A Brief History Of The Woolwich Ferry

For those who don't know, the Woolwich Ferry is a free ferry service that connects Woolwich on the south side of the Thames, with North Woolwich on the north side. Like doing a history of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, some might argue that the Woolwich Ferry really exists across the Thames, however, like the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, it's named after Woolwich, which is in South London. No North London, you can't have the Woolwich Ferry - you already took Woolwich Arsenal (when was there ever an actual arsenal in Holloway Road we ask?). This is all very brash fighting talk and, as you'll see, we're going to have to backtrack pretty hard on it after this first glorious image of the Woolwich Ferry, but for the time being, we'll maintain our stance as we begin a brief history of the Woolwich Ferry.

Though there have been other ferries across the Thames, the Woolwich Ferry is the only one that still remains. The earliest known references to the Woolwich Ferry come from state papers from the 1300s when the ferry business which operated between North Woolwich and Warren Lane was sold by its owner William de Wicton to William atte Halle for £10 in 1308. Now, though this is the earliest known mention of the Woolwich Ferry, there is a good chance that the ferry has been running for much longer than 700 years. It is quite likely that the there has been a floating connection between that stretch of river since before the Norman Conquest, as the Domesday Book of 1086 lists the north side of the Thames as being part of Woolwich, and therefore part of the county of Kent - if both sides of the river were part of the same parish, it is likely there was a ferry which provided a crossing. It should also be explained that this transaction turns up in state papers because the origin of a ferry service had to be by statue, royal grant or prescription. Apparently in 1320, the people of Woolwich petitioned Parliament to end the rival ferries at Greenwich and Erith because the Woolwich Ferry was the favoured ferry of the then king Edward II.

 Ferry in 1925

Ferry in 1925

Though there is no mention of the Woolwich Ferry for some time after that, it is likely that there was a service of one kind or another, particularly as Woolwich grew into a renowned place of shipbuilding during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. It was under the reign of Henry VIII that an ordnance depot was also established in the area, and this would eventually become the Royal Arsenal in 1671. The growth of London made the movement of troops more difficult so the army established its own ferry at Woolwich in 1810, and then a year later in 1811 an Act of Parliament established a commercial ferry company called the Woolwich Ferry Company. This Act gave the second ferry a monopoly on providing passage across that stretch Thames by instating a penalty of 40 shillings for anyone caught doing any sort of ferrying within half a mile of it. Though the act was repealed in 1816, the Woolwich Ferry Company continued to operate till 1844 when it was eventually dissolved.

Though there were other attempts to run commercial ferries across the Thames at Woolwich, they proved inadequate to serving the growing demand. It was only in 1880, when a public meeting was held in Woolwich - don't see those happening much anymore - that the idea of the parish setting up its own steam ferry service was floated (we had to). The people of Woolwich soon saw that the cost of the project was a bit too great for them alone, and requested assistance from the recently set up Metropolitan Board of Works. They made the point that, as they had helped pay for the construction of the toll bridges of West London, which had recently been bought by the Board and made free, maybe it would be fair to provide Woolwich with a free crossing too - in 1884, the Board agreed. Construction of the approaches and pontoons began in 1887, and the Woolwich Ferry was opened to much fanfare in 1889.

 Ferry opening

Ferry opening

The cost of the scheme amounted to approximately £190,000. The first three ferries were called Duncan, Hutton and Gordon, were 490 tons gross, 60 feet wide, had a draught of 4 feet and were licensed to carry 1000 passengers. Though these original ferries were replaced, and then their replacements replaced, the service itself changed very little - it still can't run in fog. Not even the Second World War could change it, even running a 24 hour service when needed, even during blackouts when it couldn't use its navigation lights - we're not sure if it could through fog though. It's hour of glory would also come during the Second World War, as it played a vital role in evacuating individuals from Silvertown during the first night of the Blitz in 1940, known as 'Black Saturday'.

 Silvertown on Black Saturday

Silvertown on Black Saturday

In the recent past, not a huge amount about the Woolwich Ferry has changed - the ferries currently in use were built in the 1960s, and they replaced paddle steamers called The Squire (named after William Squires, a former mayor of Woolwich), Will Crooks (Labour MP for Woolwich 1903-21, and instigator of the Greenwich & Woolwich Foot Tunnels), and John Benn (member of the London County Council, grandfather of Tony Benn, and great-grandfather of Hillary Benn). The current ferries are called John Burns (Liberal MP for Battersea 1892-1918), Ernest Bevin (MP for Woolwich East 1950-51), and James Newman (Mayor of Woolwich 1923-25). There have been incidents involving the ferry as well, most notably the tragic avoidable death of 19-year-old Ben Woollacott in 2011, a deckhand who died after falling off the boat into the Thames.

 View from the ferry

View from the ferry

It might surprise some you, then again it might not, that around 2 million passengers (passengers designed as single people) use the Woolwich Ferry every year. For what is undoubtedly an outdated method of crossing the River Thames - the Greenwich ferry was replaced by the Greenwich Foot Tunnel in in 1902, so yes, it is outdated - that's not that bad, but why does it still get used so much? Well, ultimately, there are only three river vehicle crossings within 20 miles east of Tower Bridge: the Blackwall Tunnel, the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the Dartford Crossing. The issue with those is that the tunnels both have height restrictions, and the Dartford Crossing is tolled - so the Woolwich Ferry provides a useful free alternative for HGVs looking to cross the river. Though there is little doubt that a bridge would be a far more convenient method of crossing the river, and it is likely that at some point there will be a suitable alternative crossing, there is something quite unique about the Woolwich Ferry, something to love in that it is free, and something to love in its strangeness. In an age where life travels at a worrying pace, the Woolwich Ferry offers a rather unexpected contrast. Who knows what the long-term future of the Woolwich Ferry is, maybe it will potentially operate alongside a crossing, maybe it won't - but for the time being, we should try to look on it positively, as a connecting force between the now, and the then.

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