go the ropes and went astern at full speed. The five and a half thousand ton US ship "Coahama County" struck the Squires a crushing blow on the port bow and caused the ferry to rebound onto the pontoon doing considerable damage. In the event, no one was injured, but had the Squires been moored, she would almost certainly have sunk with great loss of lives. Damage to the pontoon caused the service to be closed for about six weeks.

Even after the opening of the ferry, crossing the river still had its difficulties. The ferry could not operate in Fog and this meant that people needing to cross the river to work were badly delayed.

In 1908, when the ferries were getting very crowded, and when the railway ferry service closed down, the council decided to seek powers to build a foot tunnel. Four years later, the foot tunnel was opened.

The original paddle steamer ferries were built to cope with horse drawn vehicles and the lighter volume of pre war traffic. As time went on, larger, heavier and articulated vehicles came more and more to monopolise the ferries. Things became steadily more difficult for the side loading boats, and delays at the pontoons became considerable.
It was finally decided to replace the old ferries with modern "end-loading" vessels and to build new causeways to make loading and off-loading easier.

Three diesel engined ferry boats were constructed in 1963 by the Caleden shipbuilding and engineering company, Dundee. At a total price of £804,000 Each was licensed to carry 500 passengers and 200 tons of vehicles. These vessels are 185.6 foot long and 61 foot wide, with a maximum draught of six feet. Each weighs 738.5 tons.

These vessels were designed so that they could be used as side loaders at the old terminals, but were readily convertible to end loading, when the new adjacent terminals were complete. End loading permits the vehicles to load at one end and unload at the other, without any awkward manoeuvres .. The ferries are double ended and able to proceed equally well in either direction, readily manoeuvrable and able to leave the terminals in a downstream direction, whatever the state of the tide.

The boats were constructed under Lloyds special survey and conform to ministry of transport requirements. They are propelled by two pressure charged Mirlees National 500hp diesel engines , type R4/AU7M, which in turn drive two Voith Schneider Cycloidal propellers , type 20E ( one at each end of the boat).
This arrangement provides the high degree of manoeuvrability, essential in the tidal waters at Woolwich. The propellers are controlled from any of three consoles spread across the ships bridge, which is positioned amidships.

The present boats are named after three politicians connected in some way with Woolwich or the Thames. John Burns (1858 - 1943) was an enthusiastic student of Londons history and its River. He was the person who referred to the Thames as Liquid history.

Ernest Bevin was even more famous. The son of an agricultural labourer, he worked as a farm hand and truck driver before his keeness in trade union mattersled to his becoming a union official in Bristol in 1911. By 1920 he had become established as the "Dockers K.C. " by succesfully pleading their case before a wages tribunal. Fittingly, many of the passengers of the Ernest Bevin were dockers travelling to work in the London docks. In 1921 Ernest Bevin formed the Transport and general workers union, out of 32 separate unions.
In 1945 he became foreign secretary and represented Woolwich, the home of the ferry, in 1950 until ill health forced him to retire in 1951.

James Newman was a distinguished citizen of Woolwich and an important worker in the field of local government. A school teacher by profession, he was mayor of Woolwich from 1923-25. And a member of the Woolwich borough council for many years. He was decorated with the OBE in 1948, in recognition of his service to local government.

Used with kind permission from Chris of ReadySnacks Cafe (now retired) site.

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