Woolwich & Districts
of the Woolwich Free Ferry.
D.J.Payne, C.ENG. F.I.E.E. F.C.I.B.S. M.B.I.M.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
Also, no dividends were distributed to the company's unfortunate
its rivals fortunes grew worse, the Barge house ferry, at the
old warren lane crossing, took heart and prospered. In 1838
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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..
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
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.
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.
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
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
after many years of useful service, in the mid 60s they were
sold for scrap to Messrs Jacques Bakker and zonen, Belgium.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
with kind permission from Chris of ReadySnacks Cafe (now retired)